Interview: Johan Edstav on Sweden’s New Cities

Words by Katie Puckett

Johan Edstav is a Green Party politician in one of the world’s most sustainable countries. So why does he want to build a new city over this field?

We are standing in a big empty field on the outskirts of Uppsala, Sweden’s fourth city. The snowy expanse is broken only by trees, and the occasional farm building or steeply pitched house. But Johan Esdstav sees something else.

“This is the south part of the new city, there might be housing or shops here. The new tram will go somewhere along here,” he makes a sweeping gesture, drawing a track along the field boundary, “and in that direction there.” He squints further into the distance: “Down over the stream, 3 or 4km away, will be the new station. But I can’t show you that because there’s no road there now.”

If Edstav has a good imagination, he needs one. It’s his job to identify potential sites for new cities and then strike deals with local municipalities to make it happen, trading infrastructure investment for large-scale housebuilding. Sweden is one of Europe’s fastest growing economies, but it’s seriously constrained by a lack of affordable housing: the National Board of Housing, Building and Planning says that it needs to build approximately 600,000 homes by 2025. In 2017, 255 out of 290 municipalities reported a housing shortage. The situation is most acute in the Stockholm region, which has a population of 2.3 million and 606,105 languishing on the waiting list for a rent-controlled apartment. 

Sweden’s housing crisis may be extreme but it’s not alone. Like many other countries, it is struggling to balance city prosperity with affordability, help an ageing population to downsize, and decarbonize its economy. What sets Sweden apart is that this small country of barely 10 million has welcomed more refugees per capita than any other in Europe. In 2015, at the peak of the European migrant crisis, more than 160,000 people arrived seeking asylum. Sweden’s immigration policy is justifiably a source of national pride, but it has also raised questions about how so many newcomers can be integrated — or even housed. The challenge for the government is not only to increase a paltry rate of housebuilding, but to plan new developments to bring people together in more cohesive, better functioning communities. The Nordic countries already lead the world in environmental sustainability; now Sweden is seeking to isolate the DNA of the more complex and much less explored social dimension. 

Man for a crisis

This is why a Green Party county councillor appointed by a Green Party housing minister is making plans to build housing on greenfield sites, albeit close to major cities. “We have too few houses in the parts of Sweden that are growing, so the most important thing is to build more,” says Edstav. “If we build more, the queue for rental houses will be shorter.” The field we are standing in is farmland, but it’s not the best, he stresses: “We should take care of the farmland that’s very good, not only in Sweden but in every country. But some of this part, I think we can build on.”

Since coming to power in 2014, the left-of-centre coalition government has succeeded in increasing Sweden’s very sluggish housing construction with the biggest state investment for 20 years. But it’s still nowhere near the target level and piecemeal development just isn’t going to cut it. In November 2016, the government appointed Edstav to think bigger, as national coordinator of a programme to build sustainable cities from scratch. So far, he has secured agreements from four municipalities for seven new areas, about 100,000 homes in total. Uppsala, where Edstav has been a member of the county council for 14 years, has agreed to build 33,000 homes, which could see its population of 220,000 rise by almost half. It will benefit from two new train lines to Stockholm and a new station serving the southern development area.

What makes Edstav’s job harder is that he’ll be trying to steer development at a third remove. Contrary to its image as a “socialist utopia”, Sweden has no social housing. In its egalitarian model, everyone is entitled to the same, which is provided by the market but heavily regulated by the state.

“In many of these areas — not only in Sweden — there are owner-occupied houses in one part and rental houses in another, with a forest in between. The people never meet”

This is why so little has been built since the financial crisis of the early 1990s. Central government sets regulations and standards, but it’s down to the municipalities to ensure that there is enough housing for the local population, or to exercise a veto on new schemes. It is private developers that must come up with viable schemes and deliver them, with the help of Europe’s most expensive construction industry.

Of 45 municipalities Edstav visited, he has made deals with four, though he thinks another five or 10 may follow. What about the rest? “Some of the politicians said ‘we don’t want to build here now, we don’t need to grow’. It’s not so much right wing, it’s more a conservative way of thinking. ‘We shouldn’t be too fast, we don’t need the state to come here’, things like that. If they don’t want it, that’s okay, it’s up to them.”

Markets respond to demand from those who are willing and able to pay. Sweden’s bigger problem is housing for those who can’t: young people and immigrants. Proposed solutions to the housing crisis are often characterized as “more market” or “less market”: the state should lift the burden of regulation, or start building itself. “I don’t think it’s so much about that, thmane discussion has been too simple. Neither of them are fully right. It’s necessary to have some regulation about rents, or there will be areas where people without high salaries can’t move in at all. If you don’t have any regulation, you have a society where politicians and planners don’t have much say and I don’t think that is a good society. But if you have too much regulation on construction, what type of building, how you should build and rents, you will stop development at all. You need to balance it.”

Is Sweden’s utopian reputation fair? “I think we are misunderstood. In many areas we are the most unregulated country in the world.” Sweden is the only European country with no laws on when shops can open, he adds, and its financial regulations are much lighter.

The infrastructure card

Edstav’s unassuming, almost timid manner is married with a clearly genuine conviction in the possibilities of the new cities: he has said that they should be like a permanent World’s Fair. But given the state’s hands-off role, how exactly will he bring this about? His leverage is in the detailed deals with the municipalities and in his killer bargaining chip — transport. The Swedish government plans a Kr700bn (US$73bn) investment in infrastructure over the next 12 years, and it empowered Edstav to offer priority to those municipalities that agree to build housing and meet challenging targets on sustainability. If local politicians don’t deliver the cities as set out in the agreement, they may lose their privileged position. “We could say that we won’t push the infrastructure any more. For Uppsala, it would take another 20 years at least before the track was on the way. But I don’t think it will come to that. The municipalities want to deliver the best they can for the people in their cities and for the state. Otherwise they are building new social problems and it’ll cost a lot to do something about that — it costs more not building right in the first place.”

Local politicians will also be hoping that new connections can placate existing residents. Sweden has its fair share of NIMBYs — it’s the same word in Swedish — and by definition, Edstav wants to increase the population in successful places where not-in-my-backyard sentiment will be strongest and most easily mobilized. Will infrastructure be enough of an incentive? “Yes, I hope so, but it’s necessary to work with them. It is a challenge to make the neighbours see that development will make things better for them too. If you have a new station, prices for the existing houses should go up as well.“

The agreements with the municipalities include a range of targets on affordability, mobility, green spaces and environmental standards — the goal is net zero carbon. They average 30 pages in length; the longest is 46. Edstav’s small team of three will be enlarged into a dedicated government committee, and every year, he will follow up to check that the cities are shaping up as planned.

Learning from the past

The cities’ most important characteristic will be variety — the key to avoiding the mistakes of the past and to creating authentic, functioning places. Sweden’s last attempt to build its way out of a housing crisis was the “Million Programme” in the late 1960s and early 70s. Today, like their equivalents in other countries, those estates have become synonymous with poverty, social segregation and civil unrest — theoretically for everyone, but in practice, housing of last resort. “Much of our planning is about making sure that the social sustainability is better than it has been,” says Edstav. “In the 60s and 70s we built a lot because it was necessary, but it was just one type: rented houses on a very large scale. In our deals with the municipalities, we’re very clear that they should not just build houses for rental or houses for sale. It must be a mix, and the population should be mixed, in age, in income levels, in education and in whether you come from Sweden or not.”

Before the Million Programme, there were the “ABC Cities”, supposed to be self-sustaining communities with homes, jobs and entertainment. But industry never came and today they are dormitory towns: the most successful, Vällingby, became the oppressive suburban setting for 2008 vampire film Let The Right One In. “They meant well but they didn’t see the social dilemma. In many of these areas — not only in Sweden — there are owner-occupied houses in one part and rental houses in another, with a forest in between. The people never meet, the kids don’t play together.”

In Edstav’s new cities, there should be something for everyone — in close proximity: “For social sustainability, you need different types of people. Children develop better in mixed schools than in classes where everyone’s parents have the same background. The goal is that some of the houses will be for elderly people, some for younger people, some for people who are just coming out of university and getting their first home, others for the people in the middle, who want to buy a larger flat when they have kids, and there will be more exclusive homes for people with higher salaries.”

Balancing act

Edstav’s work has inevitably come to the attention of the far-right Swedish Democrats, the third largest party, currently polling at 19%. “People have called me from the far-right saying ‘why are you planning these new areas for the refugees?’ I say they’re not for refugees, they are for anyone who wants to live there. It has nothing to do with the refugees, it’s for the whole population of Sweden. And some of them are refugees, of course.” Did that satisfy them? He laughs ruefully and shakes his head: “No.” The reality is that Sweden’s poorest and newest citizens are unlikely to be able to move in. The high-performance new homes will be expensive, and with rental housing allocated by time spent on the waiting list, those who’ve just arrived find themselves at the back of the queue. They will have to wait for cheaper, older housing to be freed up.

Creating a socially sustainable city is about more than affordable housing. Edstav is aiming for “safe, friendly” neighbourhoods, with a mix of local shops and restaurants. “Of course, you’ll go into the city if you want to buy clothes or other things, but if you have what you need for a week, I think it makes people want to live there.” Perhaps cultural institutions could be relocated from existing centres: “It’s important for the municipalities to make some cultural investment in the new areas. Otherwise people will just come to sleep and go away to work. A successful housing area is a place where people want to be in their spare time. The new areas will be successful when the shops and workplaces are closed and people are still walking around and going to cafes and things like that. I cannot express it better than it should be a good feeling to be there.”

What about jobs? Transport is not just a bargaining chip, it’s an essential component of helping the cities to flourish. “If you plan areas close to the railway station for commercial development from the beginning, you can get enterprises to go there. In [the ABC cities], very few people walk or cycle to work because it’s too far. If you can put new jobs next to a station, it’s easier for people to get to and it’s easier to get entrepreneurs to set up there. Some workers may come from the new areas but others will be travelling in, so it’s essential that enterprises are close to very good communications. The more changes that are necessary on public transport, the less attractive it will be. Transport is the key to it.”

Edstav was impressed by a visit to Utrecht in the Netherlands, where the Central Station area is being rebuilt: “You can see that entrepreneurs are moving in. If you have a very good transport hub, it’s possible.” He’s also visited Freiberg, renowned as Germany’s most sustainable city and a similar size to Uppsala, and in turn, hosted a delegation from China. Closer to home, he cites Linköping in the middle of Sweden, where a sustainable new district is under construction: “They have built culverts for all the pipework and cabling instead of burying it, so you don’t need to dig up the streets to repair or replace it. It’s much more expensive at the beginning, but it shouldn’t be over the lifecycle.”

“I think we are misunderstood. In many areas we are the most unregulated country in the world”

Laboratory cities

Edstav wants the new cities to be laboratories for digital solutions, with state subsidies to de-risk the investment. “When you’re building new places, you have the chance to build all the infrastructure from the beginning and test new technologies. So we have discussed that these should be innovation areas. A laboratory for Swedish companies to see how the technology is working and that it’s economical.”

These subsidies will be written into the deals, but not the specifics of the technology. “It’s very difficult because you can’t see what will be possible in five or ten years. So we have more discussed a framework around how you can test new things, how you get companies to want to try it and the municipalities to try something new.”

They will also be testbeds for new construction techniques — low-energy developments have been expensive, but Edstav doesn’t think that they have to be: “Many are very expensive in other ways — they use very high specification for flooring and kitchens, for example. You can build houses that are cheaper and still have a good energy performance by focusing more on the structure and insulation, and using prefabrication.”

For Edstav, the biggest risk to the new cities is a repeat of the economic crises that shook Sweden in the early 90s and, to a lesser extent, after 2008. “If we take too many years before starting up, the people who have had these discussions will not be there any more and we will lose momentum.”

City planning is an unavoidably long-term pursuit — but Sweden is approaching a general election in September. The Green Party has never been part of the government before, and with polling showing a diminished 4% of the vote, there’s no guarantee that it still will be after the election. Is progress reliant on the Greens holding on to the housing minister post? “No, I think it will still live on. Here in Uppsala, we have eight parties and seven of them were for this deal, so even if we change majority here or in central government I don’t think it will change anything, because this is necessary. Otherwise we will still just build for the people who can afford it, and we won’t get this social mix.”

Swedish housing history is littered with well-intentioned failures, and there’s a lot riding on the success of the new cities — for the health of the economy and society more broadly. The difference this time is that state spending on infrastructure is being directly linked to municipal responsibility for housebuilding, which should result in more effective town planning: “To make an area where people want to move to, I think it’s necessary for society to plan it together. We don’t have a very good history on this, but we are a learning people — I hope.” 

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