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.
Sweden’s capital city decides it’s time to correct postwar planning blunders—with a little friendly rivalry on the side.
Watch out Oslo: Stockholm is coming for your crown.
Norway’s capital has been grabbing headlines recently thanks to its bold push to remove as much car traffic as possible from its city center. Now Sweden’s capital is gearing up for a little friendly rivalry. New proposals sponsored by Stockholm Transit Commissioner Daniel Helldén would slash available car space in the city’s streets and open up a large chunk of its waterfront as a pedestrian-friendly, newly strollable promenade.
Stockholm’s plans have been openly acknowledged by local urbanists as an attempt to put the city back in Scandinavia’s top spot when it comes to clean, green planning—but there’s more to it than that. In retooling the way people access the city core, these new plans will also unravel the mistakes of what was once seen as the boldest, most progressive urban plan in Europe—a plan that many in the city have since come to regret.
Venture through Stockholm City, which forms the Swedish capital’s central business district, and you’ll be struck by how, for a historic capital, it doesn’t look especially historic. That’s largely because much of it isn’t, really. In the decades after World War II, Stockholm demolished over 750 buildings in its downtown, often replacing narrow 18th and 19th century streets with broad avenues and plazas lined with modernist blocks that, while dismaying conservationists, were better suited to modern working practices and the car-friendly planning policies that were then seen as best practices.
At the time, this earned Stockholm worldwide acclaim as a center for the urban avant garde, and the redevelopment plans won the first ever Sir Patrick Abercrombie Prize in 1961. The problem with being at the cutting edge of urban design, however, is that as urban fashions change, that cutting edge can turn dull and blunt quite quickly.
By the 1970s, Stockholm’s rebuilt center was attracting scorn for its anonymous architecture, even though locals appreciated the space it had created for excavating a subway system. Locals have largely grown into the area’s aesthetics—and even appreciate them. The area is far from being a nightmare today, but it still allows a disproportionate amount of space for cars compared to cyclists and pedestrians, and fails to fully capitalize on the area’s potential.
The new plan should do a lot to turn things around. Building on projects already underway to extend pedestrian streets, improve bike lanes and trim road space, the plans envisage a city center where cars become bit-players in an ensemble piece, boosting the roles of people on foot and on two wheels. In some places, such as the squares closest to the waterfront, this could mean total pedestrianization, in others it could mean extending sidewalks, bike lanes and tree cover into the roadway. As a way of discouraging drivers from even reaching the area, access from a major road tunnel underneath the district could be blocked. Alexander Ståhle, CEO of Spacescape Architects, one of the collaborators on the plans, highlighted to CityLab what a difference they could make in opening up the center.
“The renovated squares would be like a string of pearls reaching up to the waterfront,” he says. “Our central business district has a south-facing waterfront, which has huge potential but hasn't really been taken care of as a resource for the city. Just by extending sidewalks one block further south, you could have an amazing, walkable destination with sweeping views across to the Royal Palace.”
The plan’s real intention is to give people more space to use and enjoy the city core, rather than to specifically antagonize drivers. Looking at blueprints for Hamngatan, one of the area’s central arteries, shows how much of an improvement they could make. This is the street in its current configuration:
By many cities’ standards, the street’s current double cycle lanes and avenues of trees make it an example of progressive planning, but the street still functions as a major thoroughfare for road traffic. In the future it could resemble the image below, with only two remaining car lanes (and one of those shared with the streetcar).
The image below details exactly how Hamngatan’s space would be reassigned. Pedestrians get by far the largest space, with bike lanes expanded by one meter each.
It’s easy to see how these plans could improve everyday life for Stockholmers. Some aspects of the masterplan are already underway, and other’s have the endorsement of the city authorities behind them, so there’s every likelihood that images like these will become a reality in the next few decades. There is also a whiff of careful branding to the enterprise—Stockholm’s overall master plan, after all, is called The Walkable City.
Scandinavia’s capitals vie with each other to present themselves as the greenest, most sustainable, liveable cities in their region—not just as a source of pride but as a way of attracting workers and investment. Stockholm is no slouch in the department, but as Alexander Ståhle says, it faces pretty stiff regional competition.
“I think some politicians and planners are starting to look at Copenhagen, Oslo, and even Helsinki and seeing that they are getting ahead of us in some ways, so of course that's some driving force,” he says. “However, the things that really drive Stockholm right now is the image of being the high tech, creative hub for Scandinavia. We could be rivalling the largest cities in all Europe and making Stockholm an even better place to live in.”
In other words, Scandinavia’s other capitals should pay attention. They may be currently grabbing attention for their model urban planning, but Stockholm is breathing down their neck.