Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Stockholm’s First Public Park: Strömparterren

I have previously written about several parks: the urban Kungsträdgården, the English Romantic Haga Park, the canal promenade at Djurgården, Gärdet’s extensive heath,  and Långholmen’s island park, but none of these were created for public use, and today’s use for public recreation is only a bi-product of changing times.  Kungsträdgården was originally the royal kitchen garden and later a royal pleasure park, Haga Park was King Gustav III’s private pleasure park, Djurgården was a royal hunting ground and later King Karl XIV Johan’s pleasure park, Gärdet was a military exercise and parade field, and Långholmen was a prison.  Strömparterren was Stockholm’s first park created expressly for the public, with public funds.    

As far as I can tell, the park at Strömparterren marks an important turning point in the development of Stockholm as a city.  Previously, public funds had been used to develop the city to make it safer (street lighting), or more sanitary (draining swamps), or better for business (quays, locks).  Public funds had been used to create a grander city fit for a monarch and to impress foreign visitors.  But until Strömparterren, public funds hadn't been earmarked to make the city a better place for its own ordinary, non-royal, non-noble residents.  It certainly didn't hurt that the palace overlooks the park and that the creation of the park meant a better view for the royals, but the park wasn't meant to be used by the royals.  It was meant to be used by ordinary citizens.      

The name Strömparterren translates roughly to “The Lower Level Current” and refers to the fact that the park is about two stories below street level at the location where the slightly higher Lake Mälaren (map 2) tumbles out into the Baltic Sea (map 3).  In the spring, the water surges over the small rapid and kayakers play in the white water.  This meeting point between Sweden’s two historically most important navigable bodies of water is the reason that Stockholm began to develop in the 1100’s (see my first blog post).

This small island between the mainland at Norrmalm and the island of Gamla Stan is generally referred to Helgeandsholmen, but it was actually originally three even smaller islands, each with its own name.  These diagrams from 1888 (before the parliament buildings were built) show how much more water (green) there originally was between the mainland and Gamla Stan and how the land was successively expanded over time (I have added the red outline to emphasize the 1888 landmass for comparison.)  The name Helgeandsholmen means “Holy Spirit Island” and refers to the monk-operated poor house and hospital which was in operation from the 1200’s until the Reformation in the 1500’s.  When King Gustav Vasa seized all church property during the Reformation, the monks were kicked off of this valuable real estate and the Royal Stable was moved here instead.     
1527, 1680, 1773, 1888 (1)

In addition to the Royal Stables, Helgeandsholmen has been home to many other various uses over time including the luxurious homes of several important figures at court, a tannery, a cannon making factory, a treasury, and always a fishing harbor (map 4).  Even today, there is usually someone fishing in the rich rapids between the lake and the sea.  
Ironically, several historic fishing boats are tied up to the quay at Strömparterren--a refined taste of the once chaotic and smelly fishing harbor.

The fishing harbor was a very lowly counterpoint to the Royal Palace (map 4) which was right next door.  Additionally, it became popular to stroll through Kungsträdgården (map 5), past Gustav Adolfs Torg (map 6), across Norrbro bridge, and to the Palace.  The smelly, chaotic fishing harbor was not in keeping with the surrounding stately spaces and buildings.  An accident involving a fishing boat that hindered commercial boat traffic was the last straw and in 1821, the King decided that the fishing harbor was to be removed.  To my knowledge, the removal of the fishing harbor and the development of the park at Strömparterren (map 1) is Stockholm’s first explicit example of “Urban Renewal” and “Gentrification.”  The lowly, disorganized harbor was replaced by an orderly, geometric park with plantings and trees where upstanding citizens could recreate and even spend a bit of money.  The park opened in 1832.

Almost from the beginning, a cafe was built under the bridge.  A music pavilion was built in the 1880’s and the park was a popular destination until the 1920’s when its popularity waned.  
The cafe (2) and music pavilion (3)
Since the 20’s, Strömparterren has been a bit off the beaten path.  Today, a few tourists stroll through the park on their way to the Medieval Museum (which replaced the cafe under the bridge), but locals today have very little reason to use the park—it’s not in a residential area, or an area with a lot of offices, or on the way to anything that would be part of a local’s daily life.  The park’s location two stories below street level makes it even less likely to be well used—the level difference means that one doesn’t just spontaneously perch on a bench while walking by.
Street level to the left, park level to the right.

After the park fell out of popularity, it became run down.  It was renovated in the 30’s and has been renovated about every 20 years since, sometimes with a new sculpture or a new layout of flowerbeds. 
Carl Mille's sculpture Solfångaren was erected in 1926, a drawing from 1924 showing plans for the park's first large restoration (4).
Even though it isn’t well used, its prominent location ensures its upkeep.  The mature trees provide an important counterpoint of green in the dense landscape of downtown.

It’s a shame that the park is so often overlooked.  The large trees and the plantings are quite pretty, and the ambiance is calm and relaxed.  The location jutting out into the water is beautiful, and the atmosphere of history is practically tangible in the park, surrounded as it is by the Royal Palace, Parliament (map 7), and the Opera House (map 8).  
The Royal Palace on the left and Parliament on the right.
It’s a small and somewhat intimate park, but despite its size, it is quite varied without feeling crowded—fountains, statuary, a reflecting pool, grass lawns, dense plantings, mature trees, waterside paths, a cafe, and views out over the city.  Strömparterren is a park that we Stockholmers should make better use of.   

Klas Lundkvist, Norrbro och Strömparterren (2006)
Alla Tiders Stockholm (2014)
All images are my own except for:
(1) Klas Lundkvist, Norrbro och Strömparterren (2006)
(2) http://www.wikiwand.com/sv/Str%C3%B6mparterren
(3) https://digitaltmuseum.se/011014490655/notering-pa-kortet-stockholm-stromparterren?i=12&aq=text%3A%22str%C3%B6mparterren%22
(4) https://digitaltmuseum.se/011024570995/ritning?search_context=1&count=10&pos=5&technique=Kopia


  1. What a fantastic blog! Finally, something in English about Stockholm history. I've been looking for years for something like this detailed history about the city. Please keep it up!

  2. Thanks Kevcham! I really appreciate your feedback!