Thursday, December 15, 2022

 The Plan for Norrmalm and its Boulevards, Parks, Setbacks, and Grid

I have previously written about Stockholm’s insanely contentious and drawn-out process for drawing up and ratifying a comprehensive city plan.  It proved too complex to ratify a plan for the entire city at one time—the plan for Östermalm was approved first, and Norrmalm followed a while later.  Both of these processes were notable for all of the back-and-forth proposals and counter-proposals spanning over a decade.  I have already covered Norrmalm’s North-South boulevards; in this post I will complete my coverage of the Plan for Norrmalm: its remaining boulevards as well as its parks, setbacks, and grids.   

Reality today.  Orange = St. Eriksgatan.  Red = St. Eriksplan (St. Erik's Square).  Green = Karlbergvägen.  Brown = Vanadislunden.  Pink = Vanadisplan (Vanadis Square).  Yellow = Vasagatan to the south and Torsgatan to the north.  Blue = Odengatan.  Turquoise = Odenplan (Oden Square).  Dark lilac = Kungsgatan.  Purple = Hötorget (Hay Square).  The two dark green parks are Tegnerlunden (the smaller one) and Vanadislunden (the larger one).
Before I get any farther, it would be helpful to know a few Swedish suffixes which appear in many of the place names I mention below:
-gatan = street
-vägen = road
-lunden = grove
-plan = square (as in a urban meeting place)

The Original Idea
The Lindhagen Plan from 1886 featured several East-West boulevards connecting Norrmalm to other parts of the city and beyond.  On the northern side of the district, two boulevards radiated westward from a common start point at Observatorielunden, a green area where an 18th century astronomical observatory is perched on the extremely steep Brunkeberg Ridge.  
Observatorielunden: the steep Brunkeberg Ridge and the 18th century astronomical observatory on top
The northern boulevard was an extension of the already existing Karlberg Allé (today’s Karlbergsvägen) leading to the Karlberg Slott Palace just to the west of the city. The southern boulevard would eventually evolve into today’s street Odengatan; Lindhagen envisioned that it would connect to another boulevard leading up from the southern part of the Norrmalm district and the central train station (today’s Vasagatan and Torsgatan) at a Baroque-inspired rond-pointe (today’s St. Eriksplan or St. Erik’s Square) which then connected across a bridge to the island of Kungsholmen along what is today the street of St. Eriksgatan.   The new part of Karlbergsvägen would be tree-lined like the original allé, but while Odengatan, Vasagatan/Torsgatan, and St. Eriksgatan were to be wide, they would not be particularly green.

Farther south in the district, Lindhagen envisioned another important East-West link from Kungsholmen, over a bridge, across all of Norrmalm, through the Brunkeberg Ridge, and across all of Östermalm.  This link would eventually evolve into today’s Kungsgatan.  It is unclear how Lindhagen planned this boulevard to negotiate the obstacle of Brunkeberg Ridge, but his plan did call for the removal of large sections of the ridge so perhaps this part of the ridge was to disappear also.  

Lindhagen’s plan featured a grid of regular, perpendicular blocks stretching from the city center to the city’s boundary.  Only the diagonal boulevards break the monotony of the grid.  Another break from the monotony of the grid were the numerous green areas: basically all areas of Norrmalm that featured steep, hard-to-develop topography were to be parks in Lindhagen’s plan.  Additionally, all of the blocks in the entire northern end of the district were to be set back from the street, providing a green zone between street and building.  

The Lindhagen Plan from 1866.  Orange = St. Eriksgatan.  Red = St. Eriksplan (St. Erik's Square).  Green = Karlbergvägen.  Brown = Vanadislunden.  Yellow = Vasagatan to the south and Torsgatan to the north.  Blue = Odengatan.  Turquoise = Odenplan (Oden Square).  Dark lilac = Kungsgatan.  The two dark green parks are Tegnerlunden (the smaller one) and Vanadislunden (the larger one).

Lindhagen’s plan was criticized for many reasons including that it was too ambitious, too expensive, ignored topography, and that it affected too much of the already existing urban fabric.  When the idea of a comprehensive city plan was reawakened a decade after Lindhagen’s first proposal, Lindhagen drew up a slightly compromised plan.  In this plan from 1876, all of the above mentioned features are still shown with three modifications.  First, the East-West boulevard of Odengatan has become extremely wide and features a tree-planted allé in the middle of the street.  Secondly, St. Eriksgatan which ties Karlbergsvägen, Odengatan, and Vasagatan/Torsgatan together has also become very wide with a tree-planted allé in the middle, and this boulevard becomes a dividing line between two shifted grids at the western end of the district.  Finally, Kungsgatan is extremely short and no longer cuts across the already developed areas of Norrmalm and Östermalm.  

Lindhagen's revised plan from 1876.  In this plan you can see which blocks were already developed and which blocks represented completely new development.  Orange = St. Eriksgatan.  Red = St. Eriksplan (St. Erik's Square).  Green = Karlbergvägen.  Brown = Vanadislunden.  Yellow = Vasagatan to the south and Torsgatan to the north.  Blue = Odengatan.  Turquoise = Odenplan (Oden Square).  Dark lilac = Kungsgatan.  Purple = Hötorget (Hay Square).  The two dark green parks are Tegnerlunden (the smaller one) and Vanadislunden (the larger one).
A long string of counter-proposals, debates, and votes followed Lindhagen’s revised proposal.  The city building authority and the City Engineer drew up a counter-proposal in 1876 where Odengatan would be moved farther north.  At the eastern end of the district, an existing street would simply be widened.  The boulevard would then jog a block southward to avoid some steep terrain.  The jog would occur in what is today Odenplan, or Oden Square.  Karlbergsvägen would then feed into the resulting square where Odengatan jogged.  The boulevard Vasagatan/Torsgatan leading northward from the train station would continue wrapping around the north end of the district creating a ring road, but there would be no rond-pointe and the few blocks to the west of the ring road would hang awkwardly outside of the main mass of the city.  Karlbergsvägen would be planted but Odengatan and Vasagatan/Torsgatan would not be given trees.  Kungsgatan would be extended through the existing urban fabric to the square at Hötorget.

This counter-proposal would result in a much less green city than Lindhagen’s plan as it allowed for only one block-sized park in all of Norrmalm: Tegnerlunden.  Additionally, no blocks would be set back providing front gardens as in Lindhagen’s plan.

The city's counter-proposal from 1876.  New blocks are shaded in pink, already developed blocks are grey.  Green = Karlbergvägen.  Brown = Vanadislunden.  Yellow = Vasagatan to the south and Torsgatan to the north.  Blue = Odengatan.  Turquoise = Odenplan (Oden Square).  Dark lilac = Kungsgatan.  Purple = Hötorget (Hay Square).  The sole dark green park is Tegnerlunden.
A vote in January of 1877 set a few parameters that were somewhat of a compromise between the two competing plans (although the debate would continue unabated for some time yet).  According to the vote, Odengatan would jog, two streets (Karlbergsvägen and Vanadisvägen) in Norrmalm would have setbacks, Vasagatan/Torsgatan/St. Eriksgatan would act as a ring road and connect to Odengatan at a small green square (St. Eriksplan), the blocks to the west of St. Eriksgatan would be disjointed from the rest of the city, Kungsgatan would not cut through the densely developed city center, and Norrmalm would feature two parks—the small, block-sized Tegnerlunden as well as a large park at Vanadislunden.  In this way, Norrmalm would be punctuated with green even if it wasn’t as green as Lindhagen had envisioned.  A new plan was drawn up in 1877 showing the result of this vote.        

The plan after the January 1877 vote.  Orange = St. Eriksgatan.  Red = St. Eriksplan (St. Erik's Square).  Green = Karlbergvägen.  Brown = Vanadislunden.  Yellow = Vasagatan to the south and Torsgatan to the north.  Blue = Odengatan.  Turquoise = Odenplan (Oden Square).  Dark lilac = Kungsgatan.  Purple = Hötorget (Hay Square).  The two dark green parks are Tegnerlunden (the smaller one) and Vanadislunden (the larger one).  
Lindhagen accepted most of these compromises but in a counter-counter-proposal from 1877 he was adamant that Odengatan should provide a better connection to the island Kungsholmen, it should be straight, and it should be wide and parklike.  Lindhagen drew a larger green square at St. Eriksplan where Odengatan and St. Eriksgatan would connect to Kungsholmen.  St. Eriksgatan was once again drawn through the middle of the district instead of as a ring road, and while this boulevard would provide a boundary between two distinct areas with shifted rectilinear grids, the blocks to the west of the boulevard would still be an integral part of the city.  He also insisted on one more green space at the western edge of the district bordering the Karlberg palace park.  

Lindhagen's counter-counter proposal from 1877.  Orange = St. Eriksgatan.  Red = St. Eriksplan (St. Erik's Square).  Green = Karlbergvägen.  Brown = Vanadislunden.  Yellow = Vasagatan to the south and Torsgatan to the north.  Blue = Odengatan.  Turquoise = Odenplan (Oden Square).  Dark lilac = Kungsgatan.  Purple = Hötorget (Hay Square).  The two dark green parks are Tegnerlunden (the smaller one) and Vanadislunden (the larger one).

The city prepared another counter-counter-counter proposal in 1877 where Lindhagen’s pleas for Odengatan, a larger square at St. Eriksplan, a more integrated western part of the district, and a park at the western edge of the city were ignored.  However, the city was now proposing that Kungsgatan should, much like Lindhagen’s plan from 1866, cut across the already-developed central part of the city to link Kungsholmen, Norrmalm, and Östermalm together.  

The city's counter-counter-counter proposal from 1877.  In this map, new blocks and new streets through developed areas are outlined in pink.  Red = St. Eriksplan (St. Erik's Square).  Green = Karlbergvägen.  Brown = Vanadislunden.  Yellow = Vasagatan to the south and Torsgatan to the north.  Blue = Odengatan.  Turquoise = Odenplan (Oden Square).  Dark lilac = Kungsgatan.  Purple = Hötorget (Hay Square).  The two dark green parks are Tegnerlunden (the smaller one) and Vanadislunden (the larger one).

This “new” idea for Kungsgatan was deemed too ambitious and expensive by others in the city administration, and after several hearings and votes, the city was back to the same proposal as before, although now Lindhagen’s idea of a straight (but not tree-lined) boulevard for Odengatan had won out by one vote.  St. Eriksplan lost its greenery in this plan.  In this proposal, Karlbergsvägen split off of Odengatan a bit west of where Lindhagen had shown the split; the split is at today’s Odenplan (Oden Square). 

The city's counter-counter-counter-counter-proposal from 1878.  Red = St. Eriksplan (St. Erik's Square).  Green = Karlbergvägen.  Brown = Vanadislunden.  Yellow = Vasagatan to the south and Torsgatan to the north.  Blue = Odengatan.  Turquoise = Odenplan (Oden Square).  Dark lilac = Kungsgatan.  Purple = Hötorget (Hay Square).  The two dark green parks are Tegnerlunden (the smaller one) and Vanadislunden (the larger one).

In 1878, Lindhagen insisted once again that it was important to provide a good link between Norrmalm and Kungsholmen and he drew another plan where he accepted the new proposal for Odengatan but moved the proposed bridge.  This alignment allows St. Eriksgatan and the blocks to the west of it to be more of an integral part of Norrmalm.     

Lindhagen's counter-counter-counter-counter-counter-proposal from 1878.  Orange = St. Eriksgatan.  Red = St. Eriksplan (St. Erik's Square).  Green = Karlbergvägen.  Brown = Vanadislunden.  Yellow = Torsgatan.  Blue = Odengatan. 
The Decision
When the city’s plan with the narrower Odengatan was sent to the King for ratification, the King sent it back saying that it did not adhere to the Building Code of 1874 which required broad avenues throughout the city to stop the spread of fires.  The king asked the city to widen Odengatan from 30 to 42 meters, but Lindhagen stepped in and said that the boulevard should either be wide enough to accommodate a green strip in the middle, or it should remain at 30 meters.  According to Lindhagen, 42 meters would be an awkward width.  The King accepted Lindhagen’s judgement and the plan was ratified in 1878.      

While Lindhagen did eventually win out by one vote for the straight Odengatan, his ideas for Vasagatan/Torsgatan/St. Eriksgatan, a more natural link to Kungsholmen, a green square at St. Eriksplan, and the western shifted grid were not included in the ratified plan for Norrmalm.  However, the plan would continue to evolve before the entirety of Norrmalm was built out and these Lindhagen ideas would eventually make their way into later iterations of the official city plan.

A map from 1887 with the ratified plan drawn in.  Red = St. Eriksplan (St. Erik's Square).  Green = Karlbergvägen.  Brown = Vanadislunden.  Yellow = Vasagatan to the south and Torsgatan to the north.  Blue = Odengatan.  Turquoise = Odenplan (Oden Square).  Dark lilac = Kungsgatan.  Purple = Hötorget (Hay Square).  The two dark green parks are Tegnerlunden (the smaller one) and Vanadislunden (the larger one).  

The Result
The much debated Odengatan 

did end up straight but is now tree-lined, even if it is nothing like the parklike Karlavägen.  Odenplan (Oden Square) is not green as first envisioned but is instead a very urban, busy square punctuated by the church rising at one end.  

Odenplan (Oden's Square)
Karlbergsvägen is also tree-lined and its wide setbacks have created a lusciously green oasis in the middle of the dense city structure which real estate prices reflect.  


The eastern part of Vanadisvägen is tree-lined with setbacks, but further west, the setback is replaced by a planted strip toward one side of the street.  


Vanadisvägen’s trees do provide some much-needed greenery in the otherwise dense city structure, and they do provide a continuous green connection between the parks of Vanadislunden and Rödabergen, but the overarching impression is not nearly as verdant as Karlbergsvägen.     

In the end, the boulevard leading up from the train station to St. Eriksplan and beyond was built much as Lindhagen envisioned, complete with the awkward crook and hop at about the halfway point.  Vasagatan is currently in the process of being planted today and will soon be a more pleasant place to stroll, 

but Torsgatan is very much a thoroughfare.  Its southern end is quite dead and while it does get more lively north of St. Eriksplan, it is still very trafficked.  

Torsgatan's southern and northern sections
There is also a lot of traffic on St. Eriksgatan but being tree-lined makes it a more pleasant place to stroll and to lounge outside at cafés and bars. 

St. Eriksgatan
St. Eriksplan or St. Erik’s Square did end up being a bit of a green oasis though with the large and leafy Vasa Park just across the street, there’s generally not a lot of people hanging out in the square. 

St. Eriksplan (St. Erik’s Square)

The northern blocks of Torsgatan and St. Eriksgatan provide an interesting apples-to-apples comparison of how small tweaks in the urban environment can cause big effects and create entirely different qualities of life.  Both of the streets are heavily trafficked thoroughfares leading out to the suburbs and they are both lined with apartment buildings of approximately the same height, style, and time period.  St. Eriksgatan is slightly wider than Torsgatan and is planted with trees (sometimes only on one side, sometimes on both sides, depending on the block) while Torsgatan is barren of greenery.  These trees between the sidewalk and the street make a world of difference: suddenly the trafficked thoroughfare becomes a pleasant place to stroll and to hang out at café and bar sidewalk tables.  St. Eriksgatan is lined with restaurants, bars, cafés, shops, salons, and even a theater while Torsgatan is nearly devoid of commercial and cultural activity.  

Torsgatan on the left, St. Eriksgatan on the right

Interestingly, the city ended up building a rond-pointe at Vanadisplan that doesn’t appear in even Lindhagen’s earliest, most extravagant proposal.  Vandadisplan or Vanadis Square is a large, grass and rose-planted roundabout at the junction of the tree-lined St. Eriksgatan and the tree-lined, setback Vanadisvägen.  Unfortunately, the current crosswalks at Vanadisplan are situated so that the green roundabout acts more like a barrier than as a conduit from one greenspace along Vanadisvägen to the next greenspace at the top of Rödabergen.  The relatively easy act of moving the crosswalks would make it much more natural for pedestrians to move through the city from one greenspace to another. 


In the ratified plan of 1878, Kungsgatan would be unchanged from its existing status.  It would not be widened into a boulevard, and it would not cut across the Brunkeberg Ridge to connect to Östermalm.  However, this part of the plan would be revised just a few months later and a more modern boulevard would eventually be built here in 1911.  


All in all, Norrmalm would be built out much like this ratified plan from 1878, but some of Lindhagen’s original ideas would creep back in.  For example, the only parks in the ratified plan are Tegnerlunden

and Vanadislunden,

but a several more areas with steep topography including Rödabergen, Hälsingehöjden and Vasaparken

would never be developed but would eventually be reserved as parks.  The northern part of Norrmalm is now strewn with small pocket parks, making this area one of Stockholm’s greenest despite its density.

Dark green = all of Normalm's parks today (I have not included churchyards as parks)

Torsgatan was built as a neighborhood boulevard instead of as a ring road, making the area west of the boulevard an integral part of the district.  These blocks would be built on a shifted grid as Lindhagen had proposed so that bridge to Kungsholmen could lead directly from St. Eriksplan instead of being a jog from this node.  

Furthermore, a few small neighborhoods deviate completely from the ratified plan.  Because the steep areas were the hardest to build upon, they were the last areas to be developed.  By that time, planning ideals had changed and the rectilinear grid system was no longer the ideal du jour.  A more romantic view of planning coupled with the challenging topography resulted in a few small neighborhoods where the planning diverges drastically from the unwavering, rectilinear ratified plan from 1878.

Diverging neighborhoods are bordered in red.

These divergent neighborhoods provide a welcome contrast to the dense city which was built according to the ratified plan from 1878, but without the ocean of rectilinear blocks, the deviating islands wouldn’t be special oases.  It is my studied opinion that cities need both a background as well as occasional counter-points.  This is just as true for individual buildings as for entire neighborhoods and districts.  Without a calm “background,” cities become too disjointed and chaotic.  And without the eye-catching “counterpoints,” they become too monotonous and dull.            

The Atlas Området or Atlas Area, one of the more romantic, divering neighborhoods in Norrmalm/Vasastan

Real estate prices show that the population prefers to live in the diverging neighborhoods over the more common areas with a rigid grid system.  This isn’t just because these neighborhoods are a little different—I think it has much more to do with the lower scale, increased coziness, and the sense of living in a small, defined neighborhood amidst a big city.

The diagonally thrusting boulevards create a sense of dynamism in the neighborhood and a contrast to the otherwise regularly marching street grid.  This dynamism is not only because of the accompanying traffic and speed and commercial activity, but also because the diagonal thoroughfares leave non-rectilinear blocks which promoted a more prominent, dominant architecture than the general background architecture.  

Norrmalm/Vasastan has been much criticized for its high density and especially for the large courtyard buildings which cause the inner courtyards to be cramped and dark.  I can agree with this criticism—we briefly considered buying one of these courtyard apartments at one point in time but ultimately decided that the long, linear, dark courtyard was too impersonal and that the apartment was also too dark and furthermore we didn’t like that our windows would look directly into the apartment across the courtyard creating a complete lack of privacy while in the apartment or on the balcony.  The later diverging neighborhoods with their lower scale and absence of courtyard buildings are a pointed reaction against the crowded turn-of-the-century blocks.

Left: A turn of the century block where the center of the block is filled with courtyard building.  Right: A slightly more recent block where the courtyards are not filled in with buildings.

The ratified plan of 1878 is a much watered-down version of Lindhagen’s vision, for better and for worse.  However, enough of the essential ideas of the Lindhagen Plan survived and still other of his ideas crept back into later revised city plans to make Stockholm one of the world’s most beautiful cities and Norrmalm/Vasastan a very desirable, livable neighborhood.

Gösta Selling, Esplanadsystemet och Albert Lindhagen: Stadsplanering i Stockholm åren 1857-1887 (1970)
Thomas Hall, Stockholm: The Making of a Metropolis (2009)
Thomas Hall, Huvudstad i Omvandling (2002)
Alla Tiders Stockholm (2014)

All of the images are my own except for the maps which come from
Gösta Selling, Esplanadsystemet och Albert Lindhagen: Stadsplanering i Stockholm åren 1857-1887 (1970)

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

 Brunkebergstunneln – The Brunkeberg Ridge Tunnel

The Brunkeberg Ridge (Brunkebergsåsen) has been a major barrier between the Norrmalm and Östermalm neighborhoods since the beginning of Stockholm’s history.  

Brunkeberg Ridge

The southern end of the ridge was slowly hacked away over time because it was a good source of building material, and as the ridge disappeared, it became possible to follow a mostly level path from Norrmalm to Östermalm along the water’s edge.  The ridge never disappeared entirely, however, and it continues to be a barrier between the neighborhoods to this day.  As the city expanded northward, this barrier became more and more troublesome—to get from one side to the other, one either had to make a long detour to the water’s edge or one had to climb up and over the ridge, not an easy task when heavily burdened.

A not terribly accurate map from 1637 with Brunkeberg Ridge marked in red ***

I’ve found very little documentation about planning discussions about the tunnel.  Because it would have made transportation of goods and people between the two adjacent neighborhoods so much more convenient, the idea for the tunnel must have been born early in Stockholm’s history, but a lack of technology and funding would have made the tunnel a pipe dream until the mid 1800’s.

The first evidence I’ve found of the tunnel is in Wallström and Rudberg's General Plan for Stockholm from 1863.  This was Stockholm’s first attempt at a comprehensive city plan and while W&R’s plan generally ignores issues of terrain, it was very focused on traffic issues.  A tunnel through the Brunkeberg Ridge would definitely have facilitated transportation between the two districts.  

Wallström and Rudberg's General Plan for Stockholm 1863 included a tunnel *

I’ve found no evidence that Lindhagen’s plan takes Brunkeberg Ridge into account at all.  Lindhagen drew a major boulevard straight through the ridge, and it is unclear how this boulevard was supposed to negotiate the terrain.  Other parts of his plan involved removing sections of the ridge completely, so perhaps Lindhagen’s plan for the through-ridge boulevard also involved removing the ridge.  

Lindhagen's Plan from 1866 did not include a tunnel *
In all of the aftermath of Lindhagen’s proposal with all of the counter and counter-counter proposals and back-room negotiations, the tunnel appears in one lone scheme that part of the city council drew up in 1877.  Here, the tunnel is part of a conscious effort create efficient transportation between Norrmalm and Östermalm.  However, the idea was not popular with other city entities because a tunnel would need constant surveillance and lighting, both costly.  Also, it was understood that the tunnel would be hard to build due to the fact that the ridge is mostly made up of gravel.  

A city council proposal from 1877 where the tunnel reappears *
Eventually, Captain Knut Lindmark lobbied the city to build a toll tunnel through Brunkeberg Ridge.  Considering that the city had already considered building such a tunnel and voted it down due to excavation and operating costs, the city was probably more than happy to give Lindmark the right to build the tunnel and charge a toll.  He won the concession in 1884 and set immediately to work attacking the ridge from both sides simultaneously.  The tunnel proved to be much harder to excavate than Lindmark was prepared for—while the first parts of the tunnel were successfully (if slowly) dug through granite, the ridge soon proved to be mostly made up of gravel (as the city had already surmised), causing large sections to constantly cave in.  Lindmark didn’t give up, however, and he ingeniously solved the problem with an English freezing machine which had been invented to freeze lamb meat on voyages between Australia and England.  Because there was a lot of water in the gravel, large sections of gravel could be deeply frozen over night.  The next day, the frozen gravel could be removed in large chunks without the ridge collapsing into the tunnel.  The newly excavated section was then immediately shored up with scaffolding and a meter-thick concrete valve was poured to ensure that no gravel would collapse into the tunnel after the gravel thawed.  

Axel Ekbloms drawing of the tunnel construction from 1886 **

It took two years to build the tunnel and it opened with great fanfare in 1886.  The tunnel is 230 meters (755 ft) long, 3.9 meters high, and 4 meters (13 ft) wide—just big enough for heavily laden horse-drawn carts to pass.  At its deepest point, the tunnel is about 20m (65 ft) under the surface of the ridge.    

Oddly, the already built-and-in-operation tunnel was not included on the 1887 map of Norrmalm when the newly ratified city plan was drawn in.  

The 1887 map of Norrmalm with the newly ratified city plan drawn in is missing the tunnel *

Unfortunately for Lindmark and his stock company, the unexpected construction expenses meant that the toll through the tunnel had to be raised higher than was comfortable for most people.  People had been crossing the ridge for centuries, so they could just as well continue to climb the ridge to avoid  paying the hefty toll.  The tunnel company quickly went bankrupt and the city bought the tunnel, keeping it open and toll-free.  The city has renovated the tunnel every few decades since then.

the tunnel today

The Brunkeberg Tunnel was dimensioned for horse traffic and because it was not ventilated, it was inappropriate for car traffic.  The tunnel was quickly outdated for any other use than pedestrian and bike traffic, and when the Kungsgatan boulevard was built through the Brunkeberg Ridge just two blocks south of the tunnel in 1911, it rendered the narrow tunnel obsolete.   

One of the tunnel entries--definitely not dimensioned for cars!

However, the tunnel is still a useful pedestrian and bicycle connection today.  There is a steady stream of both pedestrians and cyclists in the tunnel these days, and there is often a busker or two playing music in the tunnel.  In most cities, a tunnel like this would quickly become a sketchy place to walk, but in Stockholm, it feels perfectly safe (I’ve never been in the tunnel alone late at night, it might not feel so benign then).  In recent years, the tunnel has even been the site of various art, sound, and light installations.  I love that the city keeps the tunnel open and that it is a half-secret yet very secure-feeling part of the pedestrian and bicycle network.

Gösta Selling, Esplanadsystemet och Albert Lindhagen: Stadsplanering i Stockholm åren 1857-1887 (1970)
Stahre, Fogelström, Ferenius and Lundqvist, Stockholms gatunamn (2005)
 All images are my own except
* Gösta Selling, Esplanadsystemet och Albert Lindhagen: Stadsplanering i Stockholm åren 1857-1887 (1970)
** Stahre, Fogelström, Ferenius and Lundqvist, Stockholms gatunamn (2005)
*** Nils-Erik Landell, Stockholms kartor (2000)

Saturday, June 11, 2022

The Plan for Norrmalm’s North-South Boulevards: Birger Jarlsgatan and Sveavägen

A quick recap on the planning saga of Stockholm through the later half of the nineteenth century:  First, the city dithered for several decades about the need to plan at all.  Finally, the King stepped in and mandated that Stockholm needed a plan, and while he was at it, he had a few suggestions.

The first comprehensive plan was drawn up by Wallström and Rudberg in 1864, but just about everyone found it unrealistic and lacking, even if there were a few ideas that would be incorporated into later plans and eventually even built.

The Lindhagen Plan was published in 1866 and was a vast improvement over the previous plan.  The plan featured a hierarchy of streets with a number of wide, tree-lined esplanades and boulevards whisking across the city.  Parks and water views were the most common sight line from the boulevard system, and Lindhagen’s plan designated sites for a number of new parks in addition to designating the entire waterfront as public quaysides.   

The city then dillydallied about making a decision on the plan for eight more years.  In the meantime, the King’s frustration with Stockholm evidently continued as the National Building Code of 1874 required all Swedish cities to draw up comprehensive plans.  No development was allowed to occur without a comprehensive plan.

In the mean time, while the city council remained deadlocked about a plan for the city’s future growth, Stockholm was in the middle of its most intense period of population growth, ever.  In the 1880’s alone, the city’s population grew by 46%.  The population boom of course resulted in a severe housing shortage—the city was literally surrounded by vast tent encampments and ramshackle slums and inside the city, workers crowded into tiny apartments.  Living conditions in Stockholm were nearly the worst in Europe, second only to Finland which at that point in time was Russia’s fiefdom.  It was critical that Stockholm get its act together and make a plan so that development could restart, alleviating the housing shortage.

Eventually, the plan was broken down into four geographical areas (Östermalm, Norrmalm, Kungsholmen, and Södermalm) in order to make the process a bit more manageable.  However, the city was unable to come to a consensus even upon the four smaller geographic areas and debates and counter arguments raged for years.  In the end, the city began voting on the plans street for street, sometimes even block by block.  In doing so, many of Lindhagen’s big-picture concepts were lost.  In 1884, Östermalm was the first plan to be ratified, but only after eighteen years of proposals, counter-proposals, debates, and politicking.

The next plan was Norrmalm.  The subject of this post is not about the entire Norrmalm plan—like the nineteenth-century planers, I’ve been a little overwhelmed trying to understand the entire area in one fell swoop.  This time my focus is on two north-south thoroughfares: first, the boundary boulevard between the Östermalm and Norrmalm neighborhoods which is today known as Birger Jarlsgatan (Birger Jarl was the almost mythic founder of Stockholm in the 1200’s, and gata = street ) and second, a boulevard that is only a few blocks west which is today known as Sveavägen (Svea ≈ Mother Sweden and vägen = road).

Birger Jarlsgatan is located at the junction between the differently angled street grids of Östermalm and Norrmalm.  Before development, a filthy creek called Träskrännilen ran through this low area.  Replacing this stinking, disease-spreading creek with a new thoroughfare was one of the King’s ten original requirements for Stockholm’s comprehensive plan.  Even so, the location of this boulevard was the single most contentious issue in the Norrmalm plan.

While not as explicitly described as Birger Jarlsgatan, Sveavägen as a “sufficient and appropriate traffic route from the periphery to the center of the city”  was also one of the King’s ten original requirements for Stockholm’s comprehensive plan.  Being in the middle of Norrmalm and thus entirely within one street grid, Sveavägen is not as dynamic as Birger Jarlsgatan.  While the boulevard’s location was not contentious, its width and symbolic grandeur were issues that were debated for years.

Today, the two streets are somewhat similar in scale, but they have completely different vibes.  While they had slightly different journeys through the protracted planning process, I do not believe that it was the varying heat of the planning crucible that formed their differing characters.  Instead, my observation is that geography plays a much larger role.   
Birger Jarlsgatan: The Debate
Just as it took years of counter-proposals and debates for the plan for Östermalm to be ratified, a similarly drawn-out debate raged all through the 1870’s regarding the fates of Sturegatan and Birger Jarlsgatan.  Sturegatan was a relatively new street developed on the east side of Humlegården park, and  Östermalm’s real estate developers felt that there was money to be won if Sturegatan was extended to the city center and to the Norrmalmstorg Square.  The city-engineer faction, hoping to save money, wanted to instead broaden the existing Roslagsgatan.  The planning faction, including Lindhagen, advocated that an entirely new and arrow-straight “main street” be built from the bay at Brunnsviken to the bay at Nybroviken.  In the end, a new thoroughfare was built, but it was far from the arrow-straight boulevard that Lindhagen had envisioned.   

Birger Jarlsgatan in Lindhagen's original proposal from 1866 (1)

The developer’s proposal where Sturegatan would become the new thoroughfare involved six different links with two 90-degree changes of direction, and the six links all had different street widths.  It was in no way an efficient or direct thoroughfare, and it did not fulfill the King’s express wishes to fill the polluted creek with a new boulevard.  Even so, the developers, many of whom sat in the city council, were a strong faction and in the end, their absurd proposal lost by only one vote.

The developers' proposal from 1876.  Red = "thoroughfare."  Yellow = Sturegatan.  Orange = Norrmalmstorg. (1)

No one other than the city engineer or the budget office seemed to like the proposal to widen an already existing street instead of building a new thoroughfare—this proposal doesn’t seem to have even made it to the city council’s votes.  

In contrast to the developer’s proposal, Lindhagen’s proposal consisted of one straight, continuous thoroughfare.  Lindhagen envisioned the street as part of the city’s lungs, allowing polluted air to swiftly sweep up the thoroughfare and out of the city.  He also considered the boulevard to be part of the city’s continuous park system, and his planned route was important to connect various green areas—this is one aspect of Lindhagen’s overarching plan that was lost in breaking up the comprehensive city plan into separate neighborhoods and indeed into separate streets or even blocks.  The developers hated Lindhagen’s proposal because in knitting together two different street grids, a lot of lots would have obtuse or even worse, sharp angles.  Such lots are not as efficient and they are a bit more difficult to build than a normal, right-angled lot.  In all of the debates, Lindhagen never seems to have pressed the point that his proposal was most like the straight, ditch-filling street called for by the King.  I wonder why this trump card was never used?  

Lindhagen's counter proposal from 1876 (1)

The city's counter counter proposal from 1877 (1)

Lindhagen's counter counter counter proposal from 1877 (1)

The developers' counter counter counter counter proposal from 1877. Red = "thoroughfare."  Yellow = Sturegatan.  Orange = Norrmalmstorg. (1)


There was no consensus on the boulevard, and the debate raged back and forth between the developer’s Sturegatan plan and Lindhagen’s arrow-straight plan for years.  As the decision moved up the various layers of city bureaucracy, the “winner” was sometimes the Sturegatan plan, sometimes Lindhagen’s plan.  After a few years of debate, the street was broken up into three separate decisions put up to vote in 1877: the northern end, the middle, and the southern end.  

First on the agenda seems to have been the middle section of the street from Rådmansgatan to Engelbrektsplan.  Here, Lindhagen’s proposal won out with a large majority of the vote.  The same was true for the northern end of the boulevard.  But the southern end, which was the last to be decided, was a very close call and Lindhagen’s proposal won out by only one vote.  A change of only one vote would have resulted in a completely different downtown Stockholm than what exists today.  

While Lindhagen’s proposal more-or-less won out, breaking up the street into three different decisions resulted in a crooked path.  The winning variation is certainly not as complicated as the developer’s proposal, but it is far from the symbolic, arrow-straight boulevard that Lindhagen had first envisioned.  Additionally, Lindhagen’s boulevard was reduced in width and is considerably less green than the original proposal.  While Birger Jarlsgatan is tree lined today, it can be hardly considered to be part of Stockholm’s park system.  

The city's final proposal from 1878.  Today's Birger Jarlsgatan is pretty close to this proposal. (1)

As a bit of a consolation prize for the developers, it was then decided that Sturegatan would be extended down to meet the new Birger Jarlsgatan at an open square.  The developers got their connection to downtown after all, albeit not in the way they had proposed.

The King ratified these decisions in 1879, but actual construction of the boulevard wouldn’t begin until 1898.

Birger Jarlsgatan: Result
Birger Jarlsgatan was developed at a time when Sweden’s economic growth was unparalleled and Stockholm became a modern and international city.  The boulevard became a symbol for all of Sweden for this newfound wealth and modernity.  Even today, the street name Birger Jarlsgatan is known throughout Sweden and is associated with the big city, big business, and shopping.  The street is home to many company headquarters and banking offices, and it is also the only place in Stockholm (and probably all of Sweden?) where the likes of Chanel, Gucci, and Burberry can be procured in flagship stores.    

Birger Jarlsgatan’s development as a shopping mecca and base for corporate headquarters had a big impact on the boulevard’s architecture.  Sweden’s first large display windows and its first solely commercial building are to be found along the boulevard.  

Right: Sweden's first all-commercial building

From the beginning, the Birger Jarlsgatan address was so important and coveted that developers paid extra attention to the architecture along the street.  Soon, the boulevard was lined with Classical temples, Venetian palaces, and Loire Valley castles. 

The castle theme is especially amplified by all of the towers rising from the sharp angles resulting from the clash of the two street grids.  These corner towers are Birger jarlsgatan’s iconic feature and what most people think of when they think about the street.


Birger Jarlsgatan’s path knitting together two differing street grids resulted not only in towers but also in many “left over” spots.  Many of these have become squares and pocket parks, giving the boulevard an even more dignified aura.  Some of these “left overs” are under-designed and under-utilized, but the airy, grand environment remains.  

Others are busy and prominent: Stureplan, where Sturegatan connects to Birger Jarlsgatan as a consolation prize to the developer faction’s proposal, was a bustling meeting place for people and trams since the beginning, and it is still lively today. 

The southern end of the boulevard is much fancier that the northern end.  The southern end is in the city center and features the important headquarters and designer shopping.  The northern end is much more residential in nature, but even the geography here results in a less grand impression because to the north, the street is lined by regular city blocks and has right-angled street junctions.  The lack of sharply angled lots and left-over spaces makes the northern end of the boulevard much more ordinary than the stimulating southern end.   

Birger Jarlsgatan begins at the southern end at the water at Nybroviken Bay, but it does not extend to the bay at Brunnsviken as originally envisioned by Lindhagen.  Instead, it peters out at a lackluster, could-be-anywhere roundabout known as Roslagstull (originally the site of one of the city’s Toll Houses) where an expressway leads out into the burbs.  Looking at older maps, one can see that Brunnsviken Bay used to extend farther south and was originally within sight of the end of Birger Jarlsgatan, but it has since been filled in to provide space for the suburban motorway. 

Sveavägen: The Debate
In 1654, architect Jean de la Vallée presented a plan which called for an axial parade avenue from the Royal Palace Slottet, over the water, through Gustav Adolf’s Torg, and through Norrmalm all the way to the water at Brunnsviken.  

Vallée's big idea was to make Stockholm’s Castle visible from Brunnsviken.  This plan was never executed, but the idea would pop up over and over again throughout the next 300 years.

Jean de la Vallées vision in a modern rendering (2)

Jean de la Vallée’s idea of a formal, axial avenue stretching from the palace to the water’s edge at Brunnsviken was reimagined in the Lindhagen Plan of 1866.  Heavily influenced by Haussmann’s Parisian boulevards, this new Sveavägen was monumental in scale at 240 feet (70m) wide, and it dominated the entire cityscape.  The avenue was to have lanes of traffic on either side of two planted allées of trees which were to be separated by a carriageway for leisurely strolls and rides.  Sveavägen was to be as wide as Champs-Élysées in Paris, and it would have been one of the 19th century’s most ambitious projects in all of Europe.  While the northern end was on low-lying and mostly undeveloped land, the southern end would demolish the high Brunkeberg Ridge 

and would cut through densely developed areas.  Adolf Fredrik’s Church would be demolished 

and the market square Hötorget 

 would be completely swallowed up by the avenue.  

Sveavägen in Lindhagen's original proposal from 1866. Red = Sveavägen. Yellow = Adolf Fredrik’s Church. Blue = Hötorget.  Orange = Stockholm's Castle Slottet (1)

This boulevard was never built as envisioned—while Sveavägen does cut through much of Stockholm today, it doesn’t reach all the way to Gustav Adolf’s Torg or to the Royal Palace and the boulevard is definitely not as wide as originally designed.  Like Birger Jarlsgatan, much of the original intention was lost in the political planning process.  

The city's proposal from1876.  Red = Sveavägen. Yellow = Adolf Fredrik’s Church. Orange = Stockholm's Castle Slottet (1)

Given the massive critique that his original Sveavägen plan had generated, when the planning process was again underway, Lindhagen drew up a much less ambitious plan in 1876.  In this new proposal, Sveavägen would now end at a new east-west boulevard (today Odengatan) and would not continue into built-up areas further south.  This 1876 plan does retain, however, Lindhagen’s ambitious street with of 70m. 

Lindhagen's counter proposal from 1876.  Red = Sveavägen. Yellow = Adolf Fredrik’s Church. Orange = Stockholm's Castle Slottet (1)

In 1877, the city council countered with a plan that was simultaneously more and less ambitious than Lindhagen’s 1876 proposal.  This proposal continues Sveavägen a few blocks further south than Lindhagen’s plan, cutting through several built-up blocks.  Sveavägen would end at Adolf Fredrik’s Church.  Because this proposal was much reduced in width and was only 48m wide, the church would not be demolished, but the churchyard would be diminished. 

The city's counter counter proposal from 1877.  Red = Sveavägen. Yellow = Adolf Fredrik’s Church. Orange = Stockholm's Castle Slottet (1)

That same year, Lindhagen countered again.  If the avenue was going to continue through developed blocks and then stop at the church, it should stop just short of the church so that the greenery of the churchyard could serve as the avenue’s focal point.  Lindhagen continued to show a 70m wide avenue with two planted allées and three roadbeds.  He bemoaned the city council’s stingy street width writing that the city ordinance called for esplanades with at least one allée in the middle, and 48m was not wide enough for an allée.  Furthermore, because Sveavägen was going to become Stockholm’s most important thoroughfare connecting the heart of the city with the green areas and suburbs beyond, it should be even wider and grander than the “average” esplanade.  He pointed out that his proposed avenue was less wide than the new boulevard in provincial Gävle to the north as well as new boulevards in three provincial cities in Finland.  It is clear that Lindhagen considered Sveavägen to be part of his park system and that he considered this boulevard to be even more important than Birger Jarlsgatan.  

Lindhagen's counter counter counter proposal from 1877.  Red = Sveavägen. Yellow = Adolf Fredrik’s Church.  (1)

The city council was not moved by Lindhagen’s arguments.  Instead, they produced a new counter-proposal which was much like their previous proposal except that it now extended even farther south into the city center.  They argued that a few more blocks of existing development would have to be sacrificed in order to connect the new areas to the older areas of the city, and to achieve a functional traffic flow.  For once the suburban commuters arrived in the city, where would they go? In this proposal, Sveavägen would connect to a new east-west thoroughfare which would connect the market at Hötorget through a tunnel to through the Brunkeberg Ridge with the Engelbreksplan Square on Birger Jarlsgatan and the park at Humlegården.

The city's counter counter counter counter proposal from 1877.  Red = Sveavägen. Brown = new street and tunnel between Hötorget (blue) and Humlegården park (green) (1)

Later that same year, the city council reversed itself and came to the conclusion that the existing network of streets could handle the additional traffic that would be coming into the city via Sveavägen.  Their new counter-proposal was to stop the new boulevard at the church, not cutting through the church yard as Lindhagen had proposed.  However, the city council remained firm that the boulevard shouldn’t be any wider than 48m.

The city's counter counter counter counter proposal from 1877.  Red = Sveavägen. Yellow = Adolf Fredrik’s Church.  (1)

While there was some back-and-forth, Sveavägen was not as contentious as Birger Jarlsgatan.  Everyone was reasonably in agreement about the street placement and route, but not about the width.  The street placement and route was voted on first and the majority voted for the most recent proposal (where the council and Lindhagen had been unified that Sveavägen would stop just short of the churchyard).  There was a separate vote about Sveavägen’s width, and only two votes were cast for Lindhagen’s ambitious avenue.  It was decided that the boulevard would be 48m wide, meaning that while there would be trees planted along the street edges, there would be no planted allées in the middle.

In 1896, the city council voted to extend Sveavägen to the east-west thoroughfare Kungsgatan at the market square Hötorget.  It wasn’t until the 20th century that planners would consider extending the boulevard farther south.

1896 Extension of Sveavägen.  Light red = existing part of Sveavägen.  Red = extension of Sveavägen. Yellow = Adolf Fredrik’s Church.  Blue = Hötorget.  Brown = Kungsgatan

Sveavägen: Result and Comparison to Birger Jarlsgatan
Sveavägen is today a very important thoroughfare in Stockholm, and several of Stockholm’s most important institutions were built alongside it in the era of Swedish Grace or Nordic Classicism: the concert hall, the school of business, and the city library.  

The School of Business (Handelshögskolan) and Stockholm City Library

Strangely, the Concert Hall would be oriented toward Hötorget and had only a backside toward Sveavägen, giving the boulevard a feeling of disregard.

The Concert Hall.  Left: the front facing the Hötorget Square.  Right: the back facing Sveavägen

In addition to the cultural institutions mentioned above, Sveavägen does feature a few of Stockholm’s earliest and most important Modern buildings.  

But while there is nothing ho-hum about most of Sveavägen’s architecture, most of the building stock lining Sveavägen is much more sedate than the Renaissance castles of Birger Jarlsgatan. 

Like Birger Jarlsgatan, the southern end of Sveavägen in the city center is very commercial with offices, stores, and restaurants, but the stores and restaurants are much more local in character than on Birger Jarlsgatan.  While Birger Jarlsgatan features Michelin-rated bistros, you’re more likely to find a neighborhood Chinese buffet on Sveavägen.  After the Pandemic, Sveavägen even has a couple of empty storefronts which is almost unheard of in Stockholm today.  

Further north, Sveavägen becomes much more residential in character and the shops at street level become more and more neighborhood-oriented.  

Lacking angled intersections and the resulting left over spaces, Sveavägen is not dotted by parks and squares in the same way as Birger Jarlsgatan.  However, Sveavägen’s overall impession is still relatively green and airy.  The street is lined with trees, and there are several gaps in the urban fabric at Adolf Fredrik’s Church, the park at Observatorielunden, and the park at Vanadislunden.  

Additionally, a couple of property developers have chosen not to build out to the lot line, making squares and parks and small moments of urban drama where there previously was none. 

Similar to Birger Jarlsgatan, Sveavägen ends in a tragically boring roundabout where large roads lead out to the suburbs.  This roundabout did not feature a tollhouse like Birger Jarlsgatan’s roundabout, but it does coincide with the old toll fence surrounding the city.  This anticlimactic termination is far from the beautiful water-and-park view that both Jean de la Vallée and Lindhagen had envisioned.  But Lindhagen must have known that Sveavägen wasn’t going to get the idyllic finish he had hoped for—beyond the roundabout is a railroad that was even drawn in on Lindhagen’s plan from 1876. In between the roundabout and the railroad is a “skyscraper” from 1960 which now caps Sveavägen’s axis.  It’s unfortunate that this prominent building is not more architecturally interesting as it does nothing to alleviate the unfortunate blandness at Sveavägen’s terminus.

I’m a bit fascinated that two parallel grand boulevards were planned to lead from the bay at Brunnsviken in the north to the Baltic sea to the south, especially since they are only four blocks apart.  Today, the streets have roughly the same capacity and fulfill roughly the same purpose.  Why the need for two north-south boulevards so close to each other?  Part of the answer can be found in Lindhagen’s original plan where the extremely wide Sveavägen was supposed to be THE boulevard of all boulevards.  In comparison, Birger Jarlsgatan was merely one of several “regular” boulevards in Lindhagen’s plan.

In Lindhagen’s plan, it was Sveavägen that was supposed to be Stockholm’s iconic boulevard—it was to be as wide as the Champs-Élysées and lead directly to the Royal Palace.  Instead, Birger Jarlsgatan usurped that role and is today the better known boulevard due to the iconic businesses and flagship stores that line it, as well as because of the literally towering architecture.  While Sveavägen is still important in the Stockholm landscape, it is much more of a traffic thoroughfare, probably because it is so straight and direct a route from the suburbs into the city center.

Interestingly, Birger Jarlsgatan is a “street” and Sveavägen is a “road.”  Just like the English “street,” “gata” has connotations of an urban, tightly developed setting.  And like the English “road,” “väg” has connotations of a higher speed, suburban thoroughfare.  Sveavägen’s feel is far from suburban, but it does feel more like a thoroughfare than Birger Jarlsgatan.  Can it be that the city designed these two boulevards to have differing characters from the very beginning?    

What made Birger Jarlsgatan the more desirable address?  I think that the answer lies in several geographical factors.  First, Birger Jarlsgatan lies at the edge of Östermalm which has been Stockholm’s poshest neighborhood since the mid 1800’s. (Sveavägen lies in the middle of Norrmalm which was historically a “regular” neighborhood—not where the wealthiest lived, but not where the poorest lived, either.)  Secondly, Birger Jarlsgatan is the natural continuation of Strandvägen, Stockholm’s premier residential address.  And thirdly, all of the inefficient, odd angles at the junction of the two street grids that the developers were so against made for iconic architecture and a dynamic urban landscape.  Put together, these geographical factors have resulted in a much more symbolically important boulevard than Sveavägen despite original intentions.

Gösta Selling, Esplanadsystemet och Albert Lindhagen: Stadsplanering i Stockholm åren 1857-1887 (1970)
Thomas Hall, Stockholm: The Making of a Metropolis (2009)
Thomas Hall, Huvudstad i Omvandling (2002)
Alla Tiders Stockholm (2014)
Peter Lundewall, Stockholm den planerade staden (2006)

All images are my own except
1) Gösta Selling, Esplanadsystemet och Albert Lindhagen: Stadsplanering i Stockholm åren 1857-1887 (1970)
2) Thomas Hall, Huvudstad i Omvandling (2002)