Thursday, February 18, 2010

Waste collection as an unlikely attraction

STOCKHOLM. Every year thousands of visitors come to the Swedish capital Stockholm to see examples of modern urban development and marvel at an unlikely visitor attraction – waste collection.
Hammarby Sjöstad, a still on-going waterfront development project near the city center, has been a showcase for Swedish urban planning and green tech for the past 5-10 years. As Stockholm and Sweden now moves on to the next step in city development, a vacuum waste collection system invented by Envac remains as a symbol for Swedish ambitions in green tech.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity when customers actually come travelling here to see our product. And it’s also a product that you relatively easy can raise an interest for”, says Jonas Törnblom (right), corporate marketing and communications director of the Envac Group.
At a seminar in Stockholm earlier this week, Törnblom told the Envac story to a group of green tech businessmen and entrepreneurs. The meeting highlighted opportunities that come with the Swedish capital’s year as the first European Green Capital, an award given by the EU.
It’s a story Törnblom and his colleagues at Envac have told many times.
“In 2009 we held presentations for more than a hundred visiting groups from abroad that came to Hammarby Sjöstad. They were from 20 countries and we usually have two delegations coming here every week”, says Törnblom.
What they see is a Swedish invention that until recently was rather unique. Now Envac has installed some 600 of its waste collection systems in 30 countries around the world.
The system consists of inlets were users throw their waste. The waste is transported to a central collection point through underground pipes, using a vacuum system basically the same way a vacuum cleaner sucks dust.
Envac systems have been installed in residential areas, business premises, hospitals, airports and on city streets. The company likes to see its product as part of the city infrastructure.
When Hammarby Sjöstad was planned the vacuum waste collection system was seen as a help in reaching three environmental goals; reducing the total amount of household waste, reducing waste collection by heavy traffic and introducing source separation.
Since it became clear to Envac management that visitors to Hammarby Sjöstad found this interesting, the company has been very purposeful in using this opportunity for marketing of their products.
“Sweden has a good reputation when it comes to urban development. We use every opportunity connected to royal visits abroad, conferences, trade shows and such to seek alliances with foreign partners”, says Jonas Törnblom as he gives advice to his Swedish colleagues in the green tech business.
Despite the recent success for Envac, with a rapid expansion on the global market in the last couple of years, this is not the story of an upstart that made it big in a matter of years.
The history of the vacuum waste system goes back to the early 1960’s when the predecessor to Envac installed the first system in a hospital in Northern Sweden. That system is still in operation.
As early as 1965 the first waste system was installed in a new residential district in a suburb of Stockholm.
“The local politicians who made that decision were really bold. At that time nobody could really know if it would work, but the system is still in use”, says Törnblom.
He describes the continued story of Envac as a “bumpy road” leading up to the company’s present status as a world leader in its field. Sweden has for many years been in the forefront of green technology in urban development, district heating is one example, but it’s not until recently green tech became a trendy label for any company striving to be part of shaping the future.
For years, Envac struggled for a breakthrough on the domestic market. The company almost went bust after the crisis in the Swedish building industry in the 1990’s.
“That’s when we started to look at the international market. We had to, otherwise we wouldn’t have survived”, says Jonas Törnblom.
A couple of years later, waste collection become an attraction in Stockholm and what started 50 years ago with a few tech-optimists wanting to “vacuum” garbage through pipes became a sustainable success.

Inlets to the Envac system in Hammarby Sjöstad.

Protests in the wake of urban development

HAMBURG/CITYSCAPE IN CHANGE. In three earlier reports we have looked at HafenCity, the gigantic urban development that will change the landscape of this Northern German port city.
During my latest visit to Hamburg I spent most of my time wandering around this construction site, the largest on-going project of this kind anywhere in Europe.
But Hamburg is so much more than a laboratory for the cityscape of the future. This city of 1.8 million residents (over 4 million in the metropolitan region) has long been one of my favourite cities in Europe.
What makes Hamburg special is the sharp contrast between the two faces of the city.
On one hand you have a very prosperous city, one of the richest in Europe, with wealthy businessmen in expensive suits driving a Mercedes or BMW. In Hamburg you will meet a more distinct bourgeois Germany than anywhere else, with elegant ladies in fur coats walking their poodles from their expensive homes on the inner-city lakes.
On the other hand, this is a city of leftist protest culture, squatters, anarchists and seedy neighbourhoods that used to be the image of European sin.
And than you have the raw power of the port, the heart of Hamburg that made the city what it is.
While I was going through my material from Hamburg I came across an interesting story from the German news magazine Der Spiegel, published here on its English-language on-line service. It tells the story of an on-going struggle over the future of Hamburg that you won’t see much of if you visit HafenCity.
In the tradition of Hamburg’s protest movements there has been a reaction against the ambitions to change and develop the city. HafenCity is perhaps not what mostly stirs emotions. This new part of the city is being built on derelict old port and industrial land, but there has been protest against the high cost of living there.
Protesters are more against on-going gentrification in other parts of the city, which they feel might change the unique character of the city.
What set things in motion, according to the story in Der Spiegel, was the ambitions of city leaders to change Hamburg in line with the ideas of U.S. economist Richard Florida and his philosophy that cities have to attract the “creative class” in order to succeed.
Buildings have been occupied and manifestos circulated. An alliance of activists called “Right to the City” has been formed. At this point the story becomes somewhat confusing. The protest movement is to a large extent made up of the “creative class” the city seems to want more of.
An opening between city authorities and protesters is said to be under way, but the tension in Hamburg reminds us of struggles that might come in many cities as they now invest heavily in the future urban landscape.
“In this sense, Hamburg currently functions as a focal lens of sorts, one in which the conflicts of the coming decades are already recognizable. These conflicts will pit change against preservation, private property against the community and, most of all, economic interests against social considerations”, writes Der Spiegel.

This is the last of four reports on urban development in Hamburg.