Norway’s capital has been grabbing headlines recently thanks to its bold push to remove as much car traffic as possible from its city centre. Now Sweden’s capital is gearing up for a little friendly rivalry. New proposals sponsored by Stockholm Transit Commissioner Daniel Helldén would slash available car space in the city’s streets and open up a large chunk of its waterfront as a pedestrian-friendly, newly strollable promenade.
Stockholm’s plans have been openly acknowledged by local urbanists as an attempt to put the city back in Scandinavia’s top spot when it comes to clean, green planning—but there’s more to it than that. In retooling the way people access the city core, these new plans will also unravel the mistakes of what was once seen as the boldest, most progressive urban plan in Europe—a plan that many in the city have since come to regret.
Venture through Stockholm City, which forms the Swedish capital’s central business district, and you’ll be struck by how, for a historic capital, it doesn’t look especially historic. That’s largely because much of it isn’t, really. In the decades after World War II, Stockholm demolished over 750 buildings in its downtown, often replacing narrow 18th and 19th century streets with broad avenues and plazas lined with modernist blocks that, while dismaying conservationists, were better suited to modern working practices and the car-friendly planning policies that were then seen as best practices.
At the time, this earned Stockholm worldwide acclaim as a center for the urban avant garde, and the redevelopment plans won the first ever Sir Patrick Abercrombie Prize in 1961. The problem with being at the cutting edge of urban design, however, is that as urban fashions change, that cutting edge can turn dull and blunt quite quickly.
By the 1970s, Stockholm’s rebuilt center was attracting scorn for its anonymous architecture, even though locals appreciated the space it had created for excavating a subway system. Locals have largely grown into the area’s aesthetics—and even appreciate them. The area is far from being a nightmare today, but it still allows a disproportionate amount of space for cars compared to cyclists and pedestrians, and fails to fully capitalize on the area’s potential.
The new plan should do a lot to turn things around. Building on projects already underway to extend pedestrian streets, improve bike lanes and trim road space, the plans envisage a city center where cars become bit-players in an ensemble piece, boosting the roles of people on foot and on two wheels. In some places, such as the squares closest to the waterfront, this could mean total pedestrianization, in others it could mean extending sidewalks, bike lanes and tree cover into the roadway. As a way of discouraging drivers from even reaching the area, access from a major road tunnel underneath the district could be blocked. Alexander Ståhle, CEO of Spacescape Architects, one of the collaborators on the plans, highlighted to CityLab what a difference they could make in opening up the center.