Fifty shades of green: reflecting on a decade of environmentally-driven innovation in Stockholm

Scandinavia is often a byword for environmentally driven innovation, and a wander through the Swedish capital proves the city is green in more ways than one.

Monday, 23 March 2020,
By Ben Lerwill
Picnic in Djurgarden, Stockholm
Picnicking in the park at Djurgarden, Stockholm's leafy green heart. The Swedish capital is a standard-bearer for environmentally-conscious urban innovation, and was the inaugural European Green Capital in 2010.
Photograph by Alamy

I’ve spent the past hour walking through Stockholm. So far I’ve passed a heron, several dozen blue tits and a noisy flotilla of barnacle geese. Every 10 minutes or so, fellow walkers pass by in the opposite direction, raising gloved hands and giving muffled greetings from behind scarves. Above our heads, tall fir trees and sturdy oaks look out across open stretches of breeze-ruffled water. If this is urban living, it’s not exactly conducive to stress. 

Stockholm might have forged a name for itself as a Nordic capital on the razor’s edge of cool, but away from the tech start-ups, cobbled streets and fashion stores, it’s also something of a green haven. Here in Djurgården, a huge island park almost bang in the middle of the city, I’m shown a rather different side to the Swedish capital. 

Linked to the downtown area by bridge, the west of the island is home to some of Stockholm’s largest museums. “The busy end,” explains a dog-walker, with a wry smile. But the rest of Djurgården, which measures around 2.5sq miles in total, is a rolling mass of waterside woodland, thick with trees and laced with hiking and cycling paths. Wandering its trails makes for a refreshingly pastoral way to spend a couple of city-break hours — although before you start panicking about wilderness survival, be aware that it also has a fairy-lit organic cafe, Rosendals Trädgård (the cinnamon rolls here are a must-try).   

Stockholm, which is famously spread across 14 islands, is green in more than just the literal sense. This year marks a decade since the city became the inaugural European Green Capital in 2010, and it remains a forerunner in terms of serious eco-credentials. The current aim is to become completely fossil fuel-free by 2040 (the initial goal of 2050 was scrapped for not being ambitious enough), and more than 90% of hotels in the city now have some kind of environmental certification. Stockholm is also, of course, the hometown of Greta Thunberg. It’s been less than two years since the youngster’s first lone vigil outside the Swedish parliament, but the intervening months have sharpened public awareness around environmental issues, here as much as anywhere. In mid-2019, a survey showed that 37% of Swedes were choosing trains over planes where possible, compared to just 20% 18 months earlier. Should you be keen to reach Stockholm by rail, incidentally, seat61.com offers a two-day itinerary from London, overnighting in Hamburg, from around £85. 

One of the clearest examples of the city putting its krona where its mouth is came in July 2019, when the decision was taken to scrap the annual Stockholm Fashion Week, instead focusing on holding a more sustainable alternative. Jennie Rosén, CEO of Swedish Fashion Council, explained at the time that “we need to put the past to rest and stimulate the development of a platform that is relevant for today’s fashion industry… in order to support and prepare the industry for the future.” 

Back on my island walk, meanwhile, brands and catwalks seem distant concepts. The few buildings I pass are grand, gated mansions surrounded by trees. Footpaths trace gentle curves around the water’s edge. More than 30% of Stockholm is covered in green space, and the forested folds of Djurgården feel rooted in another age. I’m following a looped route around its perimeter, and at one point attempt a shortcut that results in me walking further than I would otherwise have done. I take it as Stockholm’s way of telling me not to rush things. 

Across the water, a handsome old customs house sits on the shoreline of the laid-back Södermalm district. When it was built more than a century ago, it oversaw goods coming in and out of the city. Today, it’s home to Fotografiska, the largest photography museum in Europe. It stages heavyweight exhibitions, has an award-winning green-ethos restaurant and states its goal as being ‘the most interesting place to show photography in the world’. And this, perhaps, hints at what makes Stockholm the city that it is; whether through art or the environment, this is somewhere that always aims high. 

Published in the European Cities Collection, distributed with the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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