Who is more responsible than a gull who finds and follows a meaning, a higher purpose for life? For a thousand years we have scrabbled after fish heads, but now we have a reason to live -- to learn, to discover, to be free!
-Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
Sometimes I wonder how many U.S. urban planners have ever visited cities and towns in other countries. I say that because there are so many lessons U.S. planners can learn from abroad, especially today when we need to efficiently use our resources while also accommodating a growing population. Sweden is one country with sensible urban planning principles I would love to see implemented in the U.S., and after spending three months there, I noticed how people-friendly public spaces were. Although I didn't explore the entire country, I am pretty sure there are no struggling/desolate downtowns as there are in the U.S. and I attribute this to generous investment in non-vehicular transportation and carefully controlled development (aka, no unchecked sprawl).
Of course, Sweden doesn't always get it right. In 1935, a cloverleaf interchange known as Slussen was built right in the middle of Stockholm; currently, the city is redeveloping it to be more bike/ped/transit friendly as well as attractive and functional. In Gothenburg, European route E6 slices through historic neighborhoods and attractions (Liseberg, for example), although the city fortunately imposes a congestion tax like that of Stockholm. And of course, it is worth mentioning that with the recent influx of refugees and immigrants, the majority of these folks are placed in isolated, suburban housing with little stimulation and this has created many social tensions.
So what specifically is Sweden doing to make its urban spaces more people-friendly? Here are the top five amenities I noticed, and if the country would please please *please* add water fountains, that would be great. (Not even gyms had water fountains. Seriously, what is up with that?)
1. Public restrooms
This amenity really *really* makes sense. Touristing with the kiddos and suddenly the urge strikes their little bladders? Clean, free restrooms mere steps away, coming right up. Bouncer kicked you out of the bar without allowing you the opportunity to relieve yourself? Fear not, alleyway dumpster, public toilets are here to save you. The public restrooms I saw around Sweden were attractive (many in Gothenburg had green roofs), clean, plentiful, and free. On the well-trafficked sidewalks, public WCs were booths that doubled as advertising space. I can't think of any reason why every urban space can't have public restrooms.
2. Public transportation
Sweden is really on top of its transit game and the country notorious for efficiency has not overlooked bus/train/tram/ferry/bicycle/pedestrian amenities. Not only is the system pet-friendly, but it is also pretty friendly for strollers: most trains and buses I saw had low floors, designated space aboard for strollers, and free fare for pram-pushing parents. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the transit user to pay the fare and swipe their pass when they board, as Sweden (thank goodness) doesn't make riders inefficiently enter in the front to pay the driver or swipe their pass. Lastly, in Gothenburg all of the bus/tram stations had a TV screen with real-time arrivals, which I found to be much more accurate than Google Maps. And it goes without saying that all of the transit stops were covered and had a bench, even in the remote countryside. Winning.
3. Crosswalk indicators & motion sensors
As someone who gets around town usually as a pedestrian or cyclist, I really appreciated Sweden's crosswalk set-up. Most of the signals were motion-activated, thus making it easier and faster for cyclists and pedestrians to cross safely. (There are still buttons to press in case someone's presence isn't detected, and bike crossing buttons are thoughtfully extended so cyclists don't have to do the awkward-slash-annoying dismount.)
4. Stroller/bike ramps
These simple tracks really make life easier for people pushing prams or bikes up the stairs. (I am not sure if they are suitable for wheelchairs and mobility aids, but I would guess that some are.) No need for an elaborate ramp, just install the tracks atop of the steps and voilà, accessibility.
5. Spaces for children (and dogs)
Kids live like kings in Sweden, meaning that many public amenities are little people-friendly. As I mentioned above, it is fairly effortless to get around Sweden with a stroller and/or pet, which makes life that much easier. For children, almost every neighborhood has a playground. The gym I went to had childcare (I believe it was included with membership) and stroller parking. Public buildings, like museums, libraries, and airports, all featured ridiculously precious and whimsical play spaces (don't forget to remove your shoes before entering!). But since I don't have children yet, I made due toting Mango around town where he was welcomed in most cafes, bars, restaurants, and shops.