Madonna and I arrived in Helsinki at about the same time, though more of her fans showed up at the airport than mine. She was in town to give a giant outdoor concert at a 250-acre site called Jätkäsaari that’s mostly bare, flat land now but had until recently been a busy industrial harbor. I was in town, in part, to talk with people about plans to turn that bare, flat land into a mixed-use neighborhood after the pop star vacated the premises.

     With more than 125 miles of shoreline, the Finnish capital draws much of its character from the water. Until last year, a pair of large container ports—Jätkäsaari on the west and Kalasatama on the east—controlled some of the best views in town and cut off large swaths of prime real estate from the rest of the city. After nearly two decades of planning, Helsinki opened a new port, Vuosaari, last November further away from downtown and closed the older facilities in Jätkäsaari and Kalasatama. Now the city is ready to build roads, infrastructure, and a winding park in Jätkäsaari and is approving plans from developers to build housing for 14,500 residents. Plans call for the first people to move into the neighborhood in 2012 and the last buildings to be finished in 2020. Work on Kalasatama will start a year or two later than its west-side counterpart and will continue until the early 2030s.

     Both areas share a common design DNA: pedestrian-oriented master plans, mass-transit connections via both subway and surface trams, mid-rise apartment blocks, and public access to the waterfront. Because the government owned the harbors, it could control development here in a way that’s not quite so easy in American cities. From the renderings I saw of the neighborhoods and from a walk around Arabianranta—a former industrial area that has already been converted to mostly residential use—the architecture will be Modern but not radical, glassy but green.


blog post photo
Waterfront housing in the redeveloped Aurinkolahti area of Helsinki.


     “Our goal is to keep Helsinki a compact city,” says Annukka Lindroos, deputy director of town planning. One of the fastest growing cities in Europe, Helsinki has 578,000 residents in the city proper and expects to have 620,000 by 2020. To accommodate more people, the city will expand vertically, relying on apartment buildings with five-to-six floors and a few towers of 15-16 stories. You won’t find American-style sprawl here.

     Two hundred and fifty miles west, Stockholm is pursuing an urban strategy similar to Helsinki’s. With 820,000 residents in the city and 2 million in the metropolitan area, it’s Helsinki’s bigger, more cosmopolitan cousin. And it’s growing by about 10,000 people a year (in the city) and 20,000 (in the metro area). So it too has been converting close-in industrial areas into residential neighborhoods and making sure they’re connected by mass transit.

     I checked out one of these places, Hammarby Sjöstad, taking the subway and then a tram. The trip took just 20 minutes from Central Station and cost 40 kroner ($5.60). Cell phones and Blackberries work in the subway here, so you’re connected in more than one way. Started in 1996, Hammarby Sjöstad has 19,000 people living in 7,500 apartments now. By 2016 or 2017, another 3,500 units will be built and the neighborhood will be completed.

      Sited around an existing canal and lake, Hammarby Sjöstad enjoys a direct relationship to the water and every apartment has at least one balcony or outdoor space. Planners originally figured empty-nesters would be the primary residents here. But the area has attracted more families than expected and 11 percent of the population are children under the age of 5, reports Erik Freudenthal, head of communications for GlashusEtt, which serves as a visitors and information center for the neighborhood. So the authorities are busy building extra elementary schools.


blog post photo
7,500 apartments have been built so far in Hammarby Sjöstad and most are on a canal or lake. 


     Before my trip, some people described Hammarby Sjöstad as an “eco-town” and a model for sustainable development. “Eco-town” may be pushing it a bit, since the project represents environmental strategies that are now more than 10 years old. But it’s a compact, walkable place where 79 percent of work travel is by mass transit, bike, or foot, reports Freudenthal. Storm water, rain water, and snowmelt are collected and treated locally. Recycling bins are everywhere and a central system collects food waste so it can be converted into either fertilizer or heat. Strict codes ensure that environmentally friendly materials are used during construction and no more than 10 percent of construction waste can be diverted to landfills. Solar cells and biogas supplement traditional sources of energy.

blog post photo
Built on a series of island, Stockholm retains the charms of previous centuries but continues to grow.


     “Twenty years ago, people thought Stockholm had grown enough,” reports Gunnar Soderholm, director of the city’s environment and health administration. “Now most want it to grow and become a major European city.” But they expect this to be done in an environmentally sustainable manner. The city’s goal is to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions per person from its current 3.7 tons per year to 3.0 in 2015 and zero in 2050. The city started congestion pricing on traffic in January 2006, reducing traffic by 20 percent and travel times by 30-to-50 percent, according to Soderholm. Roughly 80 percent of city apartments are connected to the municipality’s district heating system, which gets 80 percent of its heat from fossil-free sources such as hydro- and bio-energy.

  I didn’t find Madonna in Stockholm, but was impressed by the rich stock of 17th, 18th, and 19th-century buildings occupying a series of islands connected by bridges, subways, trams, and buses. I did find Ingmar Bergman—or at least one of his early films, Summer with Monika—playing outdoors at the courtyard in front of the City Museum one summer evening when the sun finally set around 10. Munching on stekt strömming or fried Baltic herring purchased at a nearby kiosk and watching Bergman's 1953 love story, I got a sense of why many people call Stockholm one of the world's most livable cities—at least during the summer.


blog post photo

Ingmar Bergman's 1953 film Summer with Monika plays outdoors at the Stockholm City Museum.