Stockholm could teach Abu Dhabi a few green lessons

The Swedish city has a surprising amount in common with Abu Dhabi in its outlook on sustainable living and cutting carbon emissions, and the way it has developed its approach could provide some useful lessons for the UAE capital.

The area's reed park provides a pleasant place to take a quick lunch break. Casper Hedberg for the National
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They are poles apart in climate, but Abu Dhabi and Stockholm have a surprising amount in common.

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For a start, they are both built on clusters of islands, imposing special challenges for urban planners. That similarity was never more striking than at present, when many fear global warming will raise sea levels worldwide.

Beyond that, each city is the capital of an energy country - oil in the case of the Emirates; hydro-electricity in Sweden.

For different reasons, Abu Dhabi and Stockholm also aspire to burn less fossil fuel, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and set regional standards for sustainable living.

The main difference between the two is Stockholm has by far the longer history of commercial and industrial development and has had decades to learn to mitigate the undesirable public health and environmental impacts of heavy industry. It is only in the past few years that Abu Dhabi has started diversifying its oil-based economy.

Meanwhile, Stockholm has become a European and global leader in sustainable development. Last year, it was picked from a field of 35 entrants as the European Commission's European Green Capital of the Year in the first year the title was awarded.

That was partly on the strength of Hammarby Sjostad, an old industrial and harbour district of Stockholm that is now a flourishing modern residential area, home to more than 16,000 people. Stockholm also scored points for initiatives to extend lessons learnt from the project to the city as a whole.

"It is easy to believe when you come here that Stockholm was always this clean, but it's not true," says Annika Raab, the project manager at the city's Urban Environment Advisory Board that aims to build on its green city reputation by carrying its sustainability message to the rest of the world. "A hundred years ago we were one of the dirtiest, most polluted cities in Europe. We had lots of factories close to water and 50 years ago you couldn't eat the fish from the lake.

"Today the lake can be used for drinking water and recreation, and the fish are again safe to eat. It goes to show that it's never too late to improve and that political decisions made now will have effects that last for years or decades."

The lakeside eco-community of Hammarby Sjostad was designed with an integrated approach to energy, waste and water management that aimed to cut the district's carbon footprint in half while enhancing, instead of undermining, its natural advantages.

Preliminary work in the early 1990s to achieve the metamorphosis pioneered an interdisciplinary approach to urban planning with decisions taken by a unified management team to which several city authorities contributed staff.

The departments had seldom co-operated previously because they were fierce rivals for funding and other scarce municipal resources.

Thus Hammarby Sjostad became a pilot for holistic approaches to environmentally friendly community development.

Although there were teething problems, the project has worked well as a whole. It now attracts 13,000 international visitors a year - including delegations from Masdar City, the Abu Dhabi Government's showcase development aimed at building a carbon-neutral community on a stretch of desert just outside the capital.

Hammarby Sjostad is also the acknowledged inspiration for China's Tianjin Eco-City built for 500,000 residents.

Visitors are eager to learn about the Stockholm eco-district's mix of energy-efficient housing, extensive walkways and bike paths, watercourses and public green spaces that include: a reed park with wooden docks; its rooftop solar power systems and gardens; its convenient public transport system incorporating biogas-fuelled buses, an electric light-railway and ferries during summer; and its district waste management system featuring underground vacuum tubes that suck sorted rubbish into central recycling and processing facilities.

Food waste is biodegraded to yield gas and organic fertiliser. Combustibles are incinerated in high-efficiency furnaces, yielding thermal energy for district heating and power generation. The community's wastewater is treated for use in district heating and cooling, while its sewage is biodegraded as a further source of biogas and fertiliser.

The Swedish capital's next district project - an initiative to promote inner city development and limit urban sprawl - will seek to transform the polluted Royal Stockholm Seaport area into an integrated residential and commercial centre. Five years ago, the city persuaded the Stockholm bourse to move to the area to anchor a new financial district for the city.

Part of the project involves reclaiming contaminated land around a gas plant. Lacking conventional natural gas resources, Stockholm used to derive its municipal gas supply from imported coal, through an industrial process that converts carbon and steam into flammable gases. It was toxic waste from the coal that poisoned the land. The city has since switched to using domestically generated biogas supplemented by imported natural gas.

One of the most challenging aspects of the seaport development, says Jonas Claeson, an urban planner and architect, will be to manage the 11 architectural firms expected to work separately or together on the various phases of the project. The decision to use multiple firms represents a deliberate move away from unified design. The idea is to add interest to the built environment with a variety of forms, materials and textures.

Long-term goals for the port community include cutting carbon emissions by almost 60 per cent by 2020, becoming fossil-fuel free by 2030, and adapting to possible climate change effects such as rising sea levels. A less formal goal is to modify people's habits and behaviour so the next generation of Stockholm residents does not inherit environmental problems.

The "gas town" community will be wired with the latest smartgrid technology to make it easier for residents to save energyby running appliances during off-peak hours, among other means. They will be able to choose whether to allow the combined electricity and communications grid to programme such tasks automatically, or to participate actively in fine-tuning the system.

"It doesn't matter how energy efficient the house you build is if the people in it are not living in a sustainable way," says Mr Claeson.

Fortum, a Finnish energy company, is designing Royal Stockholm's energy system. The firm has made an intriguing discovery: its customers no longer make all their energy choices based on price.

Rooftop photovoltaic systems are growing more popular in Sweden, but not because solar power is cheap or efficient in that cold and cloudy country. Instead, the rooftop systems ease fears about energy security - a sensitive topic in much of Europe.

"A lot of consumers are willing to pay more for electricity if they can produce it themselves," says Per-Oscar Hedman, the communications manager of Fortum. "We have to face reality, so why not provide a system to enable them to do that?"