I would like to start to explore different aspects of sustainability in Sweden. There are many sustainable ideals that are integrated into day to day life in Sweden. I will break them down by different categories I have observed.
Växjö has been called the greenest city in Europe not just for its phenomenal environmental policies but also because it is literally very green (most of the trees have turned orange now). I have noticed a respect for the natural environment in every part of Sweden I have visited, but this is magnified in Växjö.
Here, even more so than other Swedish towns, the trees, lakes, and open spaces take precedence over city development. In the U.S., we build houses around parks and open spaces. There is a division between green space and city space. The natural environment is carefully sectioned off, fenced, and regulated. Here the natural areas are fully integrated among the houses. There is no division between city space and green space. There are parks between apartment buildings and schools in the middle of parks. The natural environment is everywhere.
That being said, there are many city parks, nature reserves, and national parks, which have been given their own space. There are nine parks in Växjö alone. There are 29 national parks in Sweden and 4, 042 nature reserves as of 2013. Sweden also has biosphere reserves, which are areas where human development and natural conservation coincide sustainably. The first biosphere reserve in the world was Lake Torneträsk in Sweden in 1986. There are also biotope protection areas in Sweden, which are small protected tracts of land for special plant and animal species.
These areas are highly utilized. No matter where you live in Växjö, you can walk to a park or lake. Many families, joggers, and bikers utilize these spaces. There are playgrounds in many of the parks (their whimsical play structures have fascinated me), and mothers and fathers actively play with their children at the park instead of sitting on a bench watching them play. There are students studying in the grass and joggers and cyclists utilizing miles of trails.
Additionally, these spaces are very user friendly. There are separate trails for joggers and cyclists (a huge safety issue along the American River Parkway), there are benches and other unique sitting areas even in the most remote nature reserves, there are full recycling collection stations throughout the parks which decreases litter, there are life preservers at regular intervals along all waterways (another huge safety issue that the American River Parkway has struggled with), there are swimming docks at intervals along the lakes and rivers, there is always a kebab stand or cafe in the park, and there is always a park, nature reserve, lake, or river within walking distance.
These spaces are inviting in a way that I have not commonly seen in the U.S. I will speak about my observations of my hometown, Sacramento. Many parks in Sacramento are usually devoid of people or only have children playing on the play structures occasionally. Some parks are home to large homeless populations. Other parks are filled with trash or graffiti. Even protected areas like the American River Parkway in Sacramento have been desecrated with trash and graffiti. Currently, there is a debate happening over how to handle fires started along the American River Parkway by homeless settlements. Sacramento parks are not always safe, clean, inviting places.
It makes sense to charge an entrance fee for rivers, lakes, and other parks in the U.S. for their maintenance and upkeep, but it is really nice here how all these incredible parks in Sweden are free and open to the public. The easy access to parks makes it easier for everyone to enjoy them. Visiting natural areas inspires people to respect and protect the environment. I think part of the difficulty of getting Americans excited about conservation is the complete disconnection between urban life and the natural environment. That partly comes down to money. I know people who would love to visit Folsom Lake or the American River but who cannot afford the entrance fee.
It is also difficult in the U.S. to visit areas around lakes, rivers, and beaches because they are owned by private home owners. In Sweden, the lakes, rivers, and beaches are public areas. I have been amazed by some of the incredible free public spaces. If I lived near these places, I would definitely walk my dog in these parks. For example, the Drottningholm Palace gardens and parks, Sofia Palace gardens, and the Bergius Botanic Garden are all open to the public. Even city roads have been beautifully landscaped and made to be user friendly. Many shopping districts I have seen in Sweden are closed to vehicle traffic. They are dotted with beautiful planter boxes and artful benches. In a way, these are green spaces too.
Växjö was not always the prime example of public space. The city has made many changes to clean its lakes and parks. It has made many improvements to these areas to bring more people to its green spaces to promote sustainable practices. This goes to show any city can make its green spaces inviting and user friendly. I will talk more about the green revolution of Växjö in another post. For now, here are some of my favorite public spaces in Sweden.