Cycling Across Scandinavia: Making Design Choices For A Sustainable City


Guest poster Robert Ouellette has written for the National Post, Corporate Knights and his own Reading Toronto. He is cycling across Sweden and reports:

What can Canadian cyclists say about Gothenburg? If Gothenburg had a Canadian city doppelgänger it would be Ottawa. To its credit, Ottawa has a good bicycle path system when compared to other North American cities. Both cities are roughly the same size. They share a similar sense of order and maybe even privilege. Well, except Gothenburg's transit system is exceptional while Ottawa's once innovative and admired OC Transpo is slowly being dismantled to extend suburban sprawl.

Gothenburg's quality of civic infrastructure impresses new Lost Generation travelers. We are fleeing from a culture that thinks a great aspiration is to have the market decide what makes livable cities- -as if the market can ever have social vision. Management consultants at home are cutting funding for libraries. Aren't they aware that no less a capitalist than Andrew Carnegie once thought libraries essential for fostering an educated workforce.

Carnegie warned, 'He that cannot reason is a fool. He that will not is a bigot. He that dare not is a slave.' There are mayors of certain Canadian cities who might benefit from reading those words.

Back home parks are on the way out. Who needs them? They are expensive and, after all, people use them to sit around. Right? Wrong. Here, at least, parks are understood to be part of a complex city system that is made livable and sustainable through good planning and far-sighted investment in a range of social amenities. They even have widely dispersed, popular allotment gardens where local Swedes can grow vegetables while reconnecting with nature. Dirt, we must remember, makes us smarter. Really. Look it up.

In North America, by contrast, the twisted rhetoric of Ayn Rand influenced individualism has spawned a population ignorant of lessons it's parents learned in the depression: We do get more done when working together on common goals. In Canada, today's political and business leaders want to privatize profits and socialize losses, all the while chanting the shortsighted mantra that civic spending is, if not evil, some perverted form of socialism. The result of this distorted thinking is less and less spending on functional infrastructure while at the same time handing over revenue generating opportunities to the private sector (think Toronto's 407 toll Highway as an example).

So how does Gothenburg, and indeed Sweden, manage to be economically competitive globally while also having a coherent social system? Logic demands that if free market theorists are right a liberal, big social spending country like Sweden with only nine million people would not be competitive. Well they are wrong. Sweden is person-for-person one of the most competitive countries, not to mention one of the more sustainable in spite of it's northern climate not to mention small size. Stockholm was voted the greenest European city of 2010.

What is the difference? How can Sweden spend on social services and city infrastructure, tax freely, and yet be competitive in the free market? Education is critical. Making opportunities for employment is important. Faith in egalitarian fairness is essential. All of those elements make a difference to be sure. But I'd argue it is design in all it's forms that is the key to Scandinavian success.

Gothenburg is the home of Volvo automobiles. It is the place roller bearings were invented at SKF. Ericsson is here. Importantly to bicycle fans, this is where Volvo invented the first mass produced plastic bike, the Itera, in 1981. The bike was not a commercial success at the time due to quality control problems. Today though, it is much admired for its overall design and for inventing a number of technologies now used in other bikes.

That ability to innovate also applies to city building. Take a look at the photograph from our hotel window. It shows a suburban landscape loaded with design choices that make for a sustainable city. To the right is a cinema complex. Nothing new there except note that the roof is planted to manage rain water, stop heat islands, and keep the cinema cool. It also provides a park and recreational amenities to the community.

In the centre of the image is a light rail transit system boasting more than eighty kilometers of track- -the largest in Scandinavia. It is electric. It is multi-car. It runs frequently and riders know when the next car is coming because the system is 'smart.' Its grass covered track runs on a dedicated part of a wide boulevard that also includes room for buses, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. What we are discovering is that these efficient transit systems allow the centre of Swedish cities to dedicate whole districts to pedestrians. No cars. And it works. These areas are so popular they make Saturday at Toronto's Eaton Centre look vacant.

On the left is one of Gothenburg's free (or low cost if your ride is longer than thirty minutes) bicycle stations. The cycling population here is a large one, and having bikes to jump on to ride to work and school then park for someone else to use is a good idea.

Just down the boulevard at the stadium is a FREE electric car recharging facility. The energy supplier here uses the power consumed by electric cars at the station for part of it's carbon offsetting scheme.

Gothenburg's buildings are frequently breathtaking both in their visual appeal and their contribution to the city's urban fabric. The train station, renovated in 2003, includes a hotel that rivals Norman Foster designs. It is one good design example of many. Happily, we have the opportunity to move to a hotel opened just a few years ago that embodies the new Scandinavian design philosophy we've seen in Copenhagen.

The Avalon is a small, boutique hotel. Its owners decide to bring in architects Semrén & Månsson who use design to take a busy but underwhelming part of the city centre and turn it into a destination for city dwellers and travelers alike. The resulting building fits well into its historical context without sacrificing its own modern individuality. It is fun too and like most good hotels in Sweden makes strides towards sustainability.

The rooftop pool overhanging the plaza below captures the imagination. For many it is now a city landmark. Sarah takes advantage of it, enjoying both the vista from the rooftop while also appreciating that the pool is heated using the building's heat reclaimation system.

Of importance to us is the new waterfront redevelopment in Eriksberg, the industrial, working-class district on the other side of the river to Gothenburg's core. We wanted to see how cities with waterfronts similar to Toronto's manage their rejuvenation.

The results here impress. No. They do more than that. They inspire. This is how to conceive of a waterfront reclamation. There is a unity of vision without dogma. Industrial archeology is combined with affordable housing. Creative reuse complimented by a vision for urban life drives urban design here. It is remarkable.

Like our Helsingborg experience, Eriksberg illustrates that the way to develop attractive, livable cities does not have to be complex. Good planners and designers know how to make it work. Cities know how to do it. What they often lack is the political and/or social will to do it.

We begin to cross southern Sweden by bike in the next installment of this journal. Our destination? Stockholm.

Previously in this series:
Cycling Across Scandinavia: The Road To Gothenburg
Cycling Across Scandinavia: Après Moi, Le Déluge
Cycling Across Scandinavia: You Don't Have To Be A Starchitect Ambulance Chaser To Be Impressed
A New "Lost Generation" Cycles Across Scandinavia To Understand North America

Tags: Bikes | Biking | Sweden

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