This City Report is written following the Metropolitan Field Trip to Stockholm and Oslo from September 23 to 27, organized by Stipo and Inspiring Cities together with Pakhuis de Zwijger, Deltametropolis Association and AIR, in the context of New Europe – Cities in Transition. We were travelling with a mixed group of interdisciplinary people passionate about cities. The aim of the series of excursions is to learn from each others perspectives and contexts in order to inspire new ways of tackling urban issues. With a background in psychology and urban sociology my focus was on social themes and attitudes interacting with city life. After having spend limited time in Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen, on professional as well as on personal account, I can not say I am close to a profound understanding of Scandinavia; but this Metropolitan Field Trip did help me to recognize some valuable aspects that we can take from dipping into these cities.
Prior images of Scandinavia
Preparing for the fieldtrip I recalled my prior experiences with the Nordic countries. I always had a special feel for Scandinavia; in movies and series broadcasted by the VPRO, which I used to watch as a child, there was always this amicable atmosphere; something familiar. The image of a happy family, living in modesty in a cosy home, surrounded by nature, in their developmental process already far beyond the concept of material wealth. That was one of my earliest ideas of Scandinavia. Despite the fact that until three years ago I had never been in any of these countries, I always felt connected. During travels as a dutch blond person you are easily conceived as part of ‘the Nordic countries’.
Two years ago my attention was caught when the NPO broadcasted the documentary series ‘Licht op het Noorden’ (‘Light on the North’), in which philosopher Stine Jensen promises to show Scandinavia behind the cliches and stereotypes. While there was a broad range of topics covered, some specific images and concepts got stuck in my mind. I looked up these specific segments when organizing a movienight in preparation of the Metropolitan Field Trip.
The first concept that intrigued me was that of ‘Lagom’, interweaved in Scandinavian culture and translated as ‘in-moderation’, ‘just the right amount’ or ‘perfect-simple’. People explained that they grew up with this idea, just as with the related ‘Law of Jante’; stating that everyone is equal and that ‘average’ is preferred over being ‘better than the rest’. Moderation is preferred and you should not take yourself to seriously. Consequently, it is important to always have an open and mild attitude toward each other and to stay in dialogue. A second notion that I remembered from the series was that various interviewees stressed the importance of being ‘a good person’. There seemed to be an eminent focus on doing ‘what is right’. Being conscious about how you contribute to a sustainable environment was an often mentioned example of this. In line with this was a third and last scene of this Norwegian paddling in a kajak, which I often recall sitting behind my desk. He describes how he said goodbye to office life, preferring an active live surrounded by nature. This struck me since he managed to explain his choice in such a way that it suddenly sounded bizarre, almost scary, that we came to accept that we spend an intense amount of hours sitting, staring motionless at a squared object, only making some slight hand movements. The self-evidentness of this behaviour was suddenly lost, and the consequenting mental problems, caused by a lack of movement and contact with nature, seemed so blatant.
Inspired by these notions I was looking forward to deepen my understanding about the Nordic countries by hearing the stories of locals we were planning to meet during the Metropolitan Field Trip.
The importance of goodness, proximity to nature and moderation
During the trip I kept notes in my phone of statements and situations that interested me, following our meet-ups with local top-down and bottom-up city makers. As I’m going over the keywords and sketches I see a lot of similarities with the earlier mentioned notions and ended up destillating three themes that continued to intrigue me; the importance of goodness, proximity to nature and the concept of moderation. These notions seemed to be interwoven with the way people speak about their city.
Never have I met so many people sincerely engaged in a healthy, sustainable and happiness provoking community. There is for instance Jan Ryden, artist and curator of Färgfabriken, a unique exhibition space and foundation for contemporary art, architecture and discussion, located in an old paint factory in Liljeholmen, Stockholm. He shows us the current exhibition ‘Experiment Stockholm’ and informs us about the urban issues his city is facing. Interestingly, he reflects a certain trust in that, no matter the difference in details, many people have good intentions in relation to city making; ‘We strive for goodness. Everyone wants to do the right thing but we should engage in dialogues about what is stopping the good things that everybody is talking about from happening’. This same trust that good things will override is shared by Amanda Larsson, initiator of Magiska Trädgården; a magical playground for kids and cultural center for the local community. On a hill, surrounded by colourful tree houses and swings, she explains us her philosophy; ‘I could work here with a resentful attitude since this initiative is not supported enough to receive a permanent status, but instead I choose to work with positive energy. I believe that a good attitude will continue to bring new good things.’
Value of nature
In accordance to what was shown in the documentary series, for many people we spoke to an important example of this strive for goodness is how to treat the environment. According to Ryden, when planning your city, it is important ‘to give more nature back than you take’. In every single project we visited, nature was give a prime rol in overthinking the urban processes and planning. This for instance holds for Susanna Elfors, initiator at Hållbara Hökärangen in Stockholm, who is engaged in a project to make the southern neighbourhood of Hökarängen a social, ecological and economically sustainable place. She stresses the importance of having the local community engage in nature to fight social problems and crime the neighbourhood characterised. For Tobias Lind, working for local housing corporation Stockholmshem in Bagarmossen, Stockholm, it is also self-evident that one of the tasks of corporations is to support the community to engage in a sustainable environment. Lind is project leader for “Bagarmossen Smartup”, an initiative that seeks to capture the local commitment to sustainability and strengthen the positive trend in Bagarmossen. The project’s vision is to contribute to a more sustainable neighbourhood by supporting the local qualities and creativity that thrives in Bagarmossen. One part of the project is to turn Bagarmossen into a hub for entrepreneurship, with co-working places and lively local services.
Furthermore, local sustainability also played a major role in the transformation project of the harbour of Oslo, of which we were informed about by the municipality. When in this same harbour we received a sponteanous invitation from captain Hans Jørgen Hamre to take us on his 40 foot sailingboat and enjoy a selfbuilt floating sauna, it became all too clear why nature is valued so much by the residents of Oslo.
But the value of nature is not only visible in the direct envolvement with the environment; there are also some comparisons to be drawn between nature and the way some people spoke about urban processes. Ryden suggests that it might be better to think of urban development as a natural and organic process; instead of implementing huge building projects, it is preferable to make several small mistakes which one is able to correct. Gradually, just as nature works. Nevertheless, he argues that although many people agree on the importance of ‘nature’, as soon as you get into the details of such a concept it appears that one does not always mean the same thing.
Although people tell us about the deviances in perspectives on urban development, it is remarkable how often we are informed about events and experiments organized to engage in dialogues. This openness and mild attitude reminds me of the concept of Lagom; ‘just the right amount’ and ‘in-moderation’. No matter how frustrating some of the local situations seem to us, there is always a certain level of calmness and acceptance which I find intriguing. When speaking to Amanda Larsson, about the fact that her magical playground has to be closed down, our group is clearly upset and we’re meeting the cliches of dutch directness in our suggestive questions and immediate provision of solutions. Larsson herself nevertheless seems to analyze the situation of her project with a moderate and balanced attitude and prefers to continue in dialogue with her ‘oponents’ to try to find each other.
Jan Ryden also stresses the value of organizing dialogues or experiments where people from various backgrounds, such as artists and planners, meet each other and discuss their view on urban issues. He also displays this balanced attitude; ‘Is that what you mean with environment? Well, that is good to know, since it sort of differs from my idea.’
Reflection on the trip
When we reflected as a group on our trip we realized that it is impossible to gain sufficient knowledge to profoundly understand the urban context of the cities we visited. What can we take from these travels then and did we give enough in return? During the brief impressions I had from Stockholm and Oslo I can above all say that it is about perspectives. Our effort to learn and engage in as many local perspectives as possible will change the way we look at our own context and the transitions that European cities are facing. By subsequently sharing our views there is a win-win situation.
If we would impose the concept of ‘moderation’ and ‘perfect-simple’ to what we learned on this trip, it shows that the value is often in the details. At first glance, we might have missed the rebellious attitude we’re used to as a country with a steady growing bottum-up movement, in reaction to the economic crisis. Nevertheless, paying close attention unfolded that there are inspiring implicit notions which can be taken from the trip; the value of articulating trust in each other’s intentions to create a ‘good city’, the idea of using nature and its growth as an inspiration for how we develop our cities, and lastly the encouragement to experiment with an open and balanced attitude with regard to urban planning and our fellow city makers. Sweden and Norway not only embody this last notion of moderation and ‘perfect-simple’ with regard to urban processes; even up to their fashion sense manifests this beautiful ‘less is more’ style!
After having participated in one of the Metropolitan Field Trips I feel that the value of these travels lies in that it trains you in unlocking static thinking. Therefore, the highlight of the trip for me was the video piece of Anna Asplind at the exhibition Experiment Stockholm; who represented just that ambition. During a month’s time this choreographer has “drifted” by bike in Stockholm between two places; the Färgfabriken and Haninge kulturhus. Crossing a suburbian landscape designed for the car, Asplind has taken the time to stop and be present in places made hostile to stay in by the loud noise, threatening speed and brutal form. As a spectator you’re invited to lie down and watch scenes projected on the ceiling of estranged situations in which people are using the urban environment in a surprising way. By opening our mind, breaking our habitual pattern of movements, and letting go of our preconceived notions we can see and experience new things. Isn’t that precisely the aim of the Metropolitan Field Trips? I cannot wait for the next!
Anna Swagerman is working for Stipo, an interdisciplinary team for urban development. In cooperation with Pakhuis de Zwijger and others, Stipo organizes the Metropolitan Field Trips. The team perceives the city from various angles: from urban psychology and planning to the power of art in public space. Based on one of its central concepts like the City at Eye Level, Stipo works on various projects in Holland but also internationally, for instance in Stockholm. Do you want to learn more? Check out www.stipo.nl or email to email@example.com