Interview with Dr. Eng. Professor Ulf Ranhagen

As one of Sweden’s most prominent strategic urban planners and a key figure in the formation of Sweden’s Sustainable City Concept and the subsequent SymbioCity market platform and SymbioCity Approach conceptual framework, Ulf has generated international acclaim for his progressive approaches to sustainable development.

His commitment to implementing robust planning methodologies that deliver economical, sustainable social and spatial value, combined with his groundbreaking planning work on, for example, the new Sweden-inspired small satellite town of Luodian in Shanghai and Tangshan Bay eco-city, has firmly cemented his position as one of this generation’s true innovators.

Here, he provides his vision of the future and outlines why waste collection has never been so important.

Describe Envac in three words
Liveable. Green. Resilient.

What first attracted to you to Envac?
Envac came to my attention during the first stages of developing SymbioCity. The system was showcased as an example of best practice following its success in what has now become an international mark of excellence within the sustainable built environment: Hammarby Sjostad and Western Harbour. Through Hammarby Sjostad and Western Harbour (BO 01 area), Envac demonstrated how waste could be completely reframed as an integral component of the urban realm that actually added social and aesthetical value to a development rather than reduce it.

From an architect’s perspective, how important is waste management’s role in delivering positive urban environments?
Extremely important and there are multiple reasons why. We all know and understand the implications of overfull bins in public areas; they’re smelly, unattractive and take up huge volumes of space. Through automated waste collection, cities that choose to adopt the technology can immediately reallocate space to other uses that add more value to society such as the provision of additional bicycle storage, vibrant retail space and even extra residential units. Automated waste collection also facilitates the planning and development of denser, less car-dependent and more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly urban areas, too.  From the perspective of an architect or developer, if you can save space you can save money. Envac not only saves money by reducing the amount of space required for waste collection but it also helps contribute towards creating people-friendly environments in the process.

You are one of the originators of the SymbioCity concept. What are your plans for its future?
SymbioCity is now a living and breathing entity in its own right, and one that’s also continually evolving. At the heart of the concept and approach is a basic platform on which to build, develop and implement the very latest in sustainable design within the urban realm. As ideas, services and products evolve, so too does SymbioCity’s capacity for making a positive contribution to the lives of those within the communities it serves. I continue to play an advisory role and it’s reassuring to see that architects and engineers, especially Sweco, are now applying its framework and working procedures as standard practice. However, it’s SymbioCity’s potential for the future and the opportunities that it will create five, ten and fifteen years from now that excite me.

You’ve witnessed Envac’s ascension over the last decade following its integration within Hammarby Sjostard. Where do you see Envac sitting within contemporary urban environments within the next five years?
I think Envac’s successes such as those achieved in places like Barcelona, where waste collection has been revolutionised and the positive impact its inclusion has had is clear for all to see, provide excellent examples of how waste should fit into the wider strategic development of cities and communities. The case for installing Envac is undoubtedly very compelling and the positive citywide strategic implications are undeniable, however the challenge now is to ensure that mayors of cities and those working at a political and urban management level hear these environmental, socio-cultural, economical and spatial benefits. After all, it is these people who are responsible for making the decisions, which, in both the short and long-term, will greatly enhance communities and futureproof cites by making them more resilient.

What more can architects and those responsible for place making and shaping positive environments do to increase the sustainability credentials of modern developments?
We need to look beyond urban and architectural design in isolation and move towards understanding the city as a structural system made up of a series of interlinked spaces and consider the synergies between all urban systems. We need to look at how people live and move around the walkable and bicycle-friendly city and create solutions that can positively influence the ‘life puzzle’ that everyone experiences. Only by doing this, and by doing it in collaboration with the citizens themselves and their representatives, the politicians and the   planners, service providers and technology developers and manufacturers, can we fully understand a city and maximise the opportunities that each one presents. Eco-governance is thus of key importance for increasing the sustainable credentials of modern developments.

 What inspires you?
I am very keen on planning and design, particularly developing the linkage between spatial planning, urban design and sustainability. I find how spatial planning has an enormous potential to be used as an instrument in which to become more sustainable fascinating and very inspirational, but also challenging. One of the biggest shifts, which has seen waste transition from being perceived as rubbish to a valuable resource, is phenomenal. Finally, seeing just how successful projects and developments can become following effective collaboration between all those who contribute to it makes me feel proud to work in this sector.

When not at work, how do you like to unwind?
I am very much inspired by all forms of culture such as music, theatre, art, architecture and literature. I also really enjoy walking, bicycling and skiing across all different types of terrain and landscapes.

What are your passions?
I am a passionate amateur musician who has been playing traditional jazz (clarinet and soprano saxophone) in Eh-La Bas Jazz Band since 1985. I also like to discover cities and towns of all kinds and can walk or bicycle for hours and hours enjoying the specific unique features that cities and towns in China, Brazil, Netherlands, Sweden or elsewhere have to offer. I am also very interested in sketching and watercolour painting, especially during summertime when visiting my leisure home and ancestors’ home in the rural areas of Sweden.

Which living person or people do you most admire, and why?
I admire many people, however I particularly admire my six grandchildren for their curiosity, achievements and discoveries!

What is your favourite book?
There are so many books across different genres, however The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs has given me a deeper understanding of what makes cities diverse and vibrant. Andrew Hodges’ biography of Alan Turing, entitled Enigma, also offers a very fascinating insight into the life of a great genius and pioneer of our digital era.