30 Apr 2011

Scandinavian Dreams

Hammarby Sjöstad

There is a polarity in our image of Scandinavia reflecting the extremes of light and darkness of the Nordic year. On the one hand, Ingmar Bergman – introspection, angst and darkness, and on the other Social Democracy, dappled sunlight shining on a well ordered, egalitarian welfare state – an ideal we can only dream of. In planning, architecture and design the latter image has been dominant since the 1930s when Sweden in particular emerged as the model 'third way' between fascism and communism. In the post war period British public housing was much influenced by Swedish ideas of design and mass production, although key elements like landscape setting and local facilities were usually omitted on cost grounds. The most famous exemplar is Byker by Ralph Erskine who spent much of his working life in Sweden.

Nordic Noir

More recently Scandinavia has tired of its wholesome image and is seeking to project itself as edgy, punk and post industrial, at least partly reflecting the real impact of globalisation. If like me you were hooked on The Killing you will know the darkness both literal and spiritual of winter in Copenhagen. And Wallander tells us that Malmö, just across the Oresund bridge is as dangerous as any British inner city, with life (or death) there recently imitating art. Whatever you do, don't jog in the woods near Ystad.

But on a sunny summer day Stockholm feels like the best place in the world, the most beautiful and liveable city. Built on a series of islands where Lake Malaren meets the Baltic, water is everywhere. The buildings from the 'Age of Greatness' through National Romanticism and Swedish Classicism to Modernism are wonderful -  an intensely urban place but always close to nature. It is difficult to take Nordic Noir too seriously on a sunny day and there is a lot here to learn about waterside regeneration.

Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen

Townscape not carscape - Copenhagen

But as I discovered on a recent trip in freezing March to Copenhagen and Västra Hamnen in Malmö, it is not always a sunny day. Lesson one for waterside regeneration. The great thing about Copenhagen is how coherent its urban structure is – not a grid but a consistency of scale and permeability. There are shopping malls and motorways around the edges but the city never seems to be fragmented. It has been rediscovering itself as a pedestrian focused city now for over 40 years following the approach of Jan Gehl and others. The results are very impressive- is full of animated public spaces and cycling really is the norm. You don't need lycra.

Subtle form and texture - Copenhagen

There is a lot of pressure for new housing (as we know from The Killing) but the Danes tend not to go in for grand solutions, rather reinterpretation of the traditional tenement form. Regeneration along the inner harbour (Sydhavnen) has been fairly organic. There are many new apartment blocks but they fit very much into the existing structure. The most dramatic interventions have been the conversion of redundant silos.

A courtyard which is not a car park - Copenhagen

A good example of the Danish approach is at Sluseholmen on reclaimed land in the old port area. This is very high density but the buildings are low by British regeneration standards, ranging from 7 stories on the harbour edge to 5 stories along new canals and 4 around the internal courtyards, which include small gardens for ground floor apartments. The landscaping of the public (note no gated communities) green space is fairly minimalist but there is great emphasis on playspace. On a cold day you notice how well sheltered you are from the wind. The apartment structures are clad in eclectic mixes of materials and fenestration. Although the variety is a bit too deliberate it is certainly not mechanical. Some blocks have basement parking and there is also street parking, but the dominant transport is the bikes, which are everywhere. Houseboats line the sheltered waterfront. In some ways like the Greenwich Millennium Village, it really benefits from its more human scale.

Iconic, organic Västra Hamnen

Allotment modernism - Västra Hamnen

Malmö since the Oresund bridge is almost part of metropolitan Copenhagen but it is also a post industrial city much more like its British provincial counterparts. Västra Hamnen was a heavily contaminated industrial port area. Regeneration here comes with a capital R. The centre piece is Santiago Calatrava's Turning Torso, which is certainly spectacular as engineering with 9 twisting cubes rising to 190m. It has put Malmö on the regeneration map, but perhaps the more interesting regeneration of Västra Hamnen is the low rise housing between the Turning Torso and the sea.

Bracing esplanade - Västra Hamnen

The Esplanade here faces west towards the Sound and the fury of the storms which I experienced first hand. The seafront is lined with mostly 5 story apartment blocks which have balconies and spectacular views towards Copenhagen, but equally shield the housing behind from the wind. The Esplanade is mostly a tiered boardwalk and on a sunny day could seem a bit too utilitarian. The housing behind is grouped around an organic network of lanes and water courses (SUDS). The layout evokes the traditional pre-industrial Swedish towns and is very practical in creating intimate and sheltered spaces. Many of the houses are faced in wood and have gables consciously evoking Swedish vernacular with its richly detailed low wooden buildings. Overall the building styles are rich and extraordinarily diverse. Some of the houses are only 2 stories and there are lots of little gardens, especially running down to the watercourses. The landscaping is very low key and the overall impression is of a quite scruffy, lived in area – certainly not a place where your lifestyle is constrained by formality. It is almost hippy. There are however more conventionally Modernist apartments and terraces around the perimeter. It is all very heterogeneous, but the looming Torso tends to dominate many of the informal villagey views, which is unfortunate.

Shelter and variation  - Västra Hamnen

Behind the artifice of the organic vernacular Västra Hamnen is very cleverly planned. There is a very sophisticated waste disposal/collection system and the car parking is really well handled. Some parking is provided on the shared streets and yards but it is never dominant. There is car parking below some of the apartment blocks but you just don't see it. Most parking is on the periphery next to the Torso where there is a shopping centre, but there are also local shops and cafes. Needless to say public transport is efficient and integrated – you can use your Danish train ticket on the bus in Sweden. (Where did we go wrong? Actually I know the answer but it is a long one.)

Stockholm's answer to Cardiff Bay

Dappled sunlight

Stockholm in a glorious July is a different world, but it too has had to deal with industrial decline. What was the industrial port area of Södra Hammarby Hamnen is about 6 km from the commercial heart of the city. It is separated from Södermalm island, the working class heartland of Stockholm, by one of the many channels linking Lake Malaren to the sea. Globalisation left most of the factories derelict, except for Luma, the interesting 1930s co-operative which brought cheap electric light to the working class and is now a business centre. Here then was a fine waterside site but heavily contaminated and with poor links to the central business district.

High density (without being dense)

The City and Harbour Authority owned much of the site and the City of Stockholm took a strong leadership role and initially at least a long term view. It was willing (and able) to invest in the site including decontamination and infrastructure to enable the masterplan to be delivered. The expectation was that this investment would be paid back later through land sales. The scale of the project – 9,000 homes and 10,000 jobs – was clearly big enough to make it a 'grand project' and so important to the future strategy for Stockholm. Interestingly the City wanted to have an international exemplar to put Stockholm on the regeneration map. The development began in the late 1990s and is now about two thirds completed and expected to be finished by 2015.

The natural and the built environment - Hammarby Sjöstad

Hammarby Sjöstad set out from the start to be an exemplar of sustainability and is realising these objectives. This is helped by a long term strategy Sweden adopted in the 1970s. Overall the development achieves 80% renewable energy and extracts a high proportion from heat transfer. It also produces biogas which is  used for City buses. Broadly speaking the development has half the water use and carbon emissions of comparable inner city Stockholm developments. Landscaping is of very high quality. There is lots of open space including an extensive hilly park, courtyard gardens, playgrounds everywhere and water features to play in. However the specification for the SUDS which should provide water for the water features was over optimistic and so water has to be pumped.

Hierarchy, order and view - Hammarby Sjöstad

The masterplan for Hammarby Sjöstad has deliberately extended the high density apartment typology of inner Stockholm into a more suburban district. A key feature is the 'high street', a spine shopping street with the tram running along it and with on street parking. The tram was fundamental as it links the development to the metro (Tunnelbana) and the wider integrated public transport network. However the Regional Transport Authority did not initially want to provide the tram and the City had to build the infrastructure without the certainty trams would ever run. The RTA then wanted a high degree of segregation which would have negated the masterplan concept of a mixed use 'high street', but eventually the current highly successful shared use approach prevailed.

Cycle friendly - Hammarby Sjöstad

From an English perspective it is striking that nearly all the homes are apartments. Along the 'main street' these are as high as 8 storeys but the norm is 4-5 stories. Each block has its own private green space usually in an inner court and mostly including playground. Some ground floor flats have a small private garden, which is a particularly attractive feature. Virtually all have big balconies mostly with views of the water. About two thirds of the residents own cars and about half are in basement car parks, the rest on street. Nowhere do cars dominate the design – the street parking is always incidental and car use co-exists with pedestrian and bike priority.

There is no 'shopping centre' and no large supermarket but there are small supermarkets and a variety of shops and cafes. Some café/shop pavilions are also provided along the waterfront. There are about 50 outlets in all, but (at least in the summer holidays) it does not give the impression of a lively high street or café scene. Many residents shop at a nearby retail mall (outside the City boundary). There are a lot of social facilities including 3 schools and surprisingly even a church. Significantly there are nearly a thousand children living in the area.

The housing is roughly 60% owner occupied (leasehold) and 40% social housing via the equivalent of RSLs, of which there are many providers. There is no obvious distinction between private and social housing but the blocks are not usually mixed. Clearly the quality of the environment and lifestyle has proved commercially popular.

Lake City

Tiered bathing circle - Hammarby Sjöstad

Sjöstad means Lake City. At Hammarby the relationship of the high density housing to the water, both the sea inlet and the Sickla canal and the way this 'captures', creates and frames views really impresses. The introduction of natural reed beds is especially attractive and contrasts with so much very hard waterside public realm in British regeneration. Board walks and pontoons provide access over the reed beds to the water, including a tiered bathing circle - a really imaginative feature. The water quality is now very high, hence the reeds and the bathing, but a few decades ago it was quite polluted. The views over the water give the impression of lots more open space than is actually the case. A really nice feature is the free ferry for pedestrians and bikes which links Hammarby Sjöstad to Sodermalm, now used in 24% of all journeys.

So what?

Boardwalk fun - Hammarby Sjöstad

There is no doubt that Hammarby Sjöstad has been very successful and displays an exceptionally high standard of design, public realm and sustainability. The CABE study draws out the key lessons. These are the importance of a strong design ethos and masterplan providing for a mix of uses able to sustain a community. Appointing a number of developers who then work with different architects on individual blocks is extremely important to ensure diversity. The 'parallel sketches' process for each neighbourhood, where four architectural practises draw up proposals within the masterplan framework, and the City take the best elements from each to finalise the neighbourhood plan is fundamental as is a well resourced and highly skilled client team capable of making careful judgements about design quality.

However it would be mistaken to see this regeneration project as straightforward or easy to deliver. New Conservative administrations at the City and at the national level have squeezed public funding and meant there is pressure for early sale rather than the original long term approach.

It is also worth noting that the redevelopment of the old industrial port area of Årstadals Hamnen, a few kilometres to the west has not followed the example of Hammarby and is much more like the hard edged, high rise examples of London Docklands.

You can do it if you really want to!

Spot the car

Hammarby Sjöstad and Väster Hamnen are large projects but comparable to many planned Waterside areas and 'Sustainable Urban Extensions' in Britain. The big difference is in the role, leadership and vision of the City authorities and their ability to control outcomes through ownership of land. In Sweden the city takes the lead in spatial masterplans. In Britain the planning process has retreated to cosy statements of the bleeding obvious in the Core Strategy and waffley policies without any clear concept of the spatial outcomes. It is defensive and reactive, leaving developers to control masterplans and dictate what happens in whole quarters of our towns and cities – not only the buildings but even more important the streets and social spaces. Planning is used as a covert form of taxation driving up development costs. This is an almost Faustian pact which results in over development, poor public spaces, poor design and the smallest new houses in Europe. I think we have got it wrong.

It is fascinating how often Hammarby Sjöstad in particular is evoked and illustrated in 'concept boards' for developments in Britain but when it comes to the actual proposal the apartment blocks are twice the height, the mixed use, social facilities and high quality public transport have all but disappeared and the whole thing has been designed from the car parking space outwards.

However English cities could nevertheless follow the Scandinavian model if they really want to. Perhaps Mr Pickles is unintentionally giving them the opportunity. Out of the chaos a new order may yet emerge. Let us hope so – at least we can dream.

Thanks to Björn Cederquist of Stockholm City Council and Oliver Schulze and colleagues from Gehl Architects for their invaluable advice.

P. Carolin: The Swedish influence on post war housing in Britain (in C20th Soc publication Housing and the C20th Nation)
O. Hultin and others: Architecture in Stockholm
Arkitekturmuseet: Architecture in Sweden
O. Lind and A. Lund: Copenhagen Architecture Guide
Copenhagen X: New Architecture in Copenhagen
J. Gehl and others: New City Life
J. Gehl and L. Gemzoe: New City Spaces


p said...

a very nice article, and in a way an eye-opener making me see the familiar in a new way. I just thought I'd add some clarifications as a former resident of Stockholm currently residing in Malmö.

both Västra Hamnen and Hammarby Sjöstad are seen as incredibly middle class areas. in Stockholm Hammarby Sjöstad is mostly thought of as a place where well off inner-city couples move when they have their first child, a stop off on their way to that detached house in the suburbs. I guess that's all well and fine, but it may explain a bit of the appearance of the place. well, that along with the fact that it was originally intended mostly for people 55+ whose children had left home and who no longer wanted to maintain a garden and a big house.

secondly there is no such thing as social housing per se in Sweden. once upon a time there was a policy decision that rental apartments were for everyone and thus they're distributed amongst interested parties not on base of need but on the amount of time you've spent on a waiting list (in popular parts of Stockholm way over a decade). this means that rents can be high, in Hammarby Sjöstad pretty much so high you need two decent incomes to be able to afford them. still it's a system designed with the hope of avoiding ghettos, and even if it's flawed recent ideas of moving towards social housing proper are scary and infuriating.

once again thanks for another great post, and this time on areas I actually kind of know.

Madison Jones said...

Shall put on my to visit lists, the places were all promising. I may need my own car to tour all the places.

Margaret Thomson said...

Wish there are more chances to gain properties on places like this. Land never depreciate in value and will always go higher depending on how the place is developed.

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