Archive for the ‘Sweden’ Category
In a city like Stockholm, NIMBYs want to stop so much that the news is no longer which project they oppose and why, but that they are actually ok with something. Despite this, the sheer, inexplicable and unsurmountable conservatism of historical preservationists still manages to surprise sometimes. Like the case with the quarry in an industrial area in south Stockholm. Or more to the point, the entrance to a quarry which is located in a place where no one ventures unless you want to buy massive amounts of plastic wrap or are on the lookout for toxic waste. And even if that is the case, you will probably not stop to think twice about the historically valuable structure that is this:
But the preservationists of the Stockholm City Museum do, and they don’t want this to go away! Remind me why Stockholm, one of the fastest growing cities in Europe, has a massive housing shortage and rapidly rising housing costs?
When a grand idea fails or ends up having terrible consequences, adherents can sometimes excuse it by saying that the intention was good. That the political vision, philosophical argument or bill looked rather brilliant on paper means that it can still be considered ok. But some ideas are inherently poor from start to finish, from the drawing board to the policy, to the outcome, and one of those terrible ideas is modernism.
The way you know that an idea is wrong is when you look at it’s ideal outcome, when it’s allowed to come to full frutition without any profane intereference, and it’s terrifying. Here is what the prominent modernist urban theorist Le Corbusier wanted inner city Stockholm to look like in the early 1930s:
To replace the traditional urban street pattern….
… that allowed for density with diversity, with massive isolated housing complexes connected by highways. Looking at Le Corbusier’s sketch makes you shiver. No streets, no street life, no human feeling. Which is exactly what many Stockholm suburbs, all victims of modernism, lack. But luckily not the inner city. It was saved from Le Corbusier’s destruction and remain the most attractive part of a city that still suffers from the influence of planners whose dream was to make the city into an empty park, surrounded by speeding cars with no reason to stop.
Historical preservation rules in cities are often absurd. Originally intended to protect valuable historical buildings from being destroyed in the name of progress (and cities had their fair share of that), they soon became the primary tool for preventing any form of change at all. The historical preservation areas kept ballooning until covering large swaths of entire cities where they protect anything and everything. Buildings of actual historical significance or their ugly 1970s neighbors, it doesn’t make a difference. If something is situated within a historical district it is by definition worth preserving.
This can lead to bizarre outcomes, like in Stockholm. A city where you can’t build a student building that looks like this:
Because it interferes with the style of the surrounding historical architecture:
While the Green Party wants to prevent anyone from placing an atrium on top of this wonderful gem of a building because it would spoil its silhouette.
Fun theory is the idea that you can change people’s behavior by rewarding them with something fun, like a lottery ticket if they avoid doing something that is unwanted.
Stockholm decided to try this on a road with heavy traffic for a few days and the results were impressive. Which isn’t surprising since fun theory is about doubling the incentives.
Normally, people have a negative incentive not to speed – the risk of getting a ticket. But when applying fun theory a driver will both have a negative incentive not to speed (the ticket) as well as a positive incentive not to speed (the lottery ticket that may lead to a reward) which makes it extra valuable to follow the rules of the road. Read more about fun theory at The Atlantic Cities and check out the clip from the Stockholm experiment:
It’s ironic that most of the post WWII architecture that aspired to be an egalitarian force used in the fight to would mould a new man world end up being such an alienating failure. By setting up strict guidelines for how social life would flourish, in a setting where the built environment would eradicate personality in order to promote community, it only succeeded in losing the person without forming a group.
That it happened does not seem surprising today, but the curious thing is that it couldn’t be foreseen. How could people find blocks and blocks of a soulless concrete mass of smooth grey and brown surfaces, completely devoid of detail and individual character, inspiring?
But maybe it’s an ignorant view, maybe it’s just me who can’t understand how the vast majority of buildings that were erected back then didn’t provoke a sense that something was lacking, that all those buildings looked the same and, more than that, that they looked like no one had thought at all. It’s possible that in every absent detail there is great meaning and that all of those people who think that a 1960s housing complex like the one below, in the Stockholm suburb of Täby, just looks like a couple of concrete slabs piled on top of each other don’t understand.
Or what about this? A creation of a set of gifted and socially minded designers?
No, just four actual slabs of concrete! What the street artist EVOL made by taking four blocks and adding some windows through the skilled use of paint looks exactly the same as what the clever architects of Täby tried to do with vastly greater resources. So maybe there is nothing greater to understand after all.
It is great that cities and towns think more about how they can use underutilized public space to improve the urban environment and make a locality a more attractive and interesting place to be. But sometimes local governments don’t think things through, like in Piteå, a small town of 22,000 people in Northern Sweden. Here, the municipality decided to build an observation tower, but didn’t contemplate exactly how high a tower needed to be for there to be an actual view. Which is why it ended up like this:
And when confronted with the fact that the observation tower is too low for anyone to observe anything, town officials defended themselves by saying that they couldn’t afford to build a higher one. Which is why the rational response was to spend public money on building something that was entirely useless, rather than not spending anything at all. Leslie Knope would not have been happy.
Whenever change is about to happen in a city there are people fighting tooth and nail to stop it. No matter how unassuming the plot of land that is being defended is, people who live there get used to it, feel sentimental about it, and want to keep it like it is.
One examples of this is a small stretch of Ringvägen in south eastern Södermalm, Stockholm. Most of Södermalm has undergone a transformation during the past few decades where it has gone from dinky and dirty to the place where most fun things happen (and where the world’s first sour dough hotel is located). And now the change has finally come to neglected east Ringvägen, which prompted Sweden’s biggest daily DN to write an article called “Ringside – the last stand of Söder” (in Swedish, “Ringside – den sista ronden om Söder”).
These approximately five hundred meters of inglorious urban space, that is referred to as “No man’s land” or “the Béarnaise Swamp” (given folksy-Sweden’s love for buttery béarnaise on pizza and potatoes), with its grey, brown and yellow facades that are home to tanning salons, an underground hostel, a Chinese medicine shop, a hot dog place and an IT store named the Data Prince, among other businesses, is being fiercely protected by its long-term residents.
Old-timers are lashing out against the encroaching modernizers, relying on a rhetoric that emphasizes their Stockholm insider-status and the migrants’ (presumed) non-urban backgrounds. DN reports about heated online discussion forums where one man wrote “Can’t you farmers who dream about being in London or New York stop taking a detour through Stockholm? You are not welcome here. We hate you”. And he was not alone; others chimed in as well, writing: “Rubish, stop with your disgusting plastic inventions, fucking farmers” or “End the fuss. Don’t soil the name of Södermalm with yokel devices“.
Indicating that the best way to improve a city is to keep a steady in- and outflow of people. As soon as a city stagnates, people and businesses stop innovating – keeping dinky Söder, dinky Söder. That a large share of the people who live in places like New York and London come from somewhere else (and I’m not just saying this because I happen to be one of them…), are willing and open to change and look at their neighborhoods with unsentimental eyes that see potential in transformation, is the main reason that these places stay interesting.
How a city expands is a history of land supply, consumer demand and law. This makes the subject of comparative urban expansion very interesting since there are a lot of parallels between cities in different countries, as well as equally many site specific differences that explain how growth happened and why cities can look so different despite sharing important economic and social characteristics.
Take a look at Stockholm, for example. The capital of Sweden saw a massive expansion in the wake of WWII when its population grew by 40 % over the course of two decades (from 590,000 in 1940 to 803,000 in 1960). Even though an increase of 213,000 people in the urban core doesn’t lead to many raised eyebrows in third world metropolitan areas that have coped with significantly higher growth numbers for decades, it was a lot for a city like Stockholm that had to supply a sufficient amount of modern housing and public services to all newcomers at the same time as the welfare state’s public service requirements exploded.
And it wasn’t made any easier by the fact that the city would run out of available land to build on in the third quarter of 1958. After that there would be no more space for the municipal authorities or private real estate interests to launch any large scale housing developments within the municipal limits. What would Stockholm do then? The demand for living in the capital was huge and the city needed to grow, but after a succession of incorporations of the surrounding municipalities that ended with the inclusion of Hässelby and Spånga in 1949-50 the city government had promised not to gulp up any more land from its neighbors (areas that had a lot of available land, but not enough money to embark on a massive housing construction campaign in a then heavily regulated Social Democratic Sweden that didn’t want to leave it to the private sector). With the easy solution of land expansion being out of the question, the only thing that remained was thus for Stockholm to find new creative forms of cooperation between the dominating central-city and the string of smaller localities that enclosed the capital.
Stockholm wanted to avoid what had happened in many US metropolitan areas in the Northeast and Midwest, where the urban core had been completely walled-in by hostile suburbs that wanted very little to do with their domineering city-brethren. But it was not only because of goodwill that the capital wished to maintain good relations with the surrounding areas, Stockholm also lacked the legal means to act like a municipal colonizer, in the mode of Greater London, that simply bought up land in surrounding jurisdictions since a Swedish local government, before 1959, wasn’t allowed to develop land in other local governments.
In order not to be completely locked in and loose its development appeal, Hjalmar Mehr, the leading Stockholm politician at the time, opted for a two-pronged strategy.
Firstly, Stockholm needed a kind of ambassador for the entire Stockholm Metropolitan Area – the economic entity – that could speak for not just the central-city but all of the localities that, in practice, made up Greater Stockholm (Stor-Stockholm). The primary goal was to work systematically to improve the relationship between Stockholm and its neighbors and avoid the spirit of confrontation that often characterized urban-suburban contacts elsewhere in order to facilitate long-term regional planning and focus on what was best for the metro area as a whole. By creating a metro ambassador, as well as through a series of other initiatives that aimed to improve regional cooperation by handing over the responsibility for regional issues such as transportation to the county, the Stockholm-lover Hjalmar Mehr somewhat ironically became the man that gave up more powers to the region than any other mayor before him. And it paid off.
As a concrete result of appointing a metro ambassador, all the local governments in the Greater Stockholm area managed to unite around a five year housing construction plan to better deal with the large influx of new residents. This was a win-win situation, according to the Swedish writer Björn Elmbrant in his biography of Hjalmar Mehr, since Stockholm lacked land but had lots of money while the suburbs had lots of land but no financial resources.
This strategy for metropolitan area brotherly love was also combined with a bold legal move from Stockholm’s leaders. Even though the Swedish capital had lacked London’s judicial powers, Hjalmar Mehr and others thought that it was something that they would be able to deal with in a satisfactory way once the issue would arise. Banking on a future support from the Social Democratic government, Stockholm embarked on a London-style expansion policy and started to buy land, lots of land, in the surrounding municipalities. But with one strategic difference, Mehr had seen that London’s shopping spree had led to an unwanted increase in land values, a development he wanted to avoid at all cost. Consequently, Stockholm told the public that it only purchased large swaths of land in order to secure an ample supply of green areas for the current and future urban population and that the city intended for the land to stay undeveloped.
This, of course, was not the case? At the same time as Stockholm prepared the ground for a large scale colonization of its neighbors, Mehr and others lobbied the national government to change the legislation that prevented one Swedish municipality from building properties in another municipality. An effort that resulted in a new law, titled Lex Bollmora, which gave a local government the right to develop land in another local government, if they had been invited by the latter to do so.
This was a much needed legal development that could help Stockholm expand. It was also clever in that it forced local governments to cooperate and prevented a more powerful neighbor (i.e. the central-city) from overriding its suburban surrounding.
Through a combination of regional thinking, a practical campaign for a metropolitan perspective and a daring legal gambit did Stockholm beat its growth constraints and managed to initiate its “Million program” where The Venice of the North was turned into a city-wide construction site in order to provide enough housing for all of those who left the countryside in search of a new life in the Swedish capital.
The Nordic countries have had longstanding agreements that allow their citizens to move freely across the High North’s borders. A form of cooperation that since has been strengthened by Denmark, Finland and Sweden’s entrance into the European Union. And nowhere has the integration process gone further than in the Öresund region – which spans the Danish capital Copenhagen and Sweden’s third largest city Malmö as well as a couple of nearby towns (mainly Lund, Helsingborg and Landskrona).
What started with a bridge that connected the two sides of the Öresund strait has since grown to a large-scale project to create a fully functional bi-national metro area with region wide infrastructure planning and a common Öresund vision that will help the entire area market itself to the world. This, aided by strong economic forces in the form of higher wages in Copenhagen and lower housing prices in Malmö, has encouraged migration and led to an impressive growth in bi-national traffic from 3,2 million vehicles in 1999 (the year the bridge was completed) to 35,6 million travelers by car, bus train or ferry in 2009. Nowadays, an estimated 13,000 people commute across the strait every single day.
Some of these commuters are not voluntary migrants, though. Due to highly restrictive Danish immigration policies that deny non-European spouses of Danish citizens the right to stay in Denmark if they are under the age of 24, or if the couple is deemed to have stronger ties to the non-Danish spouse’s country (for example if the couple met in Brazil when the Danish partner worked there, the Danish authorities think that they should stay in Brazil if they want to be together), many have been forced to move across the Öresund strait to Sweden. Giving, mainly Malmö, a steady inflow of well-educated and productive Danish migrants who buy properties and set up businesses.
But everyone won’t go to Malmö. Soon the university town of Lund – located 30 km to the north – expects to get a larger share of the migrants as well.
After that the Danish and Swedish government worked together to make sure that the huge European research facility ESS (a new institution that will attract many researchers and businesses to the Öresund region) would be located in Lund it looks like Danish intolerance will ensure that the majority of these highly educated new residents settle on the Swedish side rather than in big city Copenhagen. This, since Denmark is not only restrictive when it comes to marriages; the country also forces non-European guest researchers to pay large sums of money in order to get a work visa. Something that they wouldn’t need to do if they moved across the narrow body of water that is the Öresund strait.
What’s Copenhagen’s loss is Lund’s boom. Thanks to its isolationist neighbors’ immigration policies, Lund can expect a large inflow of the kind of human capital intensive residents that every city in the world wants to attract. Which poses useful lessens for metropolitan areas across the world. What if the federal government in the US gave states and municipalities more control over their immigration policies, like Mayor Bloomberg’s idea that anyone should be allowed to come to the US (given that they can support themselves) if they first settle in Detroit for X amount of years before they are free to move anywhere they want? Or a slightly modified form of this policy, where Detroit or Cleveland or Buffalo would allow mainly highly educated non-Americans to settle there in order to boost their low human capital levels. Then you can be sure that the Rustbelt cities will win out in the long term, while sunny Arizona’s creative pool slowly dries up in a desert of prejudice.
Just like Copenhagen was waving goodbye to its brainpower while Lund’s city leaders were bursting of optimism two weeks ago when they presented the plans of a hypermodern new borough called Brunnshög that will house any Danish émigré – or other brainy immigrant – that wants to come.
Sweden’s third largest city, Malmö, has received a lot of attention over the past few years due to its successful revival. Once the industrial powerhouse of southern Sweden, Malmö shared the destiny of many industrial-era urban centers in the post industrial-world – population loss and urban decay.
That was a while ago now though. These days Malmö is more famous for a bridge between the city and Denmark’s capital Copenhagen (creating an impressive bi-national metro region), interesting buildings like the Turning Torso and successful redevelopment projects such as the one in Västra hamnen (the West Harbour).
Västra hamnen, situated by the sea with a wonderful view of the Öresund strait, has become a popular place for people to both live and play. Despite this, the Swedish economist Andreas Bergh points out that there are surprisingly few places in Västra Hamnen where you can buy ice cream, coffee, beer or food after relaxing by the sea. And where you can do it there are always long lines, indicating a high demand. How come?
After some googling Andreas Bergh finds out that while Malmö’s politicians may have showed an acute sense of regeneration-skills when it came to allowing private developers to create a unique new structure that would completely dominate the city (and sell it as an innovative and daring place) they failed to grasp the workings of a market economy in Västra hamnen. The long ice cream-lines are not a product of a lack of willing suppliers or that entrepreneurial vendors in other parts of the city have simply missed this great opportunity. It’s because city politicians decided to keep out all establishments except for a select few in order to prevent that competition would lower the prices in the area and lure customers away from the more high-end cafés in the neighborhood.
According to Malmö’s leaders there is no chance that some people could want to buy expensive ice cream even if there was a cheaper alternative nearby, or that the same people might want to buy cheap ice cream sometimes and pricy high-quality ice cream at other occasions. Or that a bigger and more mixed supply of both high-end and low-end food establishment could make Västra hamnen into an even more attractive location to spend a day in the sun and therefore exert a pull on even more people of any ice cream-buying category than before, generating an increased customer satisfaction, more Malmö jobs and higher city revenues.