What we can learn from Stockholm, and Stockholm from us

I was invited last month to help represent Minneapolis and U.S. cities at the European Green Capital conference in Stockholm, Sweden. This gave me a great chance to learn about new ways to make our city more sustainable, and to help spread the reputation that Minneapolis is developing as one of the world’s leading green cities. I’d like to share a couple related observations from that trip: about something we can learn from Stockholm, and something Stockholm can learn from us.

Standing near the Stockholm harbor last month, I heard a simple fact that says a lot about what we can learn from the capital of Sweden, and a lot about the future of Minneapolis.

I learned that in 1955, Stockholm had 500,000 people, which at the time was about the same number of people that Minneapolis had. Since then, Stockholm grew, like most European cities — by expanding transit and growing at the core of the city. Since 1955, Minneapolis and our region grew, too, like most of the rest of the U.S. — by ripping up streetcars and replacing them with freeways. Both regions grew: but by the 1990s, Stockholm’s core-city population had burgeoned to 900,000, while Minneapolis’ population had shrunk to 325,000 while our region sprawled.

The good news for Minneapolis is that our city’s population is on the rebound and is now nearing 400,000. We are growing again in part because we have pursued policies that encourage density and because we are rapidly building new transit. The overwhelmingly successful Hiawatha light-rail line will be followed in just a few years by Central Corridor light rail and two more lines in the planning. They will be joined by commuter rail to the north, bus rapid transit on 35W to the south — and state-of-the-art streetcars on our streets once again, a half-century after the old system was torn up.

If you want to see what kind of city all this transit will help us become, look to Stockholm.   Housing has been built up along the transit lines that crisscross central Stockholm, and we can expect the neighborhoods that border our transit lines to grow much like they have in Stockholm — in fact, we’re already beginning to see it along the Hiawatha Line. The more people live there, the more businesses open and the more communities thrive, and the active street life you see in a dense, transit-oriented neighborhood like Uptown will become more common as we build transit lines throughout the city. Think what the streetcar we envision along Central Avenue could do to help strengthen businesses and enliven street life on an already-great street that has the potential to be much greater. Walking down the streets of one exciting neighborhood after the other in Stockholm, I saw a lot about the kind of city we will become.

Transit and density are what Stockholm has to teach us. But we have something related to teach them back.

Coincidentally, just before I left for Stockholm last month, I met with a group from Sweden that was visiting Minneapolis to look at issues of Somali integration.

Minneapolis has the largest concentration of Somalis in the world outside Mogadishu. Stockholm, as it turns out, is hast the second-largest concentration — but according to the Swedes, the Somali community is much better integrated in Minneapolis. When the Swedish delegation was here, they saw small businesses run by Somalis springing up around the city, Somali young people thriving in school, and Somalis taking on important leadership positions in the city — like Hussein Samatar, who has just been elected to the Minneapolis School Board and is the first person of Somali descent ever elected to public office anywhere in America.

This isn’t a revelation to us: Somali people, Somali businesses, Somali culture and Somali leaders are an integral part of daily life in our city. But it was a revelation to the folks visiting from Sweden, because it hasn’t happened there. Worse, the Somali community in Sweden is sadly subject to high rates of unemployment and high concentrations of poverty.

They asked how this integration has happened in Minneapolis. I reminded them that all is not perfect and we have to keep working, especially on economic development, jobs and closing gaps. But a good place to start is that point I made earlier about how the two cities grew differently.

While the center of Stockholm was growing along inner-city transit lines, poverty and immigrants became concentrated in large public-housing projects in the suburbs, making the core city a place for rich and upper-middle-class residents. In Minneapolis, however, our housing patterns are more mixed. The center of Minneapolis has rich and poor neighborhoods, to be sure, but miles of middle-class neighborhoods in between — which makes it unlike many U.S. cities, too, not just Stockholm. So in Minneapolis, it’s much more common for Somalis, even those who have very recently arrived, to be out on the street in mixed crowds and part of active life in Minneapolis, and it’s much more common for children from every race and culture here to be used to going to school with Somali children. There’s nothing unusual about seeing a woman in a headscarf walking down the street in Minneapolis or working in a Target store. Yet during the week I spent in Stockholm, when I walked around every part of the city — the city with the second-largest concentration of Somalis outside Mogadishu — I did not see a single Somali person.

Think about what this contrast means for our cities in the future, especially as all cities around the world race to compete in a global economy. The residents of Minneapolis, who come from all countries and represent all cultures, will have far more experience in crossing cultural barriers than will people from cities where cultures are less well integrated, or not well integrated at all. We will have thousands of residents with language and culture skills that will help all of us reach out to the rest of the world — including Africa, which I believe will someday represent a growing market for our goods  like China and India are today.

So we can and should learn from Stockholm how to do density and transit better than we have, at least until recently, but we can also learn from their unintended consequences. And while we are a long way from holding ourselves up as an international model of integration, it’s clear that we’re doing some things right, and that Stockholm can learn something from us. And that means good things for our future in a global world.

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