Ah, Sweden. Amidst the over-promise and over-hype that has come to define so many smart-city developments, the Royal Seaport in Stockholm stands out as a project that’s remained true to its word. Beginning in the early 2000s, the City of Stockholm envisioned transforming an industrial area outside the city center into a highly sustainable and tech-connected district with 12,000 new homes and 35,000 commercial and office spaces. By 2010, the Stockholm City Council had committed to making Royal Seaport an international example of sustainable urban planning, one that would also provide much needed housing for the city’s growing population, which now numbers around 1.5 million. The development is taking shape around an infrastructure of information communications systems that will support smart homes and public transit access—a feature “just as important as having well-functioning roads, electricity, or water,” Staffan Lorentz, the head of development for Royal Seaport, said in a 2012 interview. Linking walking paths, bike lanes, rapid bus systems, and the metro using apps and wayfinding will help the district reduce its emissions. Ground broke on the project in 2011 with the goal of having the district complete—and running fossil fuel free—by 2030.

Lennart Johansson
Royal Seaport in 2006 (top) and 2016
Lennart Johansson Royal Seaport in 2006 (top) and 2016

There’s a bit of irony in that carbon neutral goal, considering the 583-acre district—one of the largest urban development areas in Northern Europe—runs along a waterway historically used to transport coal to the city’s gasworks factories. In fact, one of the key architectural symbols of the district, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, pays homage to an original, round gasworks building. The 295-foot-tall tower, expected to open in 2022, features a variegated, v-shaped exterior and will house 317 apartments. “Its floor plan opens like the pages in a book to the surrounding city and landscape, maximizing sun exposure and offering a variety of views,” is how Jacques Herzog, Hon. FAIA, described the project.

Sun exposure is critical during the dark Scandinavian winters, and the sensitivity to this design issue also helped the Danish firm Adept and the Stockholm-based Mandaworks earn the opportunity to master plan a key portion of Royal Seaport. The two firms won a 2015 design competition for a 43-acre section located near the city’s metro system. Known as Kolkajen-Ropsten, it reconnects the historic gasworks area to the waterfront through a new central axis leading to a shoreline park they call a “water arena.”

Courtesy City of Stockholm

“We proposed to build out a new island in the water that would turn the northeast facing shoreline to a south facing promenade” with housing and ground-level public retail, says Martin Laursen, founding partner of Adept, “so that the area would be more attractive in terms of daylight.”

Another key feature of their master plan is access to public transit and bike infrastructure (Royal Seaport is just 10 minutes from the city by bike). There will only be short-term parking in the area, with long-term parking for residents and workers in a nearby central garage. Not every apartment gets a place to park, according to Laursen: “You might have to share one spot between three or four apartments,” he says. “The new area aims to push future inhabitants to use other more sustainable forms of transportation than a private car.”

Herzog & de Meuron's Gaslockan Tower
Courtesy Herzog & de Meuron Herzog & de Meuron's Gaslockan Tower

Adept and Mandaworks have spent three years finalizing the plan, and last year the city began conducting architecture competitions for plots. “We did a design book for the area for architects and builders to follow,” Laursen says, which highlights the already established sustainability requirements for all of the buildings in Royal Seaport, such as encouraging green roofs and photovoltaics. The main corridor that connects the historic center to the water calls for closer blocks and higher buildings to help define the axis. Along the waterfront, however, where there is a park and a canal space, they lowered the scale to create “an Amsterdam feeling,” as Laursen describes it, with row houses and a mix of building materials. “It underlines a more intimate and calm public environment,” he says, and is meant to emulate an organic city grown over time, as opposed to one born overnight, by designing in a “diversity not only in ways of living, but also in ways of using a mix of materials in different urban spaces.”

To that end, historic preservation has also been important to the project. In Europe, smart city projects are more often than not retrofits requiring sensitivity to existing context. In addition to restoring some existing buildings, Laursen and his team made sure to maintain a portion of the historic pier that harkens back to the days of the “Shouting Stone.” “Before they had bridges connecting the islands, if you wanted the ferry, you would go out to a rock and shout for it to come get you,” Laursen says. “Even though we will build a lot of new buildings, the whole history of the site is well preserved.”

Robin Hayes
Robin Hayes
The Technical Building, designed by U.D. Urban Design and Anders Ohlin, which houses both an electrical substation as well as pumps for a fountain in Norra Djurgården
Robin Hayes The Technical Building, designed by U.D. Urban Design and Anders Ohlin, which houses both an electrical substation as well as pumps for a fountain in Norra Djurgården

Part of Royal Seaport’s success so far derives from its political cohesion and commitment to vision. According to the district’s website, property developers must all participate in city-run seminars at early stages of planning, to determine their competence and experience in achieving the rigorous sustainability targets. The goals will be achieved using high-tech strategies for monitoring buildings as well as through low-tech means, such as government-sponsored forums on sustainable solutions and recurring mini trade fairs that introduce developers and technical suppliers to one another and encourage discussion around sustainable products, services, and ideas.

Today, a portion of Royal Seaport has come to life, with more than 2,500 housing units occupied, and another 5,100 soon to open. Construction on the infrastructure for the Kolkajen-Ropsten district will begin this year. Several research and design studies have already been conducted, including a post-occupancy survey with new residents to ensure that the promises of the development are being realized. “Real-time follow up on how well the apartments and the area performs in energy consumption or traffic is important,” Lorentz said. “We need to constantly follow up to see if we’re making the right decisions.”