Here’s what Scandinavia can teach our cities about parks

Djurgarden park in Stockholm, autumn 2012.

We do parks all wrong in the UK. For a green and pleasant land, our attitude towards green space in urban areas is seriously messed up. It’s not something we tend to question as we lounge on the grass of a summer’s day, but since I visited various towns in Scandinavia, the differences are starting to hurt.

We all know about the creeping problem of privately owned public space: the spaces that look open and inviting, until you try and do something like take a photo, conduct an interview or sit on a grassy chaise longue.

This is not really a problem in Scandinavia. Officials from Stockholm and Luleå in Sweden confirmed to me that all of their public space is owned and managed by the city. As for restrictive by-laws, if you’ve ever been to Copenhagen, you’ll know that cracking open a beer in a park or square is practically mandatory to avoid paying the equivalent of a small nation’s GDP for a pint in a bar.

A grassy chaise longue for public use, no security guard in sight, in Luleå. Image: author provided.

There’s something else, too. Something so small that it’s easy to miss, and yet says everything. They don’t have railings around their parks.

We fence our public spaces off. We force people in and out of set gateways. We delineate the space. We create ‘parks’, not open spaces.

In Stockholm, Helsinki and Bergen, parks are things you meander into, across and through. They are natural adjuncts to the streetways, a pleasant shortcut, a place to pause for a few moments because you’re passing a bench anyway and you’re a bit early for that meeting and it seems nice.

In the UK, if I am at the south east corner of Park Square in Leeds and my destination lies at the north west, I can’t walk diagonally through. Railings force me round the edges. Same at Bloomsbury Square in London. Queen Square in Bristol is a lovely open space, needlessly surrounded by a waist-high wooden fence that funnels you towards paths. Desire lines be damned.

Scandinavia does have some boundary markers, but they tend to be low fences or flower beds that can easily be stepped over. When a physical barrier is needed, it’s often a hedge. A hedge is more forgiving than a spiked iron barricade. It apologetically requests, rather than demands, you follow a particular route.

And Scandinavia’s parks don’t close at night (Luleå’s Head of Parks and Nature, Michael Öhman, answers a query about whether the town’s parks close with a simple “No!”; that exclamation mark doing a lot of work). Ours do, because we have railings and gates. They put a massive blockage in front of pedestrians at night; plus, nobody’s told Google Maps, which keeps trying to send people through locked gates. I tip my hat to Holyrood Park in Edinburgh, which manages to be open 24 hours a day because – guess what – there are no railings.

And that’s before we even get to the green spaces that are wholly private, not even pretending to be public. All those leafy London squares where the likes of us aren’t allowed in, because the powers that be have decreed us unworthy.

Our ethos of building parks that keep people out is completely at odds with Scandinavia’s attitude. Stockholm’s city plan accepts that, although residents tend to live clustered near people who are like them:

“The streets, parks and squares of the inner city function partly as shared spaces for many Stockholmers, wherever they may live... In order to increase social integration, it is important to develop more shared meeting places in the future, where people with different backgrounds can see and meet one another in the natural course of their day.”

-From The Walkable City, Stockholm City Plan, 2010.

Some 40 per cent of Stockholm consists of parks and open green spaces. London claims to be 47 per cent green but that includes private gardens, which cover 14 per cent of the city, so really it’s one-third green open space. (That 40 per cent isn’t even the highest in the world, by the way; Moscow reports 54 per cent of its land being open green space.)

What we can’t tell from that reduced figure for London is just how much is genuinely available to everyone. But even with vast population disparities – London has about 8m more people than Stockholm, even Manchester has 1.5m more – we can still learn from Scandinavian attitudes.


How we interact with our surroundings affects how we see the world. If I can wander at will around my city, I feel that it belongs to me. If I’m shunted around, if I have to obediently use the designated access point to any public space, if I can’t even get in at all, that’s shutting me out. I feel less connected to my city and, by extension, my fellow citizens.

Scandinavia’s famously egalitarian society contributes to the unusually high sense of national wellbeing. While it’s not all perfect (I recommend you pick up The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth), an attitude that embraces people and their right to be in a space can be traced to that foundational assumption that everyone is equal. Our parks still smack of Victorian patricians who don’t entirely trust the common man to behave in a grassy area after dusk.

So here’s a theory: the more genuinely democratic a nation, the more its parks are accessible. And let’s stop with the railings.

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There isn’t a single national housing market – so we need multiple models of local regeneration, too

Rochdale. Image: Getty.

This week’s budget comes ten years after the 2007 financial crisis. The trigger for that crisis was a loss in confidence in mortgages for homes, with banks suddenly recognising the vulnerability of loans on their books.

In the last ten years, the UK’s cities and regions have followed very different paths. This week’s focus on housing affordability is welcome, but it will be a challenge for any chancellor in the coming decade to use national policy to help towns up and down the country. Local housing markets differ drastically. The new crop of city-region mayors are recognising this, as rents in parts of south Greater Manchester are on average double the rents in parts of the north of the city-region.

When it comes to buying a home, politicians are increasingly articulate about the consequences of inequity in our housing system. But we must recognise that, for 9m citizens who live in social rented homes, the prospects of improvements to properties, common areas and grounds are usually tied to wider projects to create new housing within existing estates – sometimes involving complete demolition and rebuilding.

While the Conservative governments of the 1980s shrank the scale of direct investment in building homes for social rent, the Labour governments from the late 1990s used a sustained period of growth in property prices to champion a new model: affordable housing was to be paid for by policies which required contributions to go to housing associations. Effectively, the funding for new affordable housing and refurbished social homes was part of the profit from market housing built next door, on the same turf; a large programme of government investment also brought millions of social rented homes up to a decent standard.

This cross-subsidy model was always flawed. Most fundamentally, it relies on rising property prices – which it is neither desirable nor realistic to expect. Building more social homes became dependent on ratcheting up prices and securing more private profit. In London, we are starting to see that model come apart at the seams.

The inevitable result has been that with long social housing waiting lists and rocketing market prices, new developments have too often ended up as segregated local communities, home to both the richest and the poorest. They may live side by side, but as the RSA concluded earlier this year, investment in the social infrastructure and community development to help neighbours integrate has too often been lacking. Several regeneration schemes that soldiered on through the downturn did so by building more private homes and fewer social rented homes than existed before, or by taking advantage of more generous legal definitions of what counts as ‘affordable housing’ – or both.

A rough guide to how house prices have changed since 2007: each hexagon is a constituency. You can explore the full version at ODI Leeds.

In most of England’s cities, the story does not appear to be heading for the dramatic crescendo high court showdowns that now haunt both developers and communities in the capital. In fact, for most social housing estates in most places outside London, national government should recognise that the whole story looks very different. As austerity measures have tightened budgets for providers of social housing, budgets to refurbish ageing homes are under pressure to do more with less. With an uncertain outlook for property prices, as well as ample brownfield and greenfield housing sites, estates in many northern towns are not a priority for private investors in property development.

In many towns and cities – across the North and the Midlands – the challenges of a poor quality built environment, a poor choice of homes in the local are, and entrenched deprivation remain serious. The recent reclassification of housing associations into the private sector doesn’t make investing in repairs and renewal more profitable. The bespoke ‘housing deals’ announced show that the government is willing to invest directly – but there is anxiety that devolution to combined authorities simply creates another organisation that needs to prioritise building new homes over the renewal of existing neighbourhoods.


In Rochdale, the RSA is working with local mutual housing society RBH to plan for physical, social and economic regeneration at the same time. Importantly, we are making the case – with input from the community of residents themselves – that significant investment in improving employment for residents might itself save the public purse enough money to pay for itself in the long-run.

Lots of services are already effective at helping people find work and start a job. But for those for whom job searching feels out of reach, we are learning from Rochdale Borough Council’s pioneering work that the journey to work can only come from trusting, personal relationships. We hear time and again about the demoralising effect of benefits sanctions and penalties. We are considering an alternative provision of welfare payments, as are other authorities in the UK. Importantly, residents are identifying clearly the particular new challenges created by new forms of modern employment and the type of work available locally: this is a town where JD Sports is hiring 1000 additional workers to fulfil Black Friday orders at its warehouse.

In neighbourhoods like Rochdale’s town centre, both national government and the new devolved city-region administration are considering an approach to neighbourhood change that works for both people and place together. Redevelopment of the built environment is recognised as just one aspect of improving people’s quality of life. Residents themselves will tell you quality jobs and community facilities are their priority. But without a wider range of housing choices and neighbourhood investment locally, success in supporting residents to achieve rising incomes will mean many residents are likely to leave places like Rochdale town centre altogether.

Meaningful change happen won’t happen without patience and trust: between agencies in the public sector, between tenants and landlords, and between citizens and the leaders of cities. This applies as much to our planning system as it does to our complex skills and employment system.

Trust builds slowly and erodes quickly. As with our other projects at the RSA, we are convinced that listening and engaging citizens will improve policy-making. Most of those involved in regeneration know this better than anyone. But at the national level we need to recognise that, just as the labour market and the housing market vary dramatically from place to place, there isn’t a single national story which represents how communities feel about local regeneration.

Jonathan Schifferes is interim Director, Public Services and Communities, at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).