Isabel Swift, Landscape Architecture MA student at Leeds Beckett University and joint winner of the LI Student Travel Award 2017, runs through her top five health and wellbeing features in the Swedish cities of Uppsala, Stockholm and Malmö
Why I chose to study landscape architecture, and why I applied for the travel bursary
I began my landscape architecture studies in January 2017 as a part-time mature student. As a therapeutic horticulturalist and garden designer with a background in community development and an interest in permaculture, I wanted to professionalise my design skills and look at the research behind design for health and wellbeing.
Back in 2006, I spent a year living in a small town near Stockholm. Reflecting on my time in the country, during my lectures on quality public realm design and master-planning, it seemed to me that Sweden had got it right years ago. So, I was keen to look again through the eyes of a designer.
When studying Social and Therapeutic Horticulture (STH) at Coventry University, a Danish colleague introduced me to the work of Patrik Grahn of the Department of Work Science, Business Economics and Environmental Psychology and the Alnarp Rehabilitation Garden at Sweden’s University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala. The journal ‘Growth Point’ (of the national charity for STH) introduced me to ‘Sinnenas Trädgård’, ‘The Garden of the Senses’ nestled between two care homes for older people right next to Vasaparken in Stockholm.
I’ll talk about my observations in two parts:
- the health and wellbeing features of the public realm space which I visited in each of three cities; Uppsala, Stockholm and Malmö; and
- the features and key design features of the two therapeutic gardens, and general conclusions about planning and design in Sweden
Part one: my top five health and wellbeing features in Swedish cities
The opportunity to play is never far away in Sweden: be it small, traditional playgrounds (climbing frames, swings and slides) regularly spread throughout complexes of apartments, sandpits at nodes, by bus stops and local shops; or innovative play equipment, robust enough for children, teenagers and adults alike. Play and movement are essential for children to develop physically, cognitively and emotionally. The whole city can offer this to children in Sweden, making it easy for busy parents to allow this basic need for their children as an easy part of everyday life. Opportunities for adults and teenagers to have a go, such as the huge spinner shown below, can really lift the spirits, make you laugh, bond with your children, encourage exercise, or make you feel more likely to interact with strangers as you continue your walk. The chance to be completely absorbed in an activity – for example spinning around – is an opportunity for informal mindfulness. You are taken away from the ‘to do’ list and pressures of modern life and stress is thus reduced. Using many small informal opportunities for informal mindfulness are described by Gill Hassan in her 2013 book.
Seeing something unusual or surprising while out and about offers another opportunity for mindfulness. Your head is pulled away from the day-to-day and your attention is directed elsewhere. Public art does this for us and it is plentiful in Sweden’s cities. If you like it, it could elicit a feeling of joy, which the school of positive psychology suggests will make us feel and behave playfully. Even if we don’t like it, we have ‘taken notice’, which is one of the five ways to mental wellbeing as described by the New Economic foundation and adopted by the NHS as a public health message.
Active sustainable travel
Active travel gives us exercise to help our cardiovascular health and to support good flexibility in older age. Cycling and walking cause us to interact with others, which meets two of the five ways to mental wellbeing: be active and connect. These methods of travelling also mean that no fuel needs to be consumed and thus there is no direct contribution to air pollution. In Sweden I saw many simple ways that active travel has been supported.
Communal outdoor living
Coming together outdoors to play, eat and celebrate is part of the landscape in Sweden. Apartment complexes have areas to sit, eat and cook. I saw this in both Uppsala and Stockholm, where I stayed in Airbnb properties to get a feel for real life. These spaces are usually near to play areas for children, meaning generations aren’t segregated. Suburban areas in Uppsala dominated by detached, privately owned houses were still all based around central green areas that included communal built structures such as shelters for tables, barbeques and seating to protect from a shower or to shade from the sun. These areas were also used for midsummer parties. Basketball hoops had been erected, murals painted and free libraries installed. They also served as places for children to meet and play.
Large linking public spaces for city centre celebrations
Both Malmö and Stockholm had well-designed interlinking public spaces that could be used for big public gatherings, festivals and parties. Using the urban landscape to bring novel, interactive visual spectacles is done well here and creative thinking in terms of road closures to link these spaces really makes the city centre a summer playground!
Now for the really cleaver bit! Creating spaces that facilitate several of the top five features in the same area
In many places landscape features have been created that fulfill two or more of the top five ways to mental wellbeing. The best example that I saw of this is the art, play and social trail in inner city Uppsala, a string of pocket parks and narrow spaces called Frodeparken and Bergsbrunnaparken, which encourages people to walk or cycle to town rather than drive. The regular innovative play opportunities, beautiful planting and pieces of public art encourage people to take time and enjoy the walk rather than rushing. Some examples are below.
- Positive Psychology – the work of Barbara Fredrikson including her book Positivity and the online course available through Coursera.co.uk
- Five ways to mental wellbeing – the New Economic Foundation
- Hassan, G. 2013. Mindfulness: Be mindful. Live in the moment. Minnesota: Capstone.