Last semester, I took a course with Dr. Whitworth titled “Sustainability: Economic, Environmental, and Social Justice.” We covered a whole array of topics from food systems to consumer habits to housing and urban development. During our discussion of the latter topic, Hammarby Sjöstad, an urban residential development in Stockholm, was put forth as an example of progressive, sustainable housing. As such, I planned to visit the neighborhood while in Stockholm to see if it really lived up to what we had discussed.
I chose to analyze Hammarby Sjöstad as my cultural artifact for the trip because, upon asking the concierge how to get there, I was bombarded by a rant on how the “greenness” of the neighborhood is a “myth.” She told me it wasn’t worth it to go there, an opinion seconded by the receptionist who also told me it was “all BS” (his words, not mine). On the other hand, Dr. Whitworth had commended this development as an advancement in sustainable living, and the advertisements for the neighborhood touted how eco-friendly it was supposed to be. Naturally, my interest was piqued by the two conflicting views I had been given of Hammarby Sjöstad.
So, I decided to venture out there anyways with a few of my wonderfully obliging peers to see what it was like for myself! There had to be a reason for this discrepancy in perceptions, and I wanted to see what the reality was.
My conclusion was this: Hammarby Sjöstad indeed has many sustainable aspects to it, but for some Swedes, it’s simply not enough. Brooke and I spoke with a resident of the neighborhood who was out watching his daughter play in the community sandbox. He had been living there for three months and had chosen to move out there to be closer to nature (the neighborhood is roughly three miles from the city center). He told us that he had six different waste bins for sorting trash, which he takes to the pneumatic disposal tubes that transport it to the on-site recycling and composting facilities. His residence is equipped with water- and energy-efficient features, he has easy access to multiple public transport options with a new Metro station opening across the street soon, and he is able to work out in the local outdoor gym or go hiking in the nearby parks if he so wishes. Moreover, the neighborhood was built on a site that was formerly an industrial area, reclaiming land that might have sat unused for years. Yet, as we plied him with questions about the neighborhood, I got the sense that while each of these eco-friendly aspects are good and helpful, to some they may seem like small drops in the bucket of solving our Earth’s environmental issues.
(Pneumatic disposal system.)
The concierge I spoke with had a great number of concerns about the environmental well-being of Sweden and the planet as a whole. She lamented that people could no longer safely swim in the waters off of Stockholm due to pollution; the daily Stockholm newspaper now includes a Water Quality Index to publicize how good or bad the water is each day. She also claimed that environmentalism was limited to the middle class because of its extra costs. What I sensed from her complaints was that Swedes desire a deeper, more systemic change to advance toward a cleaner, greener future. While Hammarby Sjöstad is a step in the right direction, perhaps they feel that it is too highly lauded given the small impact it has compared to bigger issues like ocean pollution or nonrenewable energy consumption.
In reality, both the little and the big changes are important. The “greenness” of Hammarby Sjöstad is not a myth, and I would love to see similar developments pop up in the U.S. because these neighborhoods have the potential to improve the environment and people’s quality of life. However, we can’t get so caught up in the small improvements that we fail to address the larger, more complex environmental issues as well. The tension that Hammarby Sjöstad has apparently created in Swedish dialogue demonstrates this clearly.