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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Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.

Funding

The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.


Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  

Problems

A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.