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

Monday, July 4, 2011

Stockholm: well-planned density.

Greetings from Stockholm!
We are the 2011 class of Sustainable Cities of Northern Europe with the University of California, Davis Summer Abroad program. We landed in Stockholm, Sweden almost one week ago but we are just getting started. Stockholm is just the first stop on our month tour. Through this trip, we will be observing the planning, urban design, architecture, and policies of each of our destinations as they relate to sustainability. From our time in Stockholm, one of the key characteristics of the city that we have noticed is density

But what exactly is density?

Urban density is a term used in urban planning and urban design to refer to the number of people inhabiting a given urbanized area. Urban density is considered an important factor in understanding how cities function. Research related to urban density takes places across diverse areas, including economics, health, psychology, geography, and of course sustainability.

It is commonly asserted that higher density cities are more sustainable than low-density cities, this is greatly linked to the fact that low-density, dispersed cities are automobile dependent.

Surprisingly enough, Los Angeles is one of the densest cities in the United States when considering the entire metropolitan area in terms of person per acre (LA is actually denser than New York or San Francisco), yet its dependence on the automobile makes it a very unsustainable city. LA’s density does not really “work” and should not be the type of density that cities strive for. Los Angeles is known worldwide as the poster child of urban sprawl. Stockholm, on the other hand, is much more dense and that density is very well-planned. Everything in Stockholm is closer together, making urban life functional and attractive. Comprehensive public transportation, pedestrian and bike paths are the backbone of this city’s near-sustainable urban fabric. Residents of Stockholm have a broad range of choices of how to get around the city, including driving cars. This makes it an inclusive and vibrant city.

An admirable characteristic of Stockholm, and perhaps Sweden as a whole, is its citizens’ ability to think and plan for the long term future. Here, people understand the necessity to plan with foresight and flexibility for environmental, social, and economic changes. In this course, we have learned that the expansion of Swedish urban areas has closely tracked urban population growth. Stockholm, as well as other European cities, has grown more compactly, at higher densities, and with greater emphasis on the redevelopment and reuse of land within its existing urbanized spaces, this is also referred to as infill development.

One example of such infill development would be the Hammarby Sjöstad district. We recently visited Hammarby and the entire class was rather impressed. Hammarby is basically a collection of medium-density apartment buildings clustered together with public parks and mixed-use streets. The area is transit-oriented and very walkable. The density of the units is relieved by the public spaces around them often frequented by children and their parents. Most of the residents are actually families who consider Hammarby a great, safe place to raise children. This is an interesting comparison to the prevailing attitude in the U.S. that suburbs are the best place to raise kids.

The reason that we find Stockholm’s density so fascinating and inspiring is because we see density as a great way to speed up our process towards sustainability in the U.S. Well planned density goes hand in hand with having transportation choices such as public transit, walkable and bikeable paths, as well as car and pedestrian friendly streets. Although most Americans are not yet interested in compact, dense living environments, Stockholm shows us how density can be functional, attractive, and economically desirable. Hopefully, we can learn to think about the long term future of our cities, their place in our planet, and their relation to natural resources. We have plenty of opportunities to retrofit and revitalize our communities through well planned density and comprehensive transportation systems. To the future!!!

Alejandra Cano, UC Berkeley
Thomas Muchnick, UC Berkeley

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