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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12 things we learned by reading every single National Rail timetable

Some departure boards, yesterday. Image: flickr.com/photos/joshtechfission/ CC-BY-SA

A couple of weeks ago, someone on Twitter asked CityMetric’s editor about the longest possible UK train journey where the stations are all in progressive alphabetical order. Various people made suggestions, but I was intrigued as to what that definitive answer was. Helpfully, National Rail provides a 3,717 page document containing every single timetable in the country, so I got reading!

(Well, actually I let my computer read the raw data in a file provided by ATOC, the Association of Train Operating Companies. Apparently this ‘requires a good level of computer skills’, so I guess I can put that on my CV now.)

Here’s what I learned:

1) The record for stops in progressive alphabetical order within a single journey is: 10

The winner is the weekday 7.42am Arriva Trains Wales service from Bridgend to Aberdare, which stops at the following stations in sequence:

  • Barry, Barry Docks, Cadoxton, Cardiff Central, Cardiff Queen Street, Cathays, Llandaf, Radyr, Taffs Well, Trefforest

The second longest sequence possible – 8 – overlaps with this. It’s the 22:46pm from Cardiff Central to Treherbert, although at present it’s only scheduled to run from 9-12 April, so you’d better book now to avoid the rush. 

  • Cardiff Central, Cardiff Queen Street, Cathays, Llandaf, Radyr, Taffs Well, Trefforest, Trehafod

Not quite sure what you’ll actually be able to do when you get to Trehafod at half eleven. Maybe the Welsh Mining Experience at Rhondda Heritage Park could arrange a special late night event to celebrate.

Just one of the things that you probably won't be able to see in Trehafod. Image: Wikimedia/FruitMonkey.

There are 15 possible runs of 7 stations. They include:

  • Berwick Upon Tweed, Dunbar, Edinburgh, Haymarket, Inverkeithing, Kirkcaldy, Leuchars
  • Bidston, Birkenhead North, Birkenhead Park, Conway Park, Hamilton Square, James Street, Moorfields
  • Bedford, Flitwick, Harlington, Leagrave, Luton, St Albans City, St Pancras International

There is a chance for a bit of CONTROVERSY with the last one, as you could argue that the final station is actually called London St Pancras. But St Pancras International the ATOC data calls it, so if you disagree you should ring them up and shout very loudly about it, I bet they love it when stuff like that happens.

Alphabetical train journeys not exciting enough for you?

2) The longest sequence of stations with alliterative names: 5

There are two ways to do this:

  • Ladywell, Lewisham, London Bridge, London Waterloo (East), London Charing Cross – a sequence which is the end/beginning of a couple of routes in South East London.
  • Mills Hill, Moston, Manchester Victoria, Manchester Oxford Road, Manchester Piccadilly – from the middle of the Leeds-Manchester Airport route.

There are 20 ways to get a sequence of 4, and 117 for a sequence of 3, but there are no train stations in the UK beginning with Z so shut up you at the back there.

3) The longest sequence of stations with names of increasing length: 7

Two of these:

  • York, Leeds, Batley, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Manchester Victoria, Manchester Oxford Road
  • Lewes, Glynde, Berwick, Polegate, Eastbourne, Hampden Park, Pevensey & Westham

4) The greatest number of stations you can stop at without changing trains: 50

On a veeeeery slow service that calls at every stop between Crewe and Cardiff Central over the course of 6hr20. Faster, albeit less comprehensive, trains are available.

But if you’re looking for a really long journey, that’s got nothing on:

5) The longest journey you can take on a single National Rail service: 13 hours and 58 minutes.

A sleeper service that leaves Inverness at 7.17pm, and arrives at London Euston at 9.15am the next morning. Curiously, the ATOC data appears to claim that it stops at Wembley European Freight Operations Centre, though sadly the National Rail website makes no mention of this once in a lifetime opportunity.

6) The shortest journey you can take on a National Rail service without getting off en route: 2 minutes.

Starting at Wrexham Central, and taking you all the way to Wrexham General, this service is in place for a few days in the last week of March.

7) The shortest complete journey as the crow flies: 0 miles

Because the origin station is the same as the terminating station, i.e. the journey is on a loop.

8) The longest unbroken journey as the crow flies: 505 miles

Taking you all the way from Aberdeen to Penzance – although opportunities to make it have become rarer. The only direct service in the current timetable departs at 8.20am on Saturday 24 March. It stops at 46 stations and takes 13 hours 20 minutes. Thankfully, a trolley service is available.

9) The shortest station names on the network have just 3 letters

Ash, Ayr, Ely, Lee, Lye, Ore, Par, Rye, Wem, and Wye.

There’s also I.B.M., serving an industrial site formerly owned by the tech firm, but the ATOC data includes those full stops so it's not quite as short. Compute that, Deep Blue, you chess twat.

10) The longest station name has 33 letters excluding spaces

Okay, I cheated on this and Googled it – the ATOC data only has space for 26 characters. But for completeness’ sake: it’s Rhoose Cardiff International Airport, with 33 letters.

No, I’m not counting that other, more infamous Welsh one, because it’s listed in the database as Llanfairpwll, which is what it is actually called.

 

This sign is a lie. Image: Cyberinsekt.

11) The highest platform number on the National Rail network is 22

Well, the highest platform number at which anything is currently scheduled to stop at, at least.

12) if yoU gAze lOng into an abYss the abySs alSo gazEs into yOu

Image: author's own.

“For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved”, said Thomas.

Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.

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