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The face of the future: the United States and Sweden share the same goals for the environment. We can learn from each other's means of getting there. (Perspectives).

Flying into Stockholm, Sweden, I could see why it's called a green and blue city. Where Lake Malaren meets the Baltic Sea lies a beautiful and spacious city filled with green space. Built across 14 islands, Stockholm gained its well-deserved reputation for forward-thinking urban planning beginning in the 1930s when it sought to adapt its buildings to its landscape. The resulting green infrastructure of parks, natural areas, community gardens, lakes and waterways, treed residential areas, and undeveloped land account for 47 percent of this city of 83 square miles and 750,000 people.

I had been invited to Stockholm for an information exchange on urban ecosystems while speaking at a greenways conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, part of the U.S. State Department's Sustainable Development speaker's project. I explained the urban ecosystem analysis work AMERICAN FORESTS is doing throughout the U.S. to urban planners in Stockholm and also in Copenhagen and Tallin, and learned about their unique sustainable development efforts.

I was particularly curious to see how Sweden, a socialistic country plans and protects its urban forests and how Swedish attitudes, policies, planning, and design differ from ours. I found similar environmental goals but uniquely different methods of coping with dwindling tree cover while contending with growth pressures and the urban ills of traffic congestion, air and water pollution, diminishing open space, and city dwellers who are increasingly less connected to nature.


In the early 20th century, Stockholm's city fathers bought forestland outside the city limits both for future expansion and for recreation. These green wedges of land and water started well outside the city and narrowed as they grew closer, separated by transportation routes radiating out from Stockholm. Many cities throughout Europe have these designated greenbelts, areas dedicated to recreational and ecological use.

More than 90 percent of Stockholmers use city parks and natural areas during the year, 45 percent on a weekly basis. In fact, outdoor recreation is considered "a fundamental and inalienable right." No matter where you live in Stockholm, you're no more than a half-mile from a park of at least 12 acres, designed with safe and convenient access.

Fortunately for Stockholmers, with so much lush green space, their parks offer much more than just recreation. Water filters through trees, vegetation, and soil before slowly seeping into the ground, allowing it to enter streams with fewer pollutants. In new construction projects, landscape architect Clas Florgard told me, Sweden foregoes specific regulations for stormwater management to allow room for innovative ideas--but makes developers liable for any damages that result.

Regardless of where they live, most city dwellers the world over appreciate the beauty of green space, although many don't recognize its ecological value or the threat from urban growth. As director of urban forestry for AMERICAN FORESTS' Urban Forest Center, I'm working to help change that mindset.

In Salem, Oregon, for example, city officials built public support for urban subwatersheds by explaining their benefits on the municipal website. AMERICAN FORESTS created a "green data layer" for Salem that distinguishes tree cover from impervious surfaces and quantifies the benefits of their green infrastructure. City planners will use this information to determine the effectiveness of their tree-related programs and set thresholds for tree preservation and replanting. Planners envision using this layer of data to make decisions on streamside setbacks, riparian corridor protections, and other natural resource planning.


Americans take a very capitalistic approach to green space, one driven by economics and the bottom line. Because city managers and decisionmakers always want to know cost and value, AMERICAN FORESTS developed its CITYgreen software to allow local communities to calculate the ecological and economic value of green infrastructure. The green layer that's created fits seamlessly into local governments' GIS data. Planners and urban foresters throughout the U.S. use this so they can apply the information to local issues.

Swedes, on the other hand, emphasize green structures' ability to provide outdoor recreation and contribute to physical and mental well-being. There is a traditional acceptance of the social and health values reaped from easily accessible recreational areas, and citizens are taxed to provide for outdoor recreation along with their other social programs: education, health care, and retirement.

While we might envy their altruistic efforts, my Swedish colleagues were green-eyed at the role our nonprofits (called nongovernmental organizations or NGOs) play in advocating environmental policies and action. Unlike the U.S., where nonprofits and special interest groups drive change, Sweden's NGO's function primarily as information sources, with national priorities driven by the socialistic government.


Regardless how we approach the problem, our countries share a concern over the constant encroachment of growth and development upon the green infrastructure so fundamental to a city's vitality. In the 1990s, Stockholm's traffic congestion increased and housing needs rose, producing an array of air and water pollution problems, all while the national and municipal economy was deteriorating, and usable land dwindled.

Sweden's National Board of Housing, Building and Planning neatly summarized the problem in a 1993 report that warned: "One of the greatest threats against nature and parks in our cities today is that all too often, planning is shortsighted. . . The green structure of cities is being fragmented. We risk building into nonexistence the important links in a green structure which are needed to build a city based upon ecological principles."

Rather than allow urban sprawl to gobble up its prized green wedges, Stockholm's 1999 Comprehensive Plan adopted the concept of "building the city inward." Similar to concepts promoted by Smart Growth initiatives here, Stockholm's plan called for rebuilding urban areas, concentrating development at public transportation centers, and replacing underdeveloped industrial land and harbor areas in the inner city with mixed use.

A great idea, but how to balance development while protecting precious green areas and maintaining quality of life?

In the U.S., some cities are creating urban growth boundaries. Eugene, Oregon, is one of the first cities in the nation in which planners share their green data layer with other city departments--transportation, planning, urban forestry, and environment, for example--so trees can be incorporated into the city's infrastructure.

Europeans have not had the easy access to imagery that we enjoy in the U.S. thanks to NASA, and so their GIS analysis work is a few years behind ours. Nevertheless, I was impressed with the green map Stockholm's city planners created using aerial imagery. They mapped ecological, recreational, social, and historic resources, recognizing the importance of green "structures" in protecting water quality. Because they recognize that biological solutions use more land than piping and water treatment plants, they strive to connect previously fragmented open space during redevelopment.


Sustainable development--also called low-impact development, permaculture, and sustainability--has been demonstrated both in this country and abroad. The key to a sustainable approach is to include ecology in the development process rather than compensating with expensive and environmentally unsound engineered practices.

In Sweden, I went to the southern city of Malmo for a firsthand look at Augustenborg Eco Neighborhood ( When I met site manager Trevor Graham and learned he had just finished with a French-Canadian group filming a TV program on sustainable development, I knew I had come to the right place.

Originally built in the 1950s, Augustenborg was designed with 1,800 six-story apartments, a school for 600 students, and a public works building. When new, Augustenborg was a bustling community. But by the 1970s, people had abandoned the small two-bedroom apartments for bigger dwellings in other communities. Flooding, always a problem with the city's combined sewage and stormwater systems, grew worse as green space was replaced by buildings, roads, and impervious surfaces. The buildings were not energy efficient and the school grounds were devoid of greenery.

Things began to change in 1998, thanks to a $2.4 million retrofit engineered by the National Ministry of the Environment, the city of Malmo, and developer MKB Housing Company. A new immigrant population considered the apartments affordable and created a market for environmentally adaptive redevelopment. Today Augustenborg stands as a premier European example of sustainable redevelopment. I was anxious to see what kinds of sustainable practices the development's managers had used to resolve each of the all-too-familiar problems that communities everywhere must address.

To emphasize biodiversity, Augustenborg has integrated a wide variety of plants with its stormwater ponds, playgrounds, community gardens, and wildlife habitats. Electric or ethanol-powered equipment decreases noise and pollution levels. The soil is primarily clay, making stormwater infiltration impossible. Instead, a series of channels integrated into the site's design carry the runoff to several ponds, allowing the water to slowly evaporate. One local resident developed self-cleaning drop channels by fitting precisely engineered concrete bumps along the bottom; his patented invention is now available in the U.S.

Innovations are overhead as well as underfoot. When Graham and I visited the public works offices, he didn't show me the inside. Instead, we climbed a small ladder to the roof and I found myself amid a carpet of lush, succulent plants. This ingenious "green roof" design, popular in Germany, absorbs rainwater in layers of succulents such as sedum and moss. The plants grow in a layer of soil, which lies over a drainage layer of gravel, which lies over a nonpermeable membrane that protects the roof structure. According to Graham, a green roof lasts four times longer than a conventional one, which deteriorates faster when exposed to the sun's rays.

Residents of Augustenhorg don't just observe these sustainable systems; they live them. The neighborhood has an admirable 70 percent voluntary compliance for recycling at one of 13 collection centers. In addition to conventional recycling of paper, plastic, cans, and bottles, residents toss gardening and kitchen waste (including meat) into an electric composter with sawdust pellets to absorb extra water. It takes four weeks to produce a batch of compost. The collection centers produce 150 tons of compost per year, which is used by local residents and businesses and is sold to Danish farmers, who don't have livestock and so must import fertilizer. Augustenborg is working toward having a 90 percent voluntary recycling compliance and toward obtaining organic certification so that they can sell to organic farms, Graham tells me.

The community also plans to create the means to produce a substantial portion of their own heat and hot water on site. Augnstenborg currently produces 20 percent of the development's energy needs through solar panels.

Augustenhorg's ecological retrofit shows that transportation, energy, waste, and water systems can be redesigned to use nature's abilities to purify water, generate heat and electricity, turn waste into organic fertilizer, beautify surroundings with landscape and wildlife, and increase quality of life.

Choosing ecological solutions over built infrastructure is a cornerstone for building long-term sustainable cities around the world. Thus far, the Swedish government has adopted this ecological mindset, without the need to justify their urban forests economically as we do in the U.S. The city of Stockholm has recognized that by building inward, mapping green structures, and recognizing the value of surface water filtration, it can accommodate growth while puffing its green structure to ecological use, protecting biodiversity and providing extensive recreational parks for residents.

But more American-like pressures may loom as urban growth pressures increase, Swedish planners told me. And as imagery becomes more widely available in Europe for civic uses, local governments will become more sophisticated in using GIS, not only for mapping but for analysis and planning.

In the U.S., the economic bottom line dictates priorities and decides how funding will be spent. Savvy urban foresters realize they can't promote trees on good looks alone. AMERICAN FORESTS has combined an understanding of urban ecology with GIS technology and packaged a user-friendly method of calculating urban forests as municipal assets.

Our goal is to disseminate these tools to communities in order to change a fundamental mindset of how cities are planned and developed--one where urban ecosystems are planned into urban development. Whether it's a commitment to social ideals or just good economics, sustainable development is the face of the future in every country.

Cheryl Kollin is director of AMERICAN FORESTS' Urban Forest Center.
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Author:Kollin, Cheryl
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:4EUSW
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Previous Article:Time to step up to the middle: what's the best gift we can give the environment in 2003? How about a breather? (Editorial).
Next Article:News from the world of Trees. (Clippings).

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