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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.  


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. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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.”

  4. 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.

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

  6. 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.

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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

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