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How Stockholm is building for social integration

Published in collaboration with The Local.

Stockholm is the fastest-growing capital in Europe, and as the population increases so does demand for housing and public infrastructure. There’s much to be done to make sure this growth is positive. From building more homes to imbuing neglected neighbourhoods with a sense of community, steps must be taken to accommodate for the expansion.

Building for better social integration is one of the key future challenges that the city is focusing on. It’s been a priority for Stockholm-based urban planning consultant, Mia Lundström, for several years now - and something she is working to improve throughout the city.

“Without social integration, people don’t meet each other or come to understand different cultures. This leads to conflict, which in turn causes a lot of damage both financially and on a personal level.”

Mia has recently been tasked with supporting a regeneration project planned in Kista, a district in the north-west of Stockholm - strategically located between the airport and the city centre. It’s one of the world’s leading ICT clusters, with head offices for companies including Ericsson, IBM, and Fujitsu based there.

It’s also home to one of the city’s largest immigrant neighbourhoods, inhabited by a blend of ethnic groups including Somalis, Bosnians, South Americans, and Iraqis. With no cultural connection to the area, one challenge has been getting the residents to feel pride in their neighbourhood.

“Right now there are about 25,000 people working in Kista, and also about 12,500 people living there. But these groups never meet and come from different backgrounds. It’s my job to make Kista more attractive to all these people.”

And with around 6,000 new housing units planned for the district, it’s a top priority to transform it sooner rather than later.

Fortunately, if anyone is equipped to guide the change, it’s Mia. She’s just wrapped up a similar project in Jakobsberg, a district in the Järfälla Municipality just 10km northwest of Kista.

She was initially commissioned by three Swedish property developers who had bought a piece of land in the area. The municipality owned the land and agreed to sell it on the condition that the developers initiated the process of improving the area for locals and tourists.

The two-year project helped to transform the area into a destination people wanted to visit, invest in, and are proud to call home.

“I always work with what’s already there. So in Jakobsberg, we worked with Kvarnbacken,” she said, referring to a wooded hilltop near central Jakobsberg where an iconic windmill once stood.

“We also ran a design workshop in a local shopping mall and got the kids to draw pictures of lampposts which we then created and installed. So someone could say, ‘My brother designed that lamppost!’”

We also ran a design workshop in a local shopping mall and got the kids to draw pictures of lampposts which we then created and installed. So someone could say, ‘My brother designed that lamppost!’
Mia Lundström

She also recruited the local youth in an attempt to inspire them to “claim” their neighbourhood.

“Over two summers I hired 110 kids aged 16 to 18 to work in Kvarnbacken and make it their own space. All of a sudden kids were talking about Jakobsberg with pride, saying things like ‘I live in Jakobsberg and this is my favourite spot!’. When I meet a 15-year-old that didn’t relate to an area but now does then to me that’s a success.”

It’s about, Mia says, engaging people and making them feel proud of their local area. It’s a concept she plans to recreate in Kista, and one that she hopes will generate the same success.

Kista and Jakobsberg aren’t the only areas getting a facelift. Similar plans are underway elsewhere in Stockholm, with big development projects in the pipeline for Slakthusområdet, the city’s historic meatpacking district just south of Södermalm, and Skärholmen, a suburban district in south-western Stockholm where a high concentration of immigrants live.

Another example is the building development in Umami Park in Sundbyberg, a municipality just north of the capital. The multifunctional new area will include around 900 new residential units, shops, restaurants, meeting places, and open spaces. The availability of clean, attractive, and safe spaces is a key component of successful social integration.

Like Mia, the group behind the project, property developer Wallenstam, aims to improve the existing neighbourhood by respectfully developing what is already there. To improve social issues in the area, they have also been working with the organisation Project Playground to give local refugee children a space where they can try different sports, feel safe, and be part of a community.

But all this is just one piece of the puzzle. Another solution to this complex issue is the management of public infrastructure, such as developing and maintaining a clean and efficient railway network.

Paul van Doninck and Ann Wiberg from Jernhusen, a state-owned company that owns and runs Swedish railway stations and the buildings attached to them, believe cooperation is key to social integration.

“Stockholm takes social integration very seriously, and we are just a part of the solution by making sure everyone feels welcome and respected in the areas where we work,” says Paul.

“Cooperation is something we really focus on,” he adds. “No-one has the magic solution to create a socially sustainable society. It’s something many stakeholders need to work together on and that is the way we approach this.”

No-one has the magic solution to create a socially sustainable society. It’s something many stakeholders need to work together on and that is the way we approach this.
Paul van Doninck

Working closely with municipalities, Jernhusen looks to solve problems together, finding solutions to local needs which often differ widely. In Stockholm, for example, those local needs include having indoor and outdoor meeting places, and making it as easy and pleasant as possible for people to travel around the city.

“We’ve recently built part of the city station Citybanan as well as a new multifunctional building just beyond it in central Stockholm,” explains Ann. “It has the station, a hotel, and apartments. The whole area around the building has been upgraded a lot, so it’s inviting for people to go there. We’ve also built a rooftop garden, so everyone - visitors to the city and Stockholmers - want to go there.”

Facilitating safe travel and maintaining clean, attractive buildings along the railways is Jernhusen’s primary focus. Not only does this help people to safely get one from place to another, it also stimulates social integration.

“The whole concept of having a well-functioning public transportation that becomes a viable alternative to owning a car leads to increased social integration,” Paul explains. “And then managing those public spaces in a way that respects the rights of everyone is how we sustain it.”

As with any public space, social issues exist but Jernhusen is doing everything it can to respectfully address them.

“In Stockholm, we've seen groups of refugees that see the station as a meeting point - not because it’s what they love to do, but because there are no other options. It’s something we try to address because we feel the station should be used for its primary purpose.”

In response, the company has developed an initiative for younger refugees to introduce them to youth workers, using cricket as an icebreaker. There is also a degree of homelessness or people with substance abuse, which the company deals with on a case by case basis.

“We do not choose to just push away the problems,” Paul says. “We try to deal with them in cooperation with those who are trained at doing so, like NGOs, churches, or in some cases, the police. We have different approaches, but we target the root cause rather than treating the symptoms.”

Like Mia, they believe that now it is more important than ever for the city to work together to achieve a common goal of a more integrated society.

“In society at large there’s a lot more focus on these issues because we’re all confronted with them in a different way from ever before,” says Paul. “No-one can turn a blind eye.“