Skip to Main Content

June 01, 2019

A Planner Abroad... in Stockholm

A Planner Abroad... in Stockholm
Stockholm Skyline.
Search any list of the world’s best, happiest or livable cities, and you won’t need to look far before you find Stockholm. The ’Capital of Scandinavia’ is one of the fastest growing urban centres in Europe, and has emerged as a European leader in the coveted technology and innovation scenes.

With a current population just shy of 1,000,000, Stockholm is expected to add 400,000 more people by
Figure-2-Regional-Development-Plan.jpgStockholm's regional development plan.
2040. To accommodate these new Stockholmers, the City is busy undertaking the daunting task of planning and constructing 140,000 new homes, along with supporting infrastructure and services. City builders are taking on this challenge with a typically Swedish mindset - plan long into the future, strengthen urban foundations, and orient towards impending challenges.
 
The City of Stockholm is located at the centre of Stockholm County, which is made up of 26 municipalities. The County has been planning together under a ‘Regional Development Plan’ framework for the last 60 years - and it shows. The clearest example being the regional rail network which seamlessly connects to the City’s subways, buses and main urban hubs with an easy to use, single ticket system, that makes moving around the region convenient and (comparatively) cheap. Its regional efforts like these that have made Stockholm a success, despite the geographical challenges of being an archipelago city constructed over 14 islands.
 
Stockholm puts public first. It’s what all cities say they do, or the very least, would like to do, but Stockholm has been busy actually doing it for a few generations. The City started planning its first subway routes in the 1940’s, and construction for the first lines were finished by the 1950s. Over the last 70 years the system has continued to expand and the City now has 7 lines and 100 stations in use, and given the City’s relatively small population, its 110 kilometre long subway system is one of the world’s most impressive. This system overlaps with buses, bike lanes and regional rail to offer an incredibly accessible and affordable public transit network.
 
In parallel with the subway work in the 1950s, the City began construction of a large-scale district heating network. Pushed forward by the fuel crisis and building booms of the 1970s, the network currently serves 80% of the building stock in the city. This collective infrastructure has provided the opportunity to reduce Stockholm’s carbon emissions by 1,000,000 tonnes since 1990, by phasing out fossil fuels from its district heating energy mix.
 
Enthusiastic investment in the public sphere continues to this day, with the City in the process of adding 20 kilometres of subway lines, and 11 new stations to the existing system. Alongside the subway expansion, Stockholm has numerous large scale master planning, public space and infrastructural projects that are aimed at improving the quality of the public realm and related services in the City and surrounding municipalities.
 
Stockholm can be roughly divided into three equal parts; one third is green with parks and forests, one third blue with waterways, canals and lakes, and the last third urban. With those ratios it comes as no surprise that Stockholm is seen as a fantastic place to raise a family. The City has designed its dense urban structure to maximize close and quick connections to its ‘green and blue’ networks which, when combined with Sweden’s progressive national maternity and paternity social programs, results in an urban structure where raising a child becomes not only possible, but desirable. Walk around the city for just a few minutes and the sight of strollers, small children and busy parents make it clear that the decision to raise a child - even in the most central neighbourhoods - is an easy choice.
 
Figure-3-Family-PLACEHOLDER-(1).jpgFamily in Stockholm.

 
The City achieves this by taking seriously the task of housing design. Architects, urban designers and planners approach housing, not as the dull ‘bread and butter’ of a city, but as a fundamental building block that should be approached with creativity and sensitivity. Imaginative housing solutions that play with densities, living arrangement combinations, unit sizes, materiality, family spaces and public space integration are sought after and encouraged. Not every idea, building and plan succeeds, but there is something to be said about a willingness to the take the risk, and pursue urban planning and architecture grounded in strong social values.
 
Lessons for Ontario

Scandinavian cities are a popular source of inspiration and discussion in regards to good city building practices, the following is a short list of distilled lessons for Ontario based on my five years living and working in the City.
 
Lesson 1: Optimistic Urbanism
Figure-4-Kungstra╠ega╠erden.jpgKungsträdgården.
 

On the whole, Stockholm’s policy makers, planners, designers, developers, and the general public - approach urban development with an open and optimistic mindset. Development is regarded as an opportunity to recreate and refresh the city. For Stockholmers the equation is relatively straightforward. A development project may mean more people will live around you, your views may change, and more people will be at your bus stop, but it also means that you will receive a new park, more frequent transit service, and a new preschool for the neighbourhood.
 
In Stockholm’s case this optimism is not naive, but a commonsensical reaction to the observed benefits of investment in the collective elements of the city. The takeaway formula is simple. Invest greedily in the shared assets of the city - the streets, parks, public spaces, transit systems, public institutions, and collective infrastructure - and everyone in the city gets richer. Over time, this leads to strengthened trust between city builders and the population. With more trust, city builders can tackle bigger goals faster and more effectively, which yield great results for the public. And the cycle continues.
 
Lesson 2: Embrace experimentation
 
When compared to other European centres of architectural innovation like Copenhagen, or Rotterdam, Stockholm can feel stiff. It is an old and beautiful City, and
Figure-5-Norra-Tornen-(2).jpg
OMA’s Norra Tornen.
with that can come a defensive attitude towards new interventions. That being said, Stockholm is not afraid to take risks when it feels right. The newly built and uncharacteristically tall ‘Norra Tornen’ in the north of the City, or the world’s largest spherical building - the Globen Arena, point to a willingness to take chance on unconventional solutions when it contributes something to the cityscape.
 
In Stockholm, a level of experimentation is ingrained in the planning and design process with the frequent use of open, or invited competitions in the sourcing of design ideas for buildings, public spaces and masterplans. The competition process encourages designers, developers and city planners to come with new and exciting ideas that can be then discussed in public forums, elevating the quality of urban design awareness, critique and results for all stakeholders.
 
Lesson 3: Dream big
Figure-6-Kolkajen.pngThe Kolkajen development project.


When Stockholm laid out its plans for its metro system in 1941, it took inspiration from New York, London and Paris. At the time these cities were 10 times larger than Stockholm. The willingness to chase a big goal, and lay out a subway system that many cities of Stockholm size would consider impossible, has paid huge dividends. Much of the seeds of Stockholm’s success were planted in these years, with a collection of audacious, socially focused planning efforts.
 
The City has not abandoned this ‘big dreaming’ attitude. In 2010, Stockholm was named the first European Green Capital, and has since outlined its plans to completely remove fossil fuels from the energy mix by 2050. These goals are accelerated in the City’s new districts - like in the 200-hectare Royal Seaport, one of Europe’s largest development sites - where the goal is to be reached by 2040. For its efforts in this regard, in 2015 the Royal Seaport was selected as the best Urban Development project at the UN’s Climate Change conference in Paris.
 
By setting clear, focused and demanding goals, Stockholm is challenging the building community to work together to build a better city. And by laying out bold visions, the City is not allowing failure of imagination to become the limiting factor in its future.
 

Post by Danny Bridson

Recent Posts