Deputy Director Of City Planning In Stockholm, Niklas Svensson: From Expert Planning To Dialogue Based Planning

This is part of an interview series with the city planning directors of Helsinki and Stockholm. Read Niklas Svensson, deputy city planning director of Stockholm, share his views on successful dialogue.

Joakim Breitenstein (JB): In the past years you have worked for the city of Stockholm, first as an urban strategist and now as deputy director of city planning. What led you to work with urban planning and why do you think you were selected to your current position to direct urban planning in Stockholm?

Niklas Svensson (NS): I have always been very interested in cities and I enjoy them as a phenomenon. There are hundreds of reasons for people to gather in a dense space and together we have to create a good environment for all of us. I have worked with these issues for a long time and I achieved my current position through many different steps. The most important one was me directing the work with the Stockholm City Plan – The Walkable City.

JB: How would you introduce a non-professional reader to the past, present and future of urban planning in Stockholm?

NS: It’s about going from expert planning to a dialogue based planning that embraces participation. The role of the expert is still important but it’s different. A new city evolves as different interests collide and the users need to be listened to more. More complex processes are needed as the city grows.

JB: Residents, landowners, local organizations, authorities, construction developers as well as owners of digital and physical infrastructure are all stakeholders in urban planning. How have the roles of different stakeholders changed from past to present and how do you think they will change in the future?

NS: My answer is similar to the previous one. We need more of everybody’s knowledge to achieve better urban development. We more and more put people to the center of what we do.

JB: How do you feel that communication between stakeholders in urban planning has changed and how will it maybe change in the future?

NS: The planning process requires better communications when it comes to clarifying where and when it is possible for people to have an impact. A big challenge is for politics to contribute and engage in dialogue. This is needed to create trust for a genuine dialogue.

JB: What are the most important factors in a successful communication between stakeholders and what needs be avoided so that the communication does not fail?

NS: Context! Analyze the context and choose methods after that. Problems occur when a method that might work somewhere else is chosen to be used in the wrong place.

JB: Stockholm has already done a lot to encourage participatory planning (e.g. Dialogpaviljongen (free translation: “The Dialogue Pavilion”)). What have been the most important factors that have affected participatory urban planning in Stockholm in the past and what are they now? What will they be in the future?

NS: It’s a combination of city officials who engage and politicians who have an interest and understanding of the subject. This way the politicians can ensure the presence of participation in our projects.

JB: What have you learned from the work that has already been done and what will be done in a same or different way in the future?

NS: We will make sure that all good pilots become everyday actions. Dialogue and participatory planning will be a natural and self-evident part of our processes in the future. 

JB: What is good in participatory planning?

NS: Everything!

JB: What is bad in participatory planning?

NS: It will become bad if you do it only for the sake of it and have no genuine will to utilize the information that is collected.

JB: What other similar scale issues do you have on your table at the moment and how do they fit together with participation?

NS: We are working hard with social sustainability and participation is one of the cornerstones of that.

JB: Are you familiar with the Stockholm är inte i bullerbyn (free translation: “YIMBY Stockholm”) Facebook group?

NS: I know the group but I am not familiar with the details.

JB: How do you feel about them and what would you wish to ask or tell them?

NS: It’s good with all sorts of participation and discussion about the city. It’s always refreshing if proactive communities make themselves heard and not only those who aim to oppose everything.

JB: Some citizens in Stockholm feel that the term “samråd” (free translation: “citizen consultation”) is deceptive. For some people these events feel more like one sided briefings from the city to the citizens than they feel like dialogue. A new term, “citizen hearing”, is proposed for the events. Do you agree and how would you respond?

NS: We are working on a thing we call “early dialogue” that is organized before the citizen consultations. The goal for this is to enable better ways for people to have an impact already before the citizen consultations.

JB: Citizens in Helsinki have proposed a pilot where the citizens would be in charge of planning some untouched area. They ask if the city would be ready to hand over planning responsibility of some specific area to citizens completely. Do you think this kind of idea would be possible to pilot in Stockholm?

NS: I think that the planning must be directed by the city as an organization and authority. There is a whole bunch of laws that aim to make sure everything is done right. To completely hand over planning responsibility to citizens could become problematic.

JB: We, a group of citizens, have a concrete urban idea that we want to realize with our community. What do we need to understand in order to make it happen and also how do we make sure that our efforts are fruitful from the point of view of the city planning department?

NS: Hopefully it’s an idea that aligns with the city’s overall plan and priorities. Then it’s up to anyone to participate within the existing participation processes.

JB: Digital collaboration and urban development expert Antti Jogi Poikola proposes a change in how we discuss urban planning. In addition to competing plans, we should discuss alternative initial assumptions. Let’s take the debate about building housing to Stockholm’s Bromma airport (A) vs. keeping it as an airport (B) as an example. In this case the initial assumptions could be that the airport benefits Stockholm’s economy (1) and alternatively does not benefit Stockholm’s economy (2) in the future. We should not only discuss which idea is better but, according to Poikola, what kind of initial assumptions we base our decisions on. This way we could better understand what impact housing or an airport will have on our built environment if the airport either benefits (A1 vs. B1) or does not benefit (A2 vs. B2) Stockholm’s economy in the future. Different ideas would be combined with different initial assumptions and finally different future scenarios would be generated. By testing different ideas against different initial assumptions, the community would choose between future scenarios rather than concrete plans which are necessarily not even relevant from the point of view of a common future vision. What do you think about this kind of approach to debate? That in addition to concrete plans, the community would discuss initial assumptions. Concrete plans would be used more to test initial assumptions and less as source material for decisions. Would it make the discussion more fruitful?

NS: This sounds exciting but I think projects as big as Bromma airport, which has an impact on the whole country, can not be evaluated through this kind of approach. There are too many complex and economical issues on stake. This kind of approach could work better in smaller scale urban development projects.

Niklas Svensson is deputy city planning director of Stockholm. You can find out more about his work here. Read other parts of this series here. Scroll down to subscribe to this blog.

A special thank you to the members of Stockholm är inte i bullerbyn (free translation: “YIMBY Stockholm”) who contributed with creating the questions for this interview.