Freeways, man. They sever neighborhoods, terrorize nature, and create dark, ugly spaces below their unsightly underpasses. Yet cars continue to need them, and cities continue to build them. So how do we turn those hulking rivers of concrete into assets for our communities? A crazy new idea by BIG for a freeway interchange outside Stockholm just might provide the answer.
BIG, plus the firms Grontmij and Spacescape submitted the winning concept for Stockholmsporten, a competition sponsored by the city of Stockholm and the Swedish Transport Administration. The challenge issued was a familiar one for any major city: Two freeways will be knit together in the town of Hjulsta, north of Stockholm, creating a three-level interchange that divides the surrounding neighborhood, both visually and emotionally. To reunite the community and protect the environment, BIG and its team proposed a master plan they call the Energy Valley, a series of elements that create movement and beauty around this busy intersection.
The circular path becomes the new heart of the community.
To counteract the wall of cars created by the two freeways, BIG added a series of circular paths for bikes and pedestrians that travel around the intersection in a loop, turning the interchange into a landscaped park. These paths weave over and under the freeways, traveling through forests, wetlands, and lawns — all of which can be shaped using the earth that’s excavated during the building of the freeways themselves. The flat valleys further away from the freeways become places for high-tech businesses to set up shop, giving residents a reason to move there.
From an urban planning perspective, the circular path becomes the new heart of the community, and development is spurred along this corridor. So shopping, entertainment and recreation can all be clustered close to the interchange, pushing the community even tighter together, even with a freeway running through it. It’s a brilliant idea to keep the neighborhood from dividing, but I was still curious about the quality of life: Although the roads look to be shrouded in tunnels and other sound-absorbing elements, I do wonder how loud the freeway will actually be to those biking and picnicking immediately above it.
Perhaps the most stunning element of the plan — and the one that makes it look like the cover of a ’70s sci-fi novel — is the Stockholm Sphere, a giant reflective orb that hovers over the interchange, making the view once obstructed from the freeway visible on all four sides. According to the proposal, photovoltaic film covers the orb, supplying it with enough solar energy to float, as well as the ability to power over 200 homes.
Where most freeway interventions actually end up drawing attention to the lanes of road — by painting a mural, maybe, or adding more landscaping — BIG’s plan simply ignores it, wrapping the essential element for transportation into a feature for the community. In essence, BIG manages to create the real-life version of an American concept that was smart in theory, but was never truly realized: the parkway.