The new urban dream

  • 30/05/1993

The new urban dream WHEN THE Swedish municipality of Overtornea declared itself an "eco-municipality" (See box), the eco stood for ecological. Today, it is increasingly identified as also meaning economic -- an indication that environmental concern is becoming an integral part of rising urban living standards, rather than a rural luxury.

Orebro, one of Sweden"s most environmentally advanced cities, is located about 175 km west of Stockholm. Orebro"s environment plan ranks long-term ecological gains higher than short-term economics: "When conflicts arise between the interests of society in safeguarding the environment, the latter must be given precedence, via the organised, democratic forces in society. When conflicts arise between short-term employment factors and environmental considerations, precedence must be given to what nature can withstand. Otherwise, in the long run, employment also will be threatened."

Overtornea and Orebro are not isolated cases. There are 14 other eco-municipalities and some eco-buildings in Sweden and a growing interest in urban ecocycles -- a concept that can help break the destructive unsustainability of cities and towns.

"Cities are impossible," says Swedish physical planning minister Gorel Thurdin. "To survive, cities have to import their food, energy and resources from constantly expanding surrounding areas. In doing this, cities consume more and more resources and export corresponding amounts of residual products such as air and water pollution, and solid waste. This negative trend has to be broken. In the long run, our ecological cycles must come full course if humanity is to survive."
Access to nature With a population of 8.5 million -- 86 per cent of whom live in cities -- and plenty of land and natural resources, Sweden has long had the advantage of a deeply-rooted tradition of "right of public access to nature". This means that anyone can roam freely the countryside, pick berries and mushrooms or camp anywhere for the night.

The new emphasis on the urban environment itself completes a satisfactory cycle, for, as in other industrialised nations, environmental problems were first detected in urban areas. The roots of Swedish environmental policy lie in early 20th century urban health care. Sanitation was then a major problem and residents often suffered from poor health. Waste water and refuse were transported to rural areas, in the belief that lakes and watercourses served as natural means of purification.

With the advent of sewage pipes, the water-closets came into use and doctors advocated their speedy introduction as the solution to urban health problems. But water-closets gave rise to new environmental problems on a regional scale. These included eutrophication of lakes and rivers as a result of increasing nitrogen content in water released by sewage treatment plants and a rise in the level of heavy metals in the Baltic Sea. These new problems arose because the earlier problems were simply shifted from the street to the water and from one generation to the next, instead of being solved. By the 1930s, for example, swimming off Stockholm"s beaches was declared unsafe and the city"s annual swimming contest had to be cancelled.

It was not a sustainable approach and subsequently, the industrial methods used to tackle local problems contributed to equally unsustainable global problems, such as acidification, forest death, greenhouse effect, endangered species and ozone depletion.
Localising responsibility In the 1980s, the focus expanded from major point emissions to an array of emissions from traffic, agriculture, goods and materials. To achieve sustainable development, environmental policies would have to be governed by the precautionary principle and focus on means of solving problems at source.

Changes in the handling of environmental problems have led to changes in the role of the state, with the country"s 286 traditionally strong, local municipalities taking on still more responsibility.

Sweden has a long democratic tradition, with perhaps one of the world"s most highly decentralised local administrations. Each municipality levies its own taxes and is responsible for many institutional activities, such as day nurseries, care of the elderly, education, libraries, waste management and sanitation, some of which are state-subsidised.

It is generally left to each municipality to decide land utilisation, what will be built and where. The municipalities alone have the right to draw up and adopt physical plans for their areas and since last year, they have been free to establish their own agencies and boards.

Swedish municipalities are also individually responsible for:
Comprehensive environmental planning
Management of operations that disrupt or help the environment, such as collection and treatment of waste water and refuse
Production of energy and water
Public transport
Education on environmental issues in schools and nurseries
Supervision of environmental and health protection under such laws as the Food and Chemical Products Act.

The trend towards eco-municipalities and "green cities" is a reflection of the desire to give higher priority to environmental issues. All the municipalities began by formulating environmental goals that are followed up and revised regularly. They also changed their daily work routines and practices and formed in most cases, an environmental delegation or committee with strong political support, allowing it to work more freely and unconventionally than existing bodies.

Cooperation with trade and industry, with environmental organisations and with the public, has increased substantially and in a manner that can be characterised as open, technically and institutionally innovative and with a holistic view of environment and development. Experiments in technical infrastructure have become an important part of the work. A new concept of "planning by doing" is evolving.

Campaigns to promote more environmentally friendly shopping, washing and living have become integral parts of the work of innovative municipalities. Public interest in environmental issues is high, but getting people to change their habits is difficult. Vision, creative thinking and visible examples are required, as well as a switch from "top-down" to "bottom-up" policies, in order to enable individuals to be active, rather than passive, participants. Local-level organisations, including municipal and civic bodies, thus gain importance, because it is at this level that all practical decisions about implementation are made. However, it is important that all these decisions result in everyone striving worldwide for sustainable development: "think globally and act locally".

Most urban technical infrastructure has consisted of large-scale, supply-oriented systems that no individual can be expected to comprehend fully. If supply flows are integrated into the ecological cycle and waste products returned, wherever possible, to the source in the system, environmental problems can be reduced. If more energy and staple goods are produced locally, if technical systems are made more comprehensible, and if individuals can affect them, these smaller-scale local ecological cycles may be the ideal model for sustainable cities.

Much development work in Sweden is oriented towards finding practical solutions in this direction. A massive expansion of modern waste water treatment plants in the 1960s resulted in reduction in pollution of lakes, rivers and the sea. The water was again made fit for swimming, and fish species that had been eradicated returned. But the technicians were over-optimistic about the purification technology"s capacity. Contemporary environmental work is, now, focussing on purification at source. Catching pollutants before they reach the water is an important part of the ecocycle-oriented approach.

Biological measures such as reinstating wetland areas, establishing coastal beach zones, changing the drainage system of ditches and streams and establishing non-cultivation zones with natural vegetation along watercourses are all examples of alternatives to traditional "concrete-and-pipe" solutions.

Energy options
An important new step in modern waste management in which many Swedish housing companies take part is separating waste at source rather than at a single central point and composting biological waste. In the 1920s and 1930s, for example, dustbins in the yard for multi-family houses began to be replaced by garbage chutes from each storey of the building -- a system patented by the Swedish cooperative apartment company HSB. The company is now engaged in developing methods for source separation and setting up apartment house blocks with full ecocycles, where all biological waste is treated in thermally-insulated composters.

Sweden"s dependence on imported oil has been substantially reduced through energy conservation and use of electricity from hydro and nuclear power. But because nuclear power is not a sustainable solution, the country"s energy system is to be refocussed on solar and bio-fuels. The decision to phase out nuclear power by 2010 does not seem possible with the present government banking on a market that seems to be in no mood to accept a nuclear phase-out. For the moment there is an impasse. Despite its cold climate, Sweden has developed solar collector technology for both large- and small-scale applications that have been used for energy-efficient buildings even in the middle of densely-constructed inner city areas of Stockholm. While no formal targets have been set for solar power and biofuels, partly because of the continuing wrangle over nuclear energy, tax breaks and subsidies encourage their use.

One group of experimental houses in Orebro has been developed for people suffering from electricity allergy -- a new phenomenon about which little is known, but which seems to be linked to excessive use of computers.

The transport sector is one of the most difficult areas to shift towards sustainability. But changes in mode of transport and introduction of clean fuels are necessary to reduce noise and vehicle emissions. Stockholm decided that "planning has to be concentrated on doing away with diesel-fuelled vehicles within five years and petrol-fuelled ones within 15 to 20 years". As a result SL, the Stockholm mass transport company, has introduced ethanol buses. Its fuel is produced in northern Sweden using by-products from a sulphate pulp mill. However, Stockholm is far from being capable of meeting the target.

A relatively large proportion of travelling in major cities, especially in Stockholm, is by public transport, largely because from 1945 to the mid-1970s housing programmes were coordinated with the development of the underground and commuter train systems. However, since the mid-1980s, travel by public transport has dropped, and the number of private vehicles increased because of increasing urban sprawl.

Now, for short distances and in smaller towns, the bicycle is the final environmental alternative and its use is increasing in many cities. One reason for this is the development of exclusive bicycle paths from outlying areas into city centres.

---Tommy Mansson is a senior engineer-economist working as an environmental specialist for the Swedish government. He is author-editor of Ecocycles, on which this article is based.

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