Stockholm's 'war on cars'

An aggressive redevelopment plan in Stockholm's central district is cutting highways in favor of transit, bike lanes, and green spaces.

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Stockholm: a city set amid water, like Seattle.

An aggressive redevelopment plan in Stockholm's central district is cutting highways in favor of transit, bike lanes, and green spaces.

Imagine this: A major city center redevelopment scheme would take down two highway bridges and build one replacement, shrink vehicular access from 12 to 8 lanes (6 for cars, 2 for trams and buses), expand cycle, pedestrian, and public transit capacity, diminish the number and height of proposed new buildings after public comment, and add a sizable park — also at the urging of the public.

No developer input is solicited or accepted until a final design is approved by the city council and fully designed. Plus, the long and involved process, with its extensive public input, actually thrills city planners.

Sound like a fantasy? For Americans, yes, but not in Stockholm, where this is the story of the Slussen redevelopment plan for the city’s central, most historic district, where Lake Maelaren meets the Baltic Sea and where the city was founded in the 13th century.

Sometimes referred to as the “Venice of the North,” Stockholm is located on 14 islands on the south-central east coast of Sweden. Lake Maelaren is a freshwater lake feeding into the Baltic Sea. A lock has connected these two bodies of water since the mid-17th century and is critical for the prevention of flooding by the lake.

Water and green spaces define the character and charm of Stockholm. The city's large and small green areas add up to 30 percent of its land area, and various bodies of water total another 30 percent. The tight grid of narrow streets holds remnants of medieval beginnings, but the feeling overall is more like the late 19th century city pattern prevalent in European capitals. 

Stockholm’s population of 850,000 is expected to increase by 10,000 a year. It is a small city in global terms, but is considered one of the cleanest capital cities in the world. 

In 2010, Stockholm was voted the first European Green Capital. Thirty-five participating cities were judged in terms of climate change impact, local transport, public green areas, air quality, noise, waste, water consumption, waste water treatment, sustainable land use, biodiversity, and environmental management. Among the interesting qualities that won Stockholm the designation was its integrated administrative system, which insures that environmental impacts are considered in budgets and planning in all city agencies — a critical break from the silo-thinking and planning in many cities around the world.

The city has cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent in 10 years and plans to be fossil-fuel free by 2050. One of the most extensive public transit systems in Europe, including a city bike-share program, provides car-free easy movement throughout the city.

Stockholm's Slussen district, the historic center city where the City Hall, Parliament, and royal palace are all in close proximity, was designed around cars, however. This area seems to be in need of rebuilding every 100 years, explained Martin Schroeder, Stockholm’s chief planner. The last time was in 1935 when the current tangle of roadways and concrete plazas was developed. That redo earned the city a letter of praise from the 20th century concrete master himself, Le Corbusier.

“[Corbusier] congratulated the city for being so brave to be modern and to take care of the needs of the car,” Schroeder says. Traffic now dominates the area. “It is all pavement,” Schroeder adds. “There is no public space and underneath, where the bus station is, it is dark and unsafe.” The bus depot will be moved to a nearby site at a metro stop and the underground will be converted to a shopping mall.

That's now changing. Today there are only one-third the number of cars than in the 1960s, Schroeder says, noting that congestion pricing since 2007 and highways outside of the center removed considerable traffic. The 25,000 bikers are expected to double by 2030. Bus ridership is supposed to jump considerably as well.

Schroeder is explaining all this while pointing to a huge, well-detailed model of the project on view for the public. While we talk, a steady stream of locals pass through, point, discuss, nod, all seeming intrigued and approving. Schroeder seems particularly pleased to see this, since it represents the culmination of a planning process that has taken years, involved many public discussions, major adjustments, public hearings, and final city council approval this year — all with minimum public displeasure. Five architects were invited to offer proposals and Foster + Partners, the London-based firm selected in 2004 — is now in the working drawing phase. 

Asked to explain why developers were kept at bay until the final plan was designed, Schroeder said: “It would not have been as easy to alter the plan in response to the public if developers were on board ahead of time.”

This time around, he adds, the realities of climate change came seriously into play, especially because of the anticipation of a possible one-meter rise in the lake over the next 100 years.

This article is reprinted from Citiwire, an institution that studies urban development in American cities.


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