Cycling Across Scandinavia: Stockholm's Vision for Urban Life


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

We are at the end of our LostGen2 quest for the world's best city design. Sarah and I left North America looking for effective models of urban living. We are searching for cities that are not trying to budget cut their way to prosperity. From Copenhagen to Nykoping, we have cycled through them. Stockholm promises to add to the list.

White Architects is a local architecture firm dedicated to the aspiration Stockholm has to be the world's cleanest, most livable large city. We are staying in a hotel they designed. The Clarion Sodermalm is built over one of Stockholm's major transportation links, but is surprisingly calming for a couple of road weary cyclists. In a way the hotel is much like the city itself--big, but the architects designed it to celebrate the realities of city life. To make the stay here even more in line with our goals, the manager tells me that about 20% or so of guests use carbon offsets to green their visit; only in Scandinavia.

Our room looks south over a highway. And what a highway. Outside the window is a Pragnellian, conurbation-inspired mesh of roads, bridges, canals, and transit systems that ought to be a disaster for urban living. Except the city's planners put most of this highway under the city. We overlook a piece that emerges to span the water surrounding Sodermalm Island (take a look at the film). Underneath us the road tunnels through the drill-dulling granite base Stockholm rests on. It runs north from here for kilometers. The cost must have been enormous, but the city paid that price to preserve its urban fabric.


Three minute slice of Stockholm, 2011

The city even designed the tunnel to be aesthetically rewarding. "Since its inauguration in 2004," Publicerad writes in 2008, "the tunnels have attracted international visitors who want to see and learn more about how, using light, art and common sense, it is possible to create "an attractive environment and a worthy space for people that has been designed with care." If they put this much thought into tunnel design imagine what they do for the design of livable cities.

We don't have to imagine long. White has also been a major contributor to the Hammarby development, a project urban designers everywhere point to as the smart model for housing people in our world's growing cities. Hammarby is a sustainable community built on the industrial lands just over the bridge from our hotel. It was part of the city's plans for an Olympic game's bid, but when that was awarded elsewhere politicians here decided to go ahead with the scheme anyway. It has been worth it.
They even have a name for it--the Hammarby Model. Here is how their web site introduces the development:

"Everybody who lives in Hammarby Sjöstad is a part of an eco-cycle. The eco-cycle solution... handles energy, waste, sewage and water for both housing and offices... Energy consumption and waste production are to be minimized while the resource saving, reusing and recycling are maximized."


Hammarby urban living...

Their goals are the reuse and transformation of old brownfield sites into attractive residential areas with beautiful parks and green public spaces; the use of renewable fuels, biogas products and reuse of waste heat; the use of new technologies for water saving and sewage treatment; a reduction in waste; the creation of fast, attractive public transport, car pools, and beautiful cycle paths.


Hammarby's sustainable living model.

Hammarby achieves these goals and more. Overlaid on the functional aspects of the development are good buildings and some exceptional landscape design. It works. This is one more Northern European housing development that illustrates what can be achieved when civic policy and design are synergistic. From Copenhagen's Linear City and Nordhavn, to Gothenburg's Eriksberg, to Stockholm's Hammarby, city designers here show how people of all incomes can be housed comfortably and sustainably.

All good things must end even for LostGen2 travelers. We arrive back in Toronto just in time to hear more about how our city council can't afford any city building ideas. City deconstruction is on their agenda. Doing more with less is not on the political books here. Doing less with less is. Our libraries are first on the block.

What I don't understand is what kind of a city these leaders want to live in to save themselves a couple of percent in taxes? They are smart people. They have families who have to share the same public spaces as the rest of us. They act as though the only public space they live in is the one their cars drive on.

If the empirical evidence of the last three years can shake Ayn Rand disciple Alan Greenspan's faith in the free-market's own self-interest, why do people continue to believe that the cost-cutting obsessed marketplace is smart enough to create livable cities? City design is a complex social activity that doesn't just happen through means and ends exchange--there are three millennia's worth of design principles that have to be considered if a city is to be successful.

For young politicians out there with no experience in city building who may read this, think of good urban designers and planners as a bit like bank regulators (sorry to designers out there for the metaphor). The late Ted Rogers, a capitalist's capitalist if there was one, attributed Canada's avoidance of the 2008 bank crash to our country's regulators. Similarly, if a city's developers are allowed to build anything anywhere they probably will and the result can be long-term disaster for the public.

As LostGen 2 searchers back from Europe we are left to ask: How do we bring livable city best practices to Canada? Are there urban planners willing to fight against a growing culture of cutbacks when those cutbacks are making our cities less competitive globally rather than more so? Are we speaking a language about cities and proposing a vision for their future that people understand? If not, how do we change that?

Thanks to the readers of Treehugger for following our journey. If you have any comments please contact robert@meshcities.com

Previously in this series:
Cycling Across Scandinavia: Rudolf Steiner Found, Thanks to James Turell
Cycling Across Scandinavia: Gothenburg to Boras, Sweden Doesn't Strip
Cycling Across Scandinavia: Making Design Choices For A Sustainable City
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 | Scandinavia | Sweden