Exploring the world's built environments and seeking sustainable solutions.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Walkable Stockholm

What makes a walkable city? Having spent a week roaming the center of Stockholm, we asked ourselves that question. Stockholm is a remarkable city with most unremarkable weather – cold wet winters, and cool wet, windy (and fickle) summers. It rained almost every day we were there; not a great formula for walking. Yet, rain or shine, cold or warm, winter or summer, everyone walks, and fast. Why?

First, driving is inconvenient, and expensive. Streets are congested, parking is costly (if available), and the network is ancient and complex. Some of that is historical artifact, some by design (such as a congestion pricing scheme). But, far more important, are the joys that Stockholm walking offers. Wide, accessible sidewalks; expansive and interesting plazas and public spaces connected and inviting; good lighting (not needed in the long summer days/nights; and a feeling of safety. And, it is the light and air. Maybe not Paris, but the northern equivalent. Blue space is everywhere, with harbors, ships new and old, piers, and waterfront developments. The air is crisp even on warm days, and the clouds change with every glance.

Of course, the land use mix is right – and transit allows you the luxury of walking. Like many world class urban centers, the mix of shops, restaurants, museums, institutional buildings and businesses on the first floors keep you interested, while the 4-6 stories of flats, apartments and businesses keep people there 24/7. But, Stockholm offers more – historic buildings with many varied yet somehow consistent colors, all scaled to the mid-rise city. Even some of the built “mistakes” and buildings of dubious merit stand out and add interest.

Stockholm also gets some of the little things right. Easy to read and understand signage at a pedestrian scale. Separation of bike paths from sidewalks, long accessible walk signals, narrow lanes and streets, and pedestrian safe zones and islands everywhere. Art, sculpture, flexible exhibit spaces, unique signage, all hit the walker with every step. As with many large cities, there is no one Stockholm walking experience; the history of Gamla Stan is quite different from the formal streetscapes of the Normalm; the friendly noisy sidewalks of the Sodermalm are quite different from the quiet, stylish neighborhoods of the Ostrermalm. But, all of it walkable.

All is not perfect. Keeping the historic city going requires seemingly constant construction. Transit, while impressive, can be frustrating and hard to follow. Some of the shopping streets are too successful, and feel jammed and rushed. The harbor strolls can be long and cold.

But, the bottom line is people! A dense urban place with many attractions, vibrant economic uses, and a diverse and lively street life calls out for you to walk the next block, and the next and the next. For our class, walking (and transit) was how we travelled for a week, and we saw a lot.

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