Dominic Hinde’s research at The University of Edinburgh examines the environmental rhetoric of Scandinavian regions. Hinde writes and speaks about different aspects of the Scandinavian countries and their relationship with Britain, but particularly the environment, politics and popular culture.
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On the final day of the Swedish football season the Tele 2 Arena, named for a Swedish telecoms company, is packed out with 30,000 fans of Hammarby IF dressed in green and white. The metal clad stadium, an iconic design to match the rival stadium of AIK Solna on the north side of town, is a redevelopment of redevelopment.
According to the regional government, Stockholm is growing by more than one new iconic arena every year, with 37,000 newcomers to the city in 2012. UN statistics put Sweden just behind neighbouring Denmark in urbanisation, with the largest shift toward its capital from its huge interior.
Built on a former metro maintainance depot, the Tele2 Arena replaces an older football stadium on the other side of Globen, a huge concrete sports and events village dating from the early 1990s. It was the Stockholm Globe that the American Geographer Allan Pred chose as the foremost symbol of the break between the Social-Democratic and the neoliberal city. The metro itself, overworked and under-invested in, was the tool with which Sweden built its utopian urbanism in the 1950s and 1960s. From the Stockholm Globe three metro lines writhe out into the southern suburbs, the cooperative housing of Bagarmossen and Gunnar Asplund’s municipal masterpiece, the Skogskyrkogården Woodland Cemetery.
Hammarby themselves are owned in part by the AEG entertainment group, yet identify strongly as the counter-cultural, hip working class club of the Swedish capital. This paradox of values and realities is typical of wider modern Sweden. Having created a self-professed model city and model society in the middle of the 20th century, the early 1990s marked a lasting change.
Across the city, in the same direction as the rival stadium, is Norra Djurgårdsstaden, a shining new eco quarter built on former harbour land. It has the same generic mailboxes and ‘no junk mail’ labels as so much of Sweden’s common housing, as well as the same curled cream newspaper holders outside each of the identical apartments. A combination of cooperatively owned and rented blocks, its luxury balconies and clipped green lawns are more exclusive than the first and second wave. The people are different too – the Volvos parked on the new cobbled pavements and the prices mean that the areas belongs to a certain type of person. Neither is it finished – Stockholm’s population boom means that new housing competes for space with the signature sporting venues, filled with young successful people making use of the nearby green space.
Cutting under the green space is the North Link, a record-breakingly long road tunnel. Eventually it is intended to link up with the Stockholm bypass, easing access to and from the prosperous areas of inner suburban Stockholm in a huge crescent moon around the city’s western edge. Two competing visions of the future city are vying for supremacy in Stockholm as the city’s overburdened public transport system craves investment.
The compact, interconnected and equal Social Democratic city is being replaced by an interconnected series of superplaces. This is fueled by a wealthy Swedish middle class increasingly distant from the countryside that provides labour for the Swedish capital, but also from the people who live alongside them. Where Sweden once built planned communities of cooperative housing linked by mass transit, it today builds trunk roads and new railways for middle class commuters. Where the social democratic suburbs were islands in the lakes and forest, they have now themselves become other spaces between the desirable signature destinations of Stockholm’s ‘knowledge region’.
In 2012 Sweden underwent the fastest urbanisation in Europe according to Eurostat, the European Commission’s statistical arm. As people drift it skews economies and the well-established practices of rural and small-town life. The country has entered an age of political dissonance in which the countryside belongs to the new right and the old left, the cities to a metropolitan class and the service workers that furnish their lifestyles in the spaces between.
At Stockholm’s airport the advertising hoardings mark it as ‘The Capital of Scandinavia’. The premium express train to the city centre zips through the places that the inhabitants of clean hypermodern Sweden are not intended to see. Alight at the central station and depending on which way you turn you encounter different Swedens. The city centre is a planned Social-Democratic vision in concrete and glass, crowned by the Kulturhuset cultural centre and theatre. It was conceived of as a kind of people’s palace at the centre of the new city, complete with reading saloons and cafés all visible through a huge glass façade that would provide a non-commercial counterweight to the business domination of the city.
Commercialism is winning though, and down the street the signature shopping parade of Biblioteksgatan is completed by a red carpet running its length. In case there were any ambiguity, this is a luxury street fully endorsed by the city governance.
Turn in the other direction from the central station and you encounter the Stockholm Waterfront Congress Centre , a new international venue and hotel built by the Jarl Asset Management investment group. One of the biggest buildings in the capital for a number of years, its existence owes much to the same desire to put the city on the map that led to the Globe arena and the sodden red carpet of a destination shopping experience.
Across the water at the point where freshwater meets saltwater is the island of Södermalm. Hammarby fans in green scarves drink before the game, boutique cafés selling sourdough bread occupy the ground floors of residential blocks with airy loft apartments and pop-up restaurants helped by government tax breaks cater to people who can afford to eat out. Södermalm occupies an international position along with Shoreditch in London and Williamsburg in New York of wealthy creatives and remnants of the old working class who obstinately refuse to relinquish their fixed rent cooperative flats. These lonely ghosts of social democracy in the bright clean modern Scandinavia do not necessarily belong, not attending events at the Stockholm Globe, the Tele2 Arena or the Waterfront Congress Center.
The new Scandinavian city has a different kind of brightness, its clean aesthetics exclusive and aspirational, green and progressive. This new utopia of the middle class, surrounded by invisible motorways and visible wealth, makes Stockholm a lifestyle utopia for the consumer but an imitation of the future as it was supposed to be.
Published 18 December 2014 by The New Metropolitan