Stockholm: Vancouver Done Right?

From transit to housing, which is the true cleanest, greenest city? A tour of Sweden's capital.

By Crawford Kilian 2 Nov 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

In October I got a chance to spend a week in Stockholm while acting as part of a team of external evaluators at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Apart from learning a lot about international agencies and global health, I also found a lot of parallels between Stockholm and Vancouver -- with Vancouver generally trailing in the comparisons.

Both cities have a core and a metropolitan region. Stockholm has about 872,000 residents in the city proper, and 2.1 million in "Stockholm County." We have 603,000 in the city and 2.3 million in Metro Vancouver. The city of Vancouver has a population density of 5,249 per square kilometre; Stockholm's is 4,637.

Both cities are on the water; I learned that Sweden's 9.5 million people own 700,000 watercraft. Many of them are moored in the heart of downtown Stockholm, a city built on 14 islands. And both cities have a vast northern backyard of forests, rivers and mines.

Sitting on the 59th parallel, Stockholm is at the latitude of Atlin, B.C. -- as far north of us at the 49th parallel as we are north of Eureka, California. Stockholm enjoys "white nights" in summer and endures long nights in winter. In this near-Arctic environment, it flourishes as a comfortable, efficient, and beautiful city.

Both cities are cosmopolitan and multicultural, but in Stockholm, everyone must be at least trilingual. Ask anyone a question in English and you'll get a fluent English reply whether from a blue-eyed blonde or a dreadlocked Senegalese.

One striking distinction between the cities is in their high-density housing. Back in the 1960s, we chose high-rises, each separated from its neighbours. Stockholm's basic housing unit is an apartment building of five to seven storeys, sharing walls with similar units. Each building is individual, its stucco front often painted in an earthy yellow or red. But all are in a similar style, whether the building is old or new: Stockholm is an architectural fugue based on a theme first expressed in Gamla Stan, the old town around the Royal Palace.

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Density with distinction. Photo by jimg944 via Creative Commons license.

The result is a remarkable streetscape, with buildings like canyon walls that guide the eye to some visual reward -- a little park, or a curving façade of buildings implying a surprise just out of sight. The skyline is almost horizontal, with church spires rising dramatically above it.

While Stockholm has malls, like the huge one downtown on Hamngatan, every street has thriving retail businesses serving their local neighbourhoods: small supermarkets, restaurants, bakeries, even car-repair shops tucked into basements. So sidewalks are crowded with people doing their routine shopping just downstairs from their apartments.

A downtown baby boom

Strikingly, those sidewalks are also crowded with baby strollers. While Sweden's birthrate (10.24 per 1,000) is almost identical to Canada's (10.28 per 1,000), Stockholm's streets make it look as if a baby boom is under way. Housing is famously hard to find, but young families can clearly afford to live in the city. Dad is as likely to push the stroller as Mum: Sweden gives parents 480 paid days at home after each child is born.

The city is remarkably walkable, and Stockholmers are used to walking; when I inquired about the distance from my hotel to ECDC's building on the campus of Carolinska Institute, I was told it was easy walking distance -- only about three kilometres. That may explain why I saw so few overweight Swedes.

Those who don't want to walk, however, have a superb public transit system. First is the Tunnelbana, a subway whose trains (many built by Bombardier) run smoothly, quietly, and often. On the surface are fleets of buses and streetcars, most of them articulated so they bend going around corners. Streetcars drop slightly at stops, enabling easier access for wheelchairs and baby carriages, and space is allocated for them inside. Drivers don't take money; passengers buy tickets or monthly passes at convenience stores and other outlets, and can transfer easily from one line to another. Dogs are welcome on board.

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In the belly of Odenplan, a metro station in Stockholm. Photo by Jonas Bergsten, public domain.

My own commute involved a three-block walk down Norrtullsgatan to Odenplan, a transfer point including a subway station and multiple bus stops. From there it was a 20-minute ride to suburban Solna. (If I'd known the system better, I could have walked just one block and caught a bus to Odenplan. But the walk was enjoyable even on cold, dark mornings.)

Meanwhile the streets are also full of cars and trucks, not to mention countless bikes (some available at pickup and drop-off stations all over the city). Not all bicyclists wear helmets, and they often share the sidewalks with pedestrians and baby strollers, but everyone seems to get along without friction.

Stockholm's amenities parallel Vancouver's in many ways. We have Stanley Park; they have Djurgarden, a largely wooded island with several superb museums and an amusement park like a year-round PNE Playland. One rainy October Saturday, families and mobs of young people converged on Djurland to visit the Vasa Museum, which houses an enormous 17th-century warship that sank within 20 minutes of its first sailing (too many cannons had been loaded on; draw your own moral). Others just went running or biking on Djurgarden's many trails. It's also possible to find mini-parks all over the city, where you can find anything from a moment's rest to a Thai take-away meal.

A clean green industrial city

Stockholm has the kind of muscular industrialism Vancouver enjoyed in the days of photographer Fred Herzog. Its roads are full of locally built cars, buses and trucks, and construction crews work around the clock to put up new buildings overlooking crowded suburban freeways. It's a social democracy, taxing and spending, but the private sector is clearly prospering as well.

Yet it's also a very green city with intoxicatingly clean air. The hotel where we stayed made a strong claim to be green also: To turn on the lights in our room, we had to insert our room key in a slot by the door, and removing it when we left would ensure no lights would burn in an empty room.

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The Djurgården in Stockholm evokes Vancouver's lush Stanley Park. Photo by Steven Strehl, Creative Commons licensed.

The hotel's breakfast buffet offered a huge range of food and no plastic containers -- milk was in a big pitcher, cereals and yogurt in big bowls, and fruit salad was handmade. You could cut your own bread from six or seven different types of loaves, and cover it with butter and jam from ceramic pots. Plates, cups and utensils were all washable, not disposable.

Stockholm is no utopia. A non-Swedish resident told me that resentment of immigrants exists, though rarely expressed. The country expects some 54,000 asylum seekers next year, while 1,250 have arrived each week since September. Many EU immigrants seek work but end up homeless. Too many Swedes smoke, portending many ugly deaths in the next decade or two.

Yet Stockholm also a remarkably serene city, enjoying life without tying itself in knots. The young parents pushing their prams through drifts of yellow leaves on Nortullsgatan seem relaxed, enjoying the chance to be outside with their kids. Traffic is brisk but smooth despite all the bikes and streetcars sharing the roads. Arlanda airport is big, calm, and beautiful, utterly lacking in the mass anxiety of London Heathrow.

Some people told us that Stockholm is pleasanter to visit than to live in, and perhaps they're right. And visitors are sure to miss many shortcomings. Still, in its housing and transit, Stockholm looks like what Vancouver would love to be.  [Tyee]

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