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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.

132 replies »

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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