Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
This new Swedish plan rethinks the inner city as tower forest and panoramic playground.
Could roof-straddling “sky walks” soon be coming to Stockholm? A new plan proposed for the Swedish capital would see a large slice of its city center built over with densely packed towers, joined at their peaks by a dramatic zigzag of tree-lined, open air gangways. Commissioned by Sweden’s opposition Center Party, the plan might seem a little fanciful. But it nonetheless answers some key questions that Stockholm is currently being forced to ask itself. Sweden’s capital is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe, with a population due to swell by 17 percent in just nine years. If it isn’t going to sprawl unmanageably or become overcrowded, it’s going to have to find somewhere to put everyone. One key solution could be to densify, as the proposal suggests, by rooting out and building on every scrap of currently un-built inner city land.
Called Klarastaden, or “clear city”, the plan comes from Anders Berensson Architects. While the group’s utopian bent might be clear from previous designs that include such oddities as folding saunas and luxury nests for swallows, Klarastaden does identify a useful site: a knot of railway tracks that could be built over behind Stockholm’s Central Station. As renderings show, this site could be transformed into a snaking tail of high-rises—necessarily dense so that profits can cover the high cost of burying the railway tracks within a tunnel. Towers of different widths and heights would be combined to prevent any building from feeling too hemmed-in or dingy, with every second building rising no more than four floors. Strung together, this would make the development’s overall silhouette resemble a badly broken comb. In a fashionable nod to look-at-me urbanism, these towers would be capped by a high-rise park, connected by pathways strung like tightropes across the chasms between the towers.
Whether the skywalk feature itself is a good one is a matter of reasonable debate. New York’s High Line may have made half the world’s cities crave a tourist-friendly panoramic walkway, but such isolated high-level pathways have also given many modernist housing projects a reputation for poor security. Given that Center Party commissioners aren’t actually in power in Stockholm, the plan’s tree-capped, snaggle-jawed layout isn’t exactly slated for immediate construction. Perhaps acknowledging this, the architects have also created a diagram showing how its approach of mixed heights and sky walks could be adapted as a way of densifying other already built up sites.
The proposal addresses issues that many European cities faced with rising land values and limited space are currently considering. London is bristling anew almost every day with towers. Controversially, these are moving away from the financial district to traditionally residential areas, as is the case with this planned Renzo Piano cylinder. Paris is letting the odd skyscraper creep onto its fringes, while Berlin has just green-lighted a residential tower that critics have called an “architectural crime.” Plans to build an entirely new section of central Stockholm are nonetheless likely to face more than average resistance. The city, you see, has already tried it before: In the 1950s, it demolished large parts of the city center to build wider streets and taller, more modern buildings. As Klarastaden’s architect Andreas Berensson tells CityLab:
As capital of a neutral country, Stockholm escaped any destruction in World War II. The city still demolished and rebuilt large areas in the 1950s and ‘60s—we’re the only city in Europe to have actually bombed ourselves. This has made Stockholmers especially skeptical about modern architecture.
Winning locals over to accepting a comet’s trail of new towers capped with a kooky adult playground in their city’s heart might be quite a reach. Strip the skyway embellishments away from the Klarastaden plan, however, and you’re still arguably looking at what in many European cities could be the shape of things to come.