Here's how the Swedish capital changed the debate on urban transportation

Stockholm's city hall. Image: Martin Savén.

There are already more people living in urban areas than in rural ones; the UN Population Division predicts that almost 70 per cent of the world’s population will crowd into cities by 2050. How can these urban centres remain liveable and attractive without razing buildings and parks to make way for ever wider highways? 

Part of the solution is changing the perspective of the public debate. The example of Stockholm holds insights which can be applied to other cities facing similar challenges.

In 2013, the Swedish capital adopted a new urban transport strategy called the Urban Mobility Strategy, as a part of the policy initiative to tackle increasing congestion. It attempts to move away from a traffic-planning system centred on automotive transport, to one that takes into account other modes of transports, such as buses, trams, a subway system, bicycles and walking. 

Over the past six years alone, Stockholm’s population has grown 16 per cent to just shy of one million – a figure demographers in 2007 predicted would only be reached only by 2030. With forecasts now moved forward by a decade, Stockholm faces a difficult challenge to retain a high level of urban mobility.

The city has already implemented some progressive measures to reduce congestion, but it is hardly enough to keep up with the growth figures.  Some 80 per cent of commuters into the city centre use public transport during peak hours. The implementation of a congestion charge since August 2007 continues to effectively reduce traffic and commuter delays. But despite such policies, the city is seeing increasing congestion.

Increasing mobility, not increased traffic

Stockholm is working with both supply and demand of mobility to mitigate congestion. First, by planning the city more densely, Stockholm aims to reduce the demand for transportation, while maintaining the advantages of living in a city with an attractive offering of employment, housing and recreation. With more of these offerings more compactly co-located, other modes of transport than the space-demanding car become more attractive: in particular cycling and walking, which require less space and have a high capacity.  

An extract from the English version of Stockholm's Urban Mobility Strategy.

Secondly, the city’s goal is to make the transport infrastructure more efficient, by transporting more commuters and deliveries on the same road infrastructure: in essence, it's increasing the supply of mobility. 

The city’s Urban Mobility Strategy began by asking: what do Stockholm’s inhabitants need as they go about their daily lives? Their answer: urban transportation for commuting to work, school, recreation, as well as allowing for deliveries so that there is food in the grocery store and paper in the office. Speed, reliability, and commuter comfort are important aspects that need to be taken into account when choosing how to manage urban transportation. But not every journey has the same needs.

When the efficiency of different modes of transport is compared, cycling, walking, and public transport win out over cars in terms of capacity and road-surface. This is especially true if there is only one person in the car, as is often the case in Stockholm and many other cities of the world. The UMS, accordingly, gives priority to these more efficient modes of transport. The aim has been to shift the focus from a mode-of-transport oriented focus to a mobility-oriented focus: that is, from what can be supplied to what is demanded.

Political landscape, process and implementation

Cycle lanes, parking fees, and bus lanes create excited debate as soon as change affects people’s everyday lives. As soon as it’s a question of “my” commute, voters and politicians have a hard time seeing the bigger picture. As a framework, the UMS has helped facilitate the political public discussion, shifting the debate from one particular mode of transport to the more general questions of mobility. Most citizens use many different modes of transport, juggling different identities. They are cyclists, drivers, public transport passengers and pedestrians all at once. 

The UMS structures the discussion by looking at the “exchange rate” at which road surface is traded between different modes of transport, i.e. as the number of people transported per unit of time. In turn, the debate has become more focused on the distribution of capacity rather than the specific advantages of one mode of transport over another. 

The distinction is crucial. The UMS has reshaped the debate on urban mobility by changing the public discussion and helping to explain and convince the people of Stockholm what measures need to be taken for the city to continue to thrive and develop. Stockholm's experience with the UMS shows that communication and dialogue are important tools when cities around the world tackle the challenge of congestion and urban mobility.

Martin Savén has previously worked as an advisor to the Mayor’s Office in Stockholm, and is now studying for a Master of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. 

The Blavatnik School of Government exists to inspire and support better public policy and government around the world. The Challenges of Government Conference – “Flourishing Cities” on 11-12 December will explore new ideas to tackle the impacts of rapid urbanization across the world.

 
 
 
 
 

Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.