Jul 13, 2014

My two thriving home towns, summer report

Umeå in Sweden, Seattle in the U.S. My two cities.

Both my home towns are blossoming during the summer. The greenery, the water, Seattleites and Umebor coming out of the drizzle and the snow, tourists visiting. Restaurants and parks crowded with people having a meal and a drink, soaking the sun. Umeå has even been in the neighborhood of Seattle temperatures this week, it’s absolutely wonderful!

And Umeå is hot in more ways this summer! New York Times has appointed Umeå one out of 52 destinations to visit this year! And Expressen, one of the leading evening magazines in Sweden is asking if Umeå is the hottest city in the country right now. The numbers of foreign visitors are increasing by the week, look at these numbers for 2014: Finland 56%, Norway 62%, (although they are hardly foreign to us) Germany 146% and Great Brittan 221%! It’s all because of Umeå being the European Capital of Culture of course. 

Seattle is hot all year round though. Last year, Seattle grew faster than any other major American city, according to population estimates released by Census Bureau. From July 1, 2012 to July 1, 2013, Seattle grew by 2.8 percent — the highest rate among the 50 most-populous U.S. cities.  2,8% is a lot. But Umeå is actually one of the fastest growing cities within the European Union (!), more than 1% a year since 1994.

Seattle is now the 21st biggest city in the U.S and Umeå the 12th biggest in Sweden. My two home towns are thriving, building cranes are everywhere. It’s a long time since “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights”-era in the 1970s and Umeå feeling like the northern Sweden (Norrland) underdog compared to Sundsvall and even Luleå. The Umeå population growth was 36% in 1985-2010.
My two cities have more similarities. One is the desire to turn the city face towards the water, Elliot Bay and the Umeå River. Downtown has been cut off from the water, in Seattle by the Alaskan Viaduct Highway 99 and Umeå by Strandvägen. The areas facing the water has to a large degree been ugly and unfriendly.
So, there are these two projects. In Umeå The City Between the Bridges  (Staden mellan broarna) and A Waterfront for All in Seattle. Both are reconnecting downtown to the water and both are transforming to the City and the designers’ goal: shaping up a big forgotten grey zone to become the cities' front porches where people can hang out, play, relax and feel safe. 26 blocks in Seattle and 9 in Umeå. It’s only the scales that are different.
In Umeå several parks are in the waterfront design, and this week the most central one was inaugurated. Rådhusparken (the City Hall Park) now stretches from the old City Hall (well, there is still Storgatan cutting off right at the Hall, that’s in the pipe line for next year) all the way down to the river. The new park is modern, strict and open,  and speaks well with the next door neighbor Väven, the new building for cultural arts designed by Norwegian Snöhetta, and just about to be inhabited by the cultural life of Umeå.
The exterior of Väven is glass, inspired by the black and white graphic stem of the birch, the Umeå land mark tree. The materials in Rådhusparken is light grey granite, black wood and grass in flat terraces walking down the slope. What used to be a big parking lot has been transformed by Ulf Nordfjell, the Umeå born and bread world famous landscape architect, to the welcoming front porch it was waiting to be. And already this first warm weekend you could tell the citizens of Umeå found it and just loved it!
In October it is three years since I first started telling stories about Umeå and Seattle, my two home towns. By that time the water front plans were dreams not quite put on paper yet. Seattle is still in the process, but there is the fabulous Great Wheel at Pier 57 and parts of the Viaduct is gone. The transformation in Umeå is remarkable and it won’t be long until the City Between the Bridges is fulfilled and the 9 blocks a land mark and a postcard instead of a shameful eye sore. I am so proud and happy!

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