A Million New Housing Units: The Limits of Good Intentions

Tensta_2009d.jpg

In May 2013, the district of Husby in suburban Stockholm, Sweden was shaken by “angry young men” engaging in destructive behavior for about 72 hours,1 including the burning of automobiles and other properties and attacks on police officers (over 30 officers were injured). The violence spread to the nearby districts of Rinkeby and Tensta as well as to other parts of Sweden.

Husby, Rinkeby, and Tensta are located within the corporate limits of Sweden’s capital city,2 but a considerable distance from the waterfront and medieval beauty of downtown Stockholm frequented by visitors and tourists. All three communities were planned in the 1960s and completed in the mid-1970s as part of the Swedish Million Programme.  According to official Stockholm municipal statistics, resident populations in 2012 were 12,203, 15,968, and 18,494 respectively.3

This ambitious program was approved by Sweden’s Parliament in 1965 to remedy what was then considered an acute shortage of housing. Its goal was to rapidly produce a large number of affordable housing units for the Swedish middle class while preserving nearby open space, improving traffic safety and encouraging residents to walk, ride bicycles and use transit. Planners and architects felt that in order to achieve the desired suburban “new town” environment, development and densities were to be as concentrated as possible, and all units were to be within 500 meters of the transit station.4

The first new homes in Tensta were delivered to their initial residents in 1967, only two years after the program was approved, but the subway line, so important to the design and development of these communities, was not to be opened to traffic until 1975.

By the 1970s, the Swedish economy had slowed considerably from its 1960s boom, and as the economy cooled, some areas outside of Stockholm where new Million Programme communities had been built suddenly had a surplus of housing. In Stockholm, production of the Million Programme units continued well into the 1970s until all planned units were completed, even though the population of Stockholm was to decline from 787,182 in 1965 to a modern low of 647,115 in 1981.

Yet in the end, most of the residents who ended up in these units were neither middle class or of Swedish descent. In part because the Million Programme had eliminated Sweden’s shortage of housing and many of its communities were considered unsightly and undesirable by Swedes, the newly constructed units became places where waves of new immigrants to the country found a place to live. Over time these communities have become suburban ghettos for newly-arrived families and individuals, with persons of an “immigrant background” (either immigrants or the child of immigrants making up between 85% and 90% of resident population in these districts according to official statistics for 2012).  

These areas soon became isolated from the mainstream of Swedish society. The new communities were designed to make open space accessible to their residents (ordinarily a desirable goal), but this by design disconnected from nearby older (and lower-density) subdivisions. Planners and architects for the Million Programme apparently never anticipated that their creations would become segregated to such an extent that a member of Parliament and government minister would call for some of them to be razed. Sweden’s Minister of Integration, Nyamko Sabuni, did just that in a 2009 op-ed column, when she charged that they led to “exclusion” of their residents and since many of them are badly in need of thorough renovation, some should be torn down instead.5 Indeed some Million Programme complexes outside of Stockholm have met their demise with the use of a wrecking ball.6

Swedish planners and elected officials did learn from these mistakes. The new high-tech employment center of Kista, located adjacent to Husby, has a base of employment that never developed in the Million Programme districts, and a significantly lower percentage of immigrants (though still higher than 50%). 

Planners and elected officials in other nations (including North America) should take notice of the Million Programme – and more-recent Smart Growth proposals – as an example of what can go badly wrong.

The aftermath of Million Programme demonstrates the inability of elected officials and the planners and architects on their staffs to anticipate the future needs and even the demographic makeup of their constituent populations, even in a democratic nation such as Sweden. Though it was approved with wide agreement by the Parliament in 1965, it is unlikely that members of that body anticipated that Swedish middle-class families would reject the densely-developed large-scale apartment developments that the effort produced, nor that much of the wave of immigration that was to arrive on Swedish shores starting in the late 1960s and continuing for many years would end up seemingly confined and segregated in the newly-constructed communities. The problems resulting from the cheap construction methods used and a resulting need for extensive and expensive renovations in order to bring the units up to contemporary standards will require large amounts of money. The source of that funding to make those repairs has not been identified.

Finally, the role of rail transit in these projects deserves a mention. The construction of the Stockholm subway’s Blue Line (a radial line linking all three communities with downtown Stockholm) was significantly delayed, and did not open for traffic until 1975, well after most of the new homes were occupied, even though a transit station was always intended as an integral part of each of them (prior to 1975, residents had to take buses to get downtown, or get themselves to regional rail stations some distance away).  While the subway system in general (and the Blue Line in particular) are rightly called the “world’s longest art exhibit” because of the extraordinary and diverse beauty of its underground stations, it has not prevented the isolation and economic disadvantage that the minorities living along the line have always experienced. 

C. P. Zilliacus is a transportation engineer residing in the eastern United States.

Translations from Swedish by the author.

Tensta housing photo by Wikimedia Commons user Holger.Ellgaard.

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1           Dagens Nyheter, 2013-05-22, ”Det har blivit värre I Husby de senaste åren” (translates to “It Has Gotten Worse in Husby in Recent Years”)  http://www.dn.se/sthlm/det-har-blivit-varre-i-husby-de-senaste-aren/

Dagens Nyheter (“The Daily News”) is the largest daily newspaper in Sweden.

2           Like some U.S. cities, including Houston and Los Angeles, Stockholm annexed significant areas of mostly vacant land during the 20th Century that are now generally considered suburban due to distance from downtown and land use characteristics. 

3           Municipal statistics for Stockholm obtained online from http://www.statistikomstockholm.se.

4           A Swedish-language overview of the Million Programme was written by Michael Lindqvist, 2000-05-15 “Miljonprogrammet - planeringen och uppförandet” (“Million Programme - Planning and Construction”), available online http://www.micral.se/miljonprogrammet/Miljonprogrammet.pdf

5           Dagens Nyheter, 2009-03-20, "Riv i miljonprogrammen för integrationens skull" (translates to "Tear Down the Million Programme Units for the Sake of Integration") http://www.dn.se/debatt/riv-i-miljonprogrammen-for-integrationens-skull/

6           For an example, see Jan Jörnmark’s photo essay of abandoned Million Programme apartment buildings in the municipality of Laxå, located about 240 kilometers (150 miles) by highway west of Husby: http://www.jornmark.se/places_photo.aspx?placeid=29&Photonumber=001&lang=



















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planners don't live in what they design

Geography student

I have read that the designers of these Swedish projects never actually lived in them, or it was rare to do so. Talking with so called "smart growth" advocates one rapidly realizes that they do not actually live the way they want others to. Now I always start planning conversations asking those present 1) what size lot they live on; 2) What size house they live in; 3) How many cars in their household; 4) How many miles a year they drive each car; 5) If they have subsidized parking at work. Usually "smart growth" proponents try not to answer these questions. When pressed they usually admit they live a suburban life style, and generally have only vague intentions of moving into the "smart growth" housing perhaps at the end of their lives, etc. The most hypocritical tend to be local county planners who turn around to defend their subsidized parking at government offices. (If a private company wants to subsidize parking for their employees and customers fine if they pay for it. I see no reason why the taxpayer should subsidize government employee parking). My conclusion is that "smart growth" housing will only work when those promoting it move into it.

Probably just one hypocrite among many of his ilk: Len Brown

The first elected Mayor of the new amalgamated "Super Council" in Auckland, New Zealand, Len Brown, has a policy platform of planned urban intensification and massive increases in commuter rail transit "investment". His "Spatial Plan" has aroused much controversy now among the stupid people who voted for him, because they all obviously assumed that the intensification was going to be "somewhere other than where THEY live". DUH!!

But Len Brown himself lives in a mansion on 1 acre of land, which is rare in Auckland. AND its location has escaped rezoning for intensification.

Len Brown has also, completely out of character, given his support to TWO highway projects. Auckland has a massive deficit of highway building. But the two projects supported by Mayor Brown, happen to be ones that would improve access from the location of HIS home, to main routes out of the city and into the CBD.

But the mainstream media might as well be a poodle sitting in his lap for all the attention they have drawn to this hypocrisy. Greens and smart growthers and lefty-libbewals are allowed to be hypocrites, you see. Conservatives, certainly not.

Do as I say, not as I do

Phil, in the United States, this is sometimes called "do as I say, not as I do." But I find it very revealing when advocates (and funders) of Smart Growth and Smart Growth schemes don't want to live that Smart Growth lifestyle themselves.

I don't think any of the Swedish elected officials that voted for the Million Programme ever lived in an apartment in one of those projects ("projects" being an American English term for large apartment complexes designed and sometimes owned by government entities - two of the most infamous projects are Cabrini–Green in Chicago and Lexington Terrace in Baltimore).

Though in 1946, years before the Million Programme was conceived, Per Albin Hansson, the Social Democratic Prime Minister of Sweden famously collapsed and died of a heart attack on his way home from the office when alighting from a streetcar in a (suburban/mixed use) part of Stockholm called Bromma (speaking personally, one of my absolute favorite suburbs anywhere).