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Stockholm, The Open City

Cities narrate stories without the need for words. In their architecture, their organization, their geography, our urban centers dictate how we should live in them. They show us what ideals they value, what principles they follow. People do the same. Often the needs of the populace and the demands of the metropolis conflict. I see it in the way glass, steel, and concrete have overtaken public parks and gardens. I notice it in the treeless motorways criss-crossing one another over denuded terrain. I observe it in the barbed wire perches to keep birds away, in the contorted metal benches to ward off loafers, in the barren privately owned cement courtyards dotting municipalities. 

The qualities of settlements which made them essential to us in the past no longer hold sway. From creating artificial islands to damming rivers we keep separating ourselves from the ecosystem to which we belong.

So I was a skeptic when I arrived in Stockholm, Sweden. I hesitated to believe that this modern capital had anything to offer except dull architectonics and estrangement from nature. I was in for a surprise. Covering fourteen archipelagos, Stockholm is a third waterways, a third green spaces, and a third civilization. Balance between productivity and eudaemonia is the main narrative. Everything in moderation, or “lagom,” is the operative motto. The pursuit of this equilibrium is achieved through a confluence of design which seeks to incorporate beauty, comfort, community, and functionality into every facet of the workaday. 

There are no barricades here. I walk from the narrow alleys of Gamla Stan to the shady slopes of Vita Bergen in Södermalm. I hop on a ferry chugging past the lush shorelines of Värmdö to a tranquil trail in Djurgården. I travel through underground caverns in search of sylvan boulevards…and find them. No one rushes about, head down. No one frowns when I lean against the railing to watch gulls play along the pier. No one forbids me from lolling along the embankment.

This is not to say that Stockholm is perfect. Time and money constrictions hamper sustainability. Scaling up biodiversity in an expanding market is a challenge. The ecological experience is not available to all. However, the city continues its dedication to transforming into a place where nature integrates into neighborhood.

The future of Stockholm is in the hands of thinkers, designers, and developers. They will have to shape its civic structure to align with our changing earth. What provides me hope is that Stockholm today is a destination in flux, willing to learn from its mistakes. It is a sanctuary, open to both humanity and the wider interconnected network in which we exist.  


TRAVEL NOTE:

Hammarby sjöstad is one of several development projects within Stockholm’s jurisdiction which seeks to implement a green-blue infrastructure embracing energy conservation, natural aesthetics, and evolving social services to residents.


What features are necessary to you in urban spaces? What resources delight you in a city, which ones do you not prefer? Let me know in the comments below.

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114 replies »

  1. We have friends that will be visiting Stockholm this August. After seeing your lovely photos, I know they will enjoy their time spent there.

  2. Stockholm seems truly spectacular and you post was an excellent read! It seems like a very walkable city which I would love to cross of my bucket list soon! Thanks for whetting my appetite!

    • Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you liked Stockholm through my story. It is an extremely walkable city, but also great for bicyclists. Given that it’s based on several islands, taking a ferry ride is also a marvelous way to discover Stockholm.

    • I thought so too. It’s an interesting and inspiring city, one which feels like it wants to give its citizens the best life they can have. That can’t be said of very many places.

  3. Good question. Necessary urban space features?
    1) Clean, decent public transportation with a good coverage. (Rome is out!)
    2) Pedestrian space. Wide sidewalks so you can walk around safely with your nose up in the air.
    3) Security. Can’t do the above two if you know you can be mugged at every corner.
    4) Shops, cafés, galleries on the ground floor to muse around.
    Tak.

    • “Pedestrian space. Wide sidewalks so you can walk around safely with your nose up in the air.” I love this image. How often I have been out strolling with my nose in the air only to discover that the sidewalk meant for me had mysterious disappeared and I was now forced to walk among the cars! Tack för din kommentar.

  4. A lovely post! Where indeed did our priorities for liveable spaces take the wrong fork! A measured view of Stockholm comes through to me. There is much to be admired.

    • Thank you, I’m so glad you enjoyed the story. Commercial interests always battle against livable spaces because there is no monetary value in them. I like to hope that people will have a greater say in how they wish to live in the cities of the future.

      • Some years ago the powers that be ‘upgraded’ the square in front of our townhall. Previously a favourite spot for office workers and others to lunch under the shade of trees, the new minimalist concrete and stainless steel space was not only barren but people-less. They voted with their feet. How galling for them to see their taxes squandered

      • Oh yes! That particular look is everywhere; it is the love of all urban commercial interests. It keeps things “clean” and “undesirables” away and doesn’t cost money to upkeep. So having no people hanging out in the space is exactly what the powers that be wished would happen.

  5. You’ve painted such a vivid picture of Stockholm, a city I’ve never been to, that it’s left me wanting to travel there one day. Thank you for taking me in this mini virtual tour on this cold grey Melbourne morning.

  6. I enjoyed reading your post about Stockhom and its complex character. You never stop suprising your readers with fresh and innovative outlooks and ideas. Very beatiful and unusual photos too.

    • Oh, thank you Natalia for that very wonderful praise. I try to talk about different perspectives that interest me, so I’m glad my stories provide that sense of surprise and innovation for you.

  7. The words and photos you use to paint this picture of Stockholm gives me a view of the city I find inspirational ~ the move away from a manufactured city into a more holistic approach to development and bringing nature into the city. Wonderful photos and integrating nature into the city is a great dream, a dream that I hope never fades.

    • I hope it is a dream that doesn’t fade either! It would be nice to see Stockholm forging ahead with this sort of integration and even more wonderful to see other cities following suit.

  8. What an insightful post. I went in the Summer and I have memories of a bright, colorful and welcoming city. But you dug deeper and, like most large cities, Stockholm has its flaws (even if Scandinavia looks mighty attractive from where I am sitting).

  9. You’ve got me longing to sail Stockholm with your inviting imagery and word. You never fail to delight me with your keen eye and depth of perspective. Your words had me thinking of what I’m currently experiencing in The Maldives. The ‘national tree’ is a cell tower or two on every island keeping us connected but separating us further from Mother Nature’s splendor. And the rows of bungalows jetting from many an island give a sense of paradise for those within but a feeling of paradise lost to those sailing by. My keys to a good city are a robust public transport system, green space, and a colorful population. A bit of edge is an added plus.

    • Thank you, thank you, it is such an honor to hear that my stories delight you!
      “And the rows of bungalows jetting from many an island give a sense of paradise for those within….” What you said so lyrically there is really part of the crisis isn’t it? We want the comforts and conveniences of the manufactured world while we gaze upon the natural, but I wonder if that is a balance that is possible. I appreciate you bringing this idea forth, as it highlights the complexity of building a true “city in nature.”

  10. We definitely hope to visit Stockholm one day. I am surprised by all the green. It sounds like Stockholm is doing a good job of finding balance between function and beauty.

  11. Bonjour, quelle jolie ville où il doit faire bon se promener à pied ou à bicyclette. J’apprécie vos belles photos.
    Bonne journée.

  12. It’s intriguing to know about Stockholm. The narrow streets give it a mysterious vibe and I would love to go there. Thank you for peaking my interest in this place.

  13. Thanks for the write up on Stockholm, it brings a lot of wonderful memories of our visit there too, the photos are excellent!!

  14. Challenging questions you have posed to think about the spaces we live in. Have been thinking about public spaces ever since I listened to a Ted Talk by Amanda Burden, chief city planner for NYC. Living in Singapore also causes one to think long & hard some the issues you have highlighted.

    Again, another thought-provoking, engaging post with beautiful photos. I have never been to Stockholm, so it was an enjoyable peep into a little of it through your eyes!

    P/S I tagged you on a 3-Day Quote Challenge in case you feel inclined to join in. Mainly I did this so that I could share your blog with some of my other blogfriends!

    • Thank you so much for the blog share, I so appreciate it. What a lovely thought!
      As we barrel ahead, I think city planning will become a contentious issue. Most cities are going to have to grapple with how to house their growing populations with limited space and (hopefully) a more sustainable infrastructure. I haven’t heard Amanda Burden’s TED Talk so thank you for that reference. Looking forward to hearing what she has to say about NYC.

    • Yes I think for the most part Stockholm and Scotland share maritime climates. As far as I could tell the older, historic buildings in Stockholm are made of brick or stone and wood.

      • Prefabricated wooden houses are designed in Sweden to be energy efficient, but the danger of fire is always present. The colors are so fun aren’t they? Scandinavian countries are in general obsessed with design. It’s part of their cultural concern, so the aesthetic of a neighborhood is very much kept in mind when buildings go up. I’ve found this to be true in Sweden, Denmark, and Finland.

  15. We’ve always lived in the city and we know how important ‘green spaces’ are to stay sane amid chaos. 🙂 You set out on a similar quest and returned with favourable results. It’s heartening to know there is hope.

  16. I’ve spent most of my life in Australia. After living in France for a few years I can say for certain that Australian’s are spoilt with their accessibility to green spaces and nature.

    I think it’s fantastic that Stockholm has made integrating nature with the city a priority. I desperately hope that Australia, while still developing, adopts a similar approach, though I am sceptical.

    I love your philosophy and seeing the world through your eyes. Keep up the incredible posts!

    • Thank you so much for your thoughts on this. I haven’t been to Australia yet, but part of its allure (and advantage) is that it still boasts open landscapes. Hopefully, moving forward the dignity of those spaces will be forefront in the ideas of progress.

  17. I love your opening words, “Cities narrate stories.” So true! Your pictures illustrate that as well. Stockholm is city that hits my radar and then drifts away. I know I want to go there, but I’m not sure why. I appreciated your perspective; now it’s on my radar again.

    • I understand that ambivalence about Stockholm. I had the same feelings about Helsinki as well, because there wasn’t any particular historic landmark or classic European style I was attracted to. I think for both these places, the beauty is revealed in their character which has a certain ephemeral pull. I hope you get a chance to explore the city at some point.

  18. Love that photo of the reflected building. I was in Stockholm for a weekend quite a few years ago. Gamla Stan was my favorite area. I’d say that green spaces in cities are the most important for me. Stockholm does that well.

  19. I love Stockholm for all the reasons you mentioned. After graduating form college, and a couple years of working in my small hometown (in northern Sweden,) I contemplated between moving to Stockholm, or Gothenburg (the second biggest city.) Gothenburg won, for the same reason you appreciated Stockholm, Gothenburg have even more of it. I looked at the parts of the city where it was safe, and doable, for a 20 year old to get an apartment..and now that was almost 20 years ago 🙂 I love both cities. They have a special place in my heart, even though I don’t see myself as a city girl. If I had to live in a city, I would prefer a city with lots of green areas, and a closeness to nature. Stockholm definitely have that.

  20. In dealing with problems in life and at work, I feel like I often act more Scandinavian than Indonesia, subconsciously. From my belief that moderation is key to living a balanced life, the way I communicate, down to the way I work. Of course, I have to see myself whether or not this notion is true. But from the way you describe Stockholm in this post, it looks like the city really lives up to its reputation.

    • You have definitely picked up on one of the key Scandi cultural tenets, the idea of moderation in all things. Scandinavians also consider themselves (and are for the most part) to be matter-of-fact and candid. If they don’t like something, they will say so rather than lie (or they will keep quiet if it is a stranger). They highly value personal space, privacy, and modesty (as opposed to being a braggart or show-off). They enjoy open discussion of issues and once they get to know the individual, are very friendly and full of spirit. Stockholm proclaims itself as a welcoming city, openly accepting and proudly supporting equality of gender, sexual orientation, and religion. Of course, nowhere is utopia. But, for me it was refreshing to see a city striving towards the idealistic and the holistic rather than aggrandizing schemes.

  21. I’ve never been to Stockholm and knew little about it as a city. Your observations pique my interest; well, actually, they enhance my interest for I’ve always wanted to go. To what do you attribute the city’s attention to human presence and needs? Was it conscious, geographically-dictated, luckily accidental? I see your reference to “Hammarby sjöstad” – but how did the city manage to grow in the past without becoming like many others? (So many questions – oops, sorry!)

    • I love the questions, no reason to apologize! I think the answers are tied together so I’ll start by saying that much of it is cultural. The Swedes hold nature in high esteem. As a lay-person, I would guess this is in part probably tied to their Norse beliefs which (like the Celts) worshipped natural elements and had high regard for topography and place. Swedes are also focused more on the good of society (greater good) rather than the privilege of the individual (the Swedes hold inalienable freedoms very close to their heart, but frown on personal advantages). And, they believe in openness, so they are forthright and direct in speech. These features have led to a government constructed with collective responsibility in mind. Swedes in business and government like to have logical voting and candid discussion which will lead to decisions that are unanimous so that all parties are content. But, Sweden is also lucky to be a country where nature still dominates. This is probably for two reasons (there may be others I don’t know about): the Scandinavian population has not exploded in the last two centuries the same way it has in the rest of the world and the country did not suffer WW2 damage on the same level as the rest of Europe. As a result there has never been a scramble to build (or rebuild) infrastructure. Therefore, since the 1970s, the government has had a holistic policy in place which considers environmental impact as part of its administrative methods. So current policies are based on that foundation and seek to better it. I hope that answered your questions to some degree? Let me know if there was something that didn’t make sense.

      • That makes lots of sense. But I guess a follow-up would be to ask if its neighboring counties with similar histories and cultures also have these kinds of cities? I just never knew Stockholm or Sweden were outliers in this way (or any way – since I didn’t know any of this!).

      • Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg, is very industrial so it has a different feel to it. It also has a large number of parks and reserves, but didn’t have the same integrated feel which Stockholm had for me. I don’t know if other Scandinavian countries have the same environmental policies in place or if they have been implemented for as long as Sweden’s. From what I gleaned, this was unique to the Swedish government. When I was in Helsinki, I thought it was picturesque, breathable, walkable. It had parks and green spaces, but its neighborhoods were more classic European.

  22. What a lovely country, I hope I’ll visit it one day! The resources that delight me in a city – surely firstly are the green spaces (with bicycle paths), secondly are the virtual reality spots (QR codes), and third are the combo tickets so the tourist can visit many places with a single admission fee (with a discount, of course). I don’t like the cities’ websites that are not updated or not tourists-oriented.

    • I hope you’ll get to visit Stockholm at some point too. You will love that the city has the ‘Stockholm Pass’ a feature which allows travelers free access to many attractions as well as a ‘Travelcard’ which allows travel across all forms of public transportation. Thanks for the clever ideas regarding city resources! While green spaces are a must, I hadn’t thought about technological features like websites and QR codes to integrate city and citizens better.

  23. Atreyee, this is a superb article not only about wonderful Stockholm but about all our cities, how they should be built for all of us, on a human scale, seeking equilibrium and ecological soundness. Of all the capital cities I’ve visited Stockholm is the one that scores the highest for all these factors. Its beauty is breathtaking, and whilst honeymooning in Gamlastan, I fell in love with the capital, the islands, the ferries. Listening to outdoor concerts, being in total awe of Vasaskeppet, dining out…everyone seemed to relish the feeling of being alive!

    • Thank you Annika. You expressed it perfectly when you stated that you felt “…everyone seemed to relish the feeling of being alive!” I too felt this attitude in the city. I had been told that the Swedes would be cold and unfriendly, but I actually found them to be full of spirit.

  24. Beautiful photos and intriguing ideas. You are absolutely right–in that each city reflects the attitudes and history of its people. Each city must decide how to create a balance between their architecture, organization and geography. I think that is what is so fascinating about “older” cities. How do they transform themselves to become more modern? Do they integrate the old and new? Do they transform the “old?”

    • Thank you. I think Stockholm is privileged in that it has been answering these questions (and has a system in place to respond to those ideas) since the 1970s. Most cities are just now shifting from expansion (the urban sprawl) to grappling with how to create balance and how to handle the needs of its population within the constraint of resources.

  25. A city I’ve long meant to see, and so accessible now from my part of the world. I really must try and make it happen. Thanks for sharing the beauty, AG 🙂 🙂

    • Glad I could show you a bit of Stockholm. It’s a delightful place and I think you’d enjoy the blend of parks, waterways, modern city, and historic Gamla Stan. No one rushes about and that feels so unnervingly refreshing in a cityscape.

      • You’d think they might because I wouldn’t think it’s always the warmest place! The last few days have been exceptional here 🙂 🙂 Didn’t know myself! But it’s grey again now 😦

  26. Beautiful words, sentiments. Always a pleasure to tap into your thoughts.
    Love the reflections … juxtaposing new and what is significant from what has gone before.
    Let’s hope we can learn before it is too late, as you say:
    “The qualities of settlements which made them essential to us in the past no longer hold sway … we keep separating ourselves from the ecosystem to which we belong.”

  27. I agree with Heide. Your opening sentence says so much, not just about Stockholm in particular, but cities in general. Stockholm seems to have struck a balance that most other cities either struggle with, or have failed at.

  28. My new word of the week: eudaemonia. 🙂 Your photos of Stockholm are stunning. I especially liked the one with the reflection in the glass. Knowing nothing about Sweden’s capital, I enjoyed reading your impressions. It sounds like a city I might like, since it seems to offer a lot of greenery and diversity. Open spaces, no barriers and a combination of architecture and nature… What more do you wanted in a liveable city?

    • 😊 Language is so marvelous. It delights me that you enjoyed the photos so much. Stockholm has a visitor’s pass which allows you access to about sixty of its museums and other attractions as well as boat and bus tours. It is a very walkable city with great public transportation and a travel card available to tourists which allows unlimited use of all its trains and buses. There’s bicycles to rent, plenty of parks, and Gamla Stan (its historic part) is a fun experience. I think you’d enjoy the welcoming atmosphere of Stockholm.

  29. Love the reflection in the windows. On my brief visits, I’ve found Stockholm to be impressive, large yet, as you say, friendly in many ways. A very good city from a tourist’s perspective.

    • I too loved discovering that reflection of the old upon the new glass building. I’m glad you enjoyed Stockholm as well. Though it is a large city, I found its atmosphere to be very different.

  30. Lovely to see your views of Stockholm, of course. Necessary features for me, are green areas, the old city not torn down, well thought through renovations and the new areas fitting together. Then I like art – everywhere. Living walls are great – flowery and/or filled with plants. Open spaces – but not open spaces in concrete only…except for skateboarding.
    Smooth communication – not traffic jams of millions of cars.

    • Thank you. The features you pointed out were necessary for you in cities speak to me as well, yet I don’t find it often in urban places. Green amid the manmade structures is definitely a must and I love your idea of living walls.

  31. My first and (so far) only visit to Stockholm lies back many, many years, but I vividly remember being very impressed with how green the city appeared. I also loved the many waterways that intersected different neighborhoods. Much might have changed in the interim, but I hope that the Swedish people will continue to preserve and protect their special capital.

  32. “Cities narrate stories without the need for words. In their architecture, their organization, their geography, our urban centers dictate how we should live in them.” Beautifully said! Though from your impressions it sounds like Stockholm is doing a better job than many cities to do it the other way around, by adapting as its people dictate how they want to live. What a wonderful concept …

    • It’s such a nice way to build rather than forcing people to adjust to the whims of an urban design. It would seem more logical this way, but as you point out that doesn’t happen often.

  33. Was in Stockholm in 2014 for 4 days and loved it. Wish I had more time to explore more of the areas I missed. A great city for a week or more.

  34. Always wanted to visit Stockholm and have never managed to make it but your photos look great and I may have to arrange that visit very soon now.

  35. I have not been back to Stockholm since 1977 (a high school trip). Even at this young age I was impressed by its geographic position and proximity to nature. It was winter and we skated for miles along perfectly frozen lakes and rivers (one of my fondest memories of all time). I’m glad to read your account about Stockholm’s enlightened approach to design and integration of nature. I think it’s time for a return visit…

    • That would be an intriguing trip for you. I would be interested to hear how you feel the city has changed from what you remember of your high school trip. I would like to revisit Stockholm in perhaps a decade to explore how this holistic approach to development pans out.

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