Last fall, a block in central Stockholm that looked like a typical city street—lined with parking spots, and with the rest of the road devoted to traffic—became part of a new national experiment. Using a Lego-like kit of parts, residents worked with designers to redesign the space with a new vision of what one agency calls the “one-minute city.”
It’s the hyperlocal version of the 15-minute city, the concept—now being implemented in Paris—that it should be possible for people living in an urban neighborhood to reach their daily needs, from grocery shopping to work or school, within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. The idea of the one-minute city isn’t quite as literal: It doesn’t mean that everything you need is on one block. But it demonstrates how streets might transform within neighborhoods where walking and cycling are prioritized over driving.
“What we really aspire is to slow down the pace on streets for them to work more as the public spaces they are,” Daniel Byström, project manager at ArkDes Think Tank, said via email. ArkDes is a national agency that focuses on sustainable urban design, which partnered on the project with Vinnova, the Swedish national innovation agency. “We believe that streets can be more optimized considering the needs of humans and nature. Today, streets are mainly designed for cars, leaving little or no space for other activities. It’s not sustainable.”
The 15-minute city “is made of lots of one-minute cities,” says Dan Hill, director of strategic design at Vinnova. The one-minute city is your immediate environment. “This is a shared space, in which you can take an active part, for which you are responsible, in a shared sense, with your neighbors, and the municipality, the wider city. It’s a space in which you can grow tomatoes or grapes, hold a street party, host a community meeting, play basketball with your kids, bump into a neighbor, feed the birds, or just sit on the stoop and watch the unfolding ballet of the street,” he says.
Working with designers, ArkDes created a set of wooden street furniture called Street Moves that can fit inside standard parking spots to create benches for parklets or parking for bikes and scooters (a long list of other designs will soon be added to the kit, from bird boxes to greenhouses, community meeting spaces, and drop-off points for e-commerce deliveries). Last summer, the team started piloting the project on four different blocks around central Stockholm. Each had an elementary school, and children became part of participatory design workshops to reimagine the street, adding swings, dance platforms, and street painting.
It’s critical to have communities involved in this kind of co-design, Hill says, both to get the best design for an area and to help citizens begin to feel like they own the street. “With community involvement, in the deepest sense, you not only get better ideas, but ownership of the ideas,” he says. “This means you can actually move more quickly and effectively. Many in the urban development sector think that ‘consultation’ slows things down, and it does. But participation doesn’t. Consultation is ‘How do you like my new freeway bypass/library design/community garden?’ You’ve already decided what it is, and effectively you’re selling it to the community. That’s slow and awkward and counterproductive, as you can imagine. Participation is having a discussion—and researching and prototyping—about what to do in the first place. That’s where we need to be.”
The kit of parts is designed to help quickly prototype new street designs, so parts can easily be swapped out or moved if needs change. “The point of prototyping is to test, so you can refine,” Hill says. “The prototypes are always wrong, in a sense, by definition—but now we can start developing them. Again, it’s a platform designed to evolve, to changing desires, needs, circumstances. . . . These first tests have been remarkably successful, given that the teams designed and delivered them in a matter of months.” After the first blocks were transformed last September, the team saw a 400% increase of neighbors on the streets, with the majority saying they were happy or very happy with the changes, despite the fact that parking spaces had been removed.
The changes are a part of Sweden’s plan to get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045; nine Swedish cities are aiming to get to net zero emissions by 2030. “As most greenhouse gas emissions occur in cities, by far, we need to demonstrate how—in a show-don’t-tell kind of way—we can switch out old systems and cultures for new ones, retrofitting our existing environments,” Hill says. “This means we need to look at what we all do, as well as the tech we use to do it. Simply swapping out diesel cars for electric cars won’t cut it; we need to take advantage of technologies new (mobility-as-a-service) and old (bikes, live-work spaces) in order to produce new patterns of living, working, and playing in cities. We need to understand how things like the European Green Deal are social and cultural endeavors, not simply technological.”
The team is now piloting the project in other cities and working on ways to make it easily scale. One partner is the national transportation regulatory agency, for example, which is helping deal with parking space regulation. Though it starts at the level of transforming single blocks, it’s flexible enough to be spread throughout the entire country. “Cities exist at the scale of streets and blocks,” says Hill. “Every large project is composed of these elements and building blocks, and this is the scale that good city life happens at, so we may as well start there. Hopefully, we are well past the days when planning came from the top down and obsessed with the large scale to the detriment of people and the environment. That’s a distinctly old idea now, well past its use-by date. Better to work from the small scale outwards, and recognize that these elements produce the large-scale systems.”