Stockholm’s Post War Housing: a Source of Sustainability for the City

Over the next few weeks, the KTH Centre for a Sustainable Built Environment’s blog will look at Sustainable Homes from a rage of different perspectives based on the work of researchers at KTH. In this first post, Erik Stenberg from the KTH School of Architecture introduces us to Stockholm’s Million Homes project areas and asks us to reassess what they give to the city. A short video – cut with some excellent footage from the 1960’s when the homes were built – introduces the Million Homes project and current research. You can find out more about the Centre’s work with Sustainable homes here and may we suggest you subscribe to the blog to make sure you get future posts?

Stockholm: another building boom

Building homes, again, in Stockholm.
Building homes, again, in Stockholm.

Whilst you may think that a skyline dotted with a hundred construction cranes and endless glossy billboards advertising the launch of apartment blocks is a recent phenomenon in Stockholm, it’s nothing new. Stockholm has been subject to wave after wave of housing crises – and subsequent remedial building programmes – over its history. The city, it seems, is more attractive than it plans to be.

Erik Stenberg’s work focuses on the housing construction boom that took place between the mid-1960s and 70s in Stockholm. This is the so-called Million Program Era when Sweden set out to build one million homes for its expanding and urbanizing population.

The project was successful, providing homes for a whole generation. It was also considered an architectural, planning and construction success – at least at the time.

“The millions homes areas led modernist thinking on architecture and urban planning” reflects Erik Stenberg. “The construction process was also remarkable” Erik continues, “innovative apartment and block designs were realized through the production of modular units and, to varying degrees, prefabricated elements that were slotted together at the building site, speeding up production whilst maintaining quality. This hadn’t been achieved before at that scale”.

The Millions Homes area of Tensta, emerging from the wooded landscape outside Stockholm.
The Millions Homes area of Tensta, emerging from the wooded landscape outside Stockholm.

The results were, indeed, remarkable. Bold, elegantly simple housing blocks rose from forest landscapes around the city of Stockholm. The towers and low-rise apartment blocks circled around community resources such as shops, schools, theatres, health-care and sports facilities. These new areas were well-connected to the resources of the capital through new motorways and an expanding network of public transport.

This was top down, large-scale, social welfare state planning at its very best. At the time, the concern was that central Stockholm might be abandoned as people moved out to enjoy the delights of these new suburbs – Stockholm’s iconic department store, NK, even opened a branch in the Million Homes neighborhood of Farsta.

The triumphal opening of NK in the shopping suare at Tensta in the 1960's.
The triumphal opening of NK in the shopping square at Farsta in the 1960’s.

From boom to disaster?

How different the situation is today.

The large-scale million homes suburbs are amongst some of the most deprived and reviled areas of the capital. Their names have become synonymous with deprivation, social tension and neglect. Whilst genuine hardship is encountered in these areas, notably, the media plays a significant role in maintaining the image of the areas as “troubled”.

Images like these dominate perceptions of the Million HOmes areas today in the rest of Stockholm.
Images like these from Husby dominate perceptions of the Million Homes areas today in the rest of Stockholm.

This is a pattern of development mirrored time and time again in post war housing areas across Europe and North America. In many countries the “solution” has been demolition, with blocks of post war housing being knocked down so that cities can start again.

In the midst of this storm, Erik Stenberg’s work challenges us to see the Million Homes era areas again, for what they were meant to be – and what they can still give us.

He champions careful, community-engaged renovation rather than demolition. “These areas were well-built and today provide good homes and communities for many” notes Erik. Whilst modernism might have fallen out of fashion, Erik considered the apartments blocks well designed – and with a nascent potential to be redesigned – see next week’s blog for an example of how this is already happening.

Working with what you’ve got

In this month’s video blog, Erik takes us out to the Million Program era suburb of Tensta, an area where he used to live, to reflect on the design and construction of these still remarkable neighborhoods.

Before we rush decisions aimed at changing the Million Homes areas, Erik wants us to notice and reflect on the value of what is already there. “Sustainability is about managing with and for the assets you already have” he comments. Perhaps a new mind-set is required, rather than new buildings?

See the video here:

Next week Erik will talk us through some of the renovations that are already on-goin in the Million Homes areas, reflecting on how a more gradual and context sensitive based approach to renovation, an “incremental approach” is supporting sustainability goals.

You can read more about Erik’s work here or, if you speak Swedish, hear him on radio here.