The Swedish Concept of ‘Lagom’ Could Tame America’s Urban Supremacism

The U.S. Can Learn From Sweden’s Policies That Spread Growth, Development, and Opportunity Into Smaller Cities and Rural Regions

The Swedish Concept of ‘Lagom’ Could Tame America’s Urban Supremacism | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Aerial view of Scania, Sweden. Edited for maximum color saturation. Courtesy of Bob Collowan/Commons/CC-BY-SA-4.0.

Lagom—pronounced “LAW-goohm”—is a Swedish word for which there is no direct English translation. Some dictionaries translate it as “moderate” or “modest” or “suitable” or “sufficient.” The “just right” of Goldilocks gives a sense of the Swedish lagom, but in all its nuance and in the full scope of its meaning, lagom can’t really be boiled down to a single English word or expression.

I’m both a Swedish and an American citizen, and I know there is much America can learn from Sweden. It’s not a socialist country, but it does offer its residents universal healthcare, free university, paid parental leave, subsidized childcare, and more. In many ways, Sweden is a model of sustainability, egalitarianism, and environmentalism. Much of this has to do with its conception of lagom.

Lagom represents a way of life for many Swedes, a deep sense that there is something inherently wrong with excess; an ingrained worldview that balance and equilibrium are not only desirable, but that they are the keys to sustainability and living in harmony with nature.

It’s hard for Americans to understand—Americans who are so focused on constant motion, continual growth, and extreme consumerism. We always seem to want “more” of everything.

I’m a local elected official in Beverly Hills, and I see the American lack of lagom in the urban supremacism in the United States—an axis of developers, corporations, speculators, and politicians, which demands constant growth and metastasis in megalopolises like Los Angeles. Invoking purported solutions to deal with everything from homelessness, reduced productivity, climate change, housing unaffordability, and stagnant economic growth to racial equity, urban supremacists call for forced density, the elimination of single-family neighborhoods, centralized Sacramento-driven urban planning, gutting CEQA and the further commodification of housing. In the process, they pursue a new Manifest Destiny, in which a limited number of “winner” megalopolises are destined to redeem the U.S. by concentrating and controlling its economy, its social, educational, and cultural institutions, and its spectrum of lifestyle choices. These urbanists say they are progressive, or environmentalists—but they are so in a very American, and very different, way than the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who admonishes us, “We are in the beginning of mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”

Inga träd växer till himlen” is a Swedish proverb; its literal translation is “No trees grow to the sky.” The proverb suggests that there are natural and obvious limits to growth. It also communicates the sense that arrogance, too, has limits. Americans should take note.

Among the consequences of Sweden’s embrace of lagom are urban planning policies which promote economic balance and geographic equity. Policies like glesbygdspolitik (“rural area policy”) and regionalutvecklingspolitik (“regional development policy”) consciously aim to create livable, viable, and thriving communities throughout the country—rather than depopulating rural areas and smaller towns and cities. Not everyone in Sweden should live in Stockholm, Gothenburg, or Malmö. Not everyone in Sweden wants to. Not everyone in Sweden has to.

Hela landet ska leva!” is another great phrase. It means, “The whole country should live!” as well as “The whole country should thrive!” and is so uncontroversial in Sweden that it has the broad support of all the major political parties, from the hard left to the hard right to the Green Party as well. Governmental policies in Sweden supporting decentralization, including locating governmental agencies in smaller cities, are all part of ensuring that there are opportunities throughout the country, not just in the larger cities.

Recognizing the individuality and strength of diverse communities, rather than boiling everything down to economics or looking for ways to maximize productivity and profits, is the hallmark and essence of urban humanism. While the term itself is not Swedish, I use it to describe an idealized version of Swedish urban philosophy, which also encompasses the Swedish notion of folkhemmet, or “the people’s home,” in which communities are like a version of a large family. Urban humanism respects the individual, while at the same time embracing collective responsibility, particularly towards the most vulnerable. Urban humanism is community-based; urban humanism is inclusive; urban humanism is lagom.

Lagom represents a way of life for many Swedes, a deep sense that there is something inherently wrong with excess; an ingrained worldview that balance and equilibrium are not only desirable, but that they are the keys to sustainability and living in harmony with nature.

And while Sweden itself seems to enjoy a fairly good reputation in the U.S., an antilagom, anti-community, anti-communitarian bent seems to infuse our mainstream media. Take the New York Times, which allows a host of op-ed writers and its housing reporter to extol growing megalopolises, and specifically the Bay Area, as beacons of opportunity—decrying the “rising cost of being near it” as if there were no alternative. Or listen to those in the YIMBY, or Yes in My Backyard movement, who dream of eternal growth that might take the Bay Area from seven million to more than 40 million residents, or four times the population of Sweden. One proponent writes:

The goal is to live in one of the most job rich, opportunity rich, high productivity areas in the world. We don’t care if it’s called ‘San Francisco’ or if it’s filled with 2 story bungalows built in the 1950s. In fact, we’d prefer it not be filled with 2 story bungalows, because if instead it was filled with 5 story apartment buildings, more of us could live here and have jobs here, and have opportunities here that we don’t have access to in the towns we were born in.

If [S]ilicon [V]alley moved to Detroit, we would happily move there. It’s not the name, it’s the jobs.

Understanding, as Thunberg has suggested, that models of eternal economic growth are not sustainable, even San Francisco, the second-densest urban area in the U.S., recognized that there should be limits to commercial growth. And so, in 2019, its voters passed Proposition E, which in theory limited the development of further office space until the city’s affordable housing goals had been met. California state senator Scott Wiener, who advocates for anti-lagom growth policies, was none too pleased by this. On Feb. 10, 2019, months before the election, he tweeted:

There’s a new argument in Silicon Valley & San Francisco (eg Prop E) that the solution to our housing shortage isn’t to build more homes but rather to kill the economy by pushing away jobs & banning new office space.

By this logic, being willing to limit commercial growth is to “kill the economy.”

How very un-Swedish.

It would be better to step back and re-examine American logic. Many of the problems that America’s urbanists want to “solve” with exponential growth are a direct result of this phenomenon of “concentration of opportunity,” or overconcentration of people and businesses in certain areas. This account of urbanism entails a kind of feeding frenzy of development, in which regions try to address problems created by growth with even more growth.

However, when overconcentration leads to problems, it makes sense to start thinking about de-concentration. That’s the essence of lagom. In other words, we should seek economic balance and geographic equity through sharing opportunity with other cities and regions throughout the state and country. I have had the experience of suggesting to YIMBY urbanists and Sacramento politicians that we adopt policies to steer economic development and jobs to struggling small and mid-sized cities in California—“What about Bakersfield? What about Fresno, Stockton, Modesto, San Bernardino, and Visalia?”—and receiving a shrug in response: “Nobody wants to live there.”

But is that really so? The cities that American urbanists dismiss are in some cases larger than Malmö, one of Sweden’s key commercial centers. Why do Big City snobs have difficulty comprehending that many people might be perfectly happy living in them and that place-making is what much of urbanism is all about?

Far from giving these cities and regions up for dead, depopulating them and rural America so that everyone is forced to move to metropolises, we should be looking to strengthen smaller cities’ abilities to provide vibrant, diverse, welcoming, and inclusive communities for their existing residents and for those who might seek a home there if opportunities were available.

Many Americans, I believe, would not only support Swedish-style policies to deconcentrate opportunity but also would welcome the added lifestyle choices that such policies would provide them: from villages, to small towns, to village- and small town-atmospheres within larger cities and regions. The COVID-19 pandemic might change the dynamic of where and how people want to live, as well as some people’s tolerance levels for the rat race.

Sweden, of course, opted for an open and less restrictive approach to COVID-19 which probably could not have been effective in many other countries with any degree of success. And because of the Swedish sense of balance and its pre-COVID philosophy of urban lagom, the post-COVID world in Sweden might not change so significantly. People are likely to stay in the communities where they are, picking up where they left off.

It’s very different in America, where many people left big, dense cities this past year. Will they ever come back? Social, sociological, and psychological effects of the pandemic may change our urban planning goals. It should be noted that the demand for homes in single-family neighborhoods (which urban supremacists want to outlaw) has increased significantly in the aftermath of the pandemic. Escaping urban density may also be an addition incentive for people to experience the joys of a more human-scale, small-town America, if we would only let them.

And, as another silver-lining from the pandemic, we now have more tools and proof-of-concept to let them. Remote work is a potential paradigm-shifter, and not just for corporations. Much of the business of the City of Beverly Hills, for example, including council and commission meetings, all continue to take place remotely. And if significantly more people can work remotely, then the typical American urbanist arguments about carbon emissions and global warming no longer justify increased density. Remote work can level the playing field for cities, areas, and regions that, for whatever reasons, have not been graced by the feudal largesse of Big Tech and other corporate oligarchies.

Of course, to take advantage of being able to work remotely, connectivity is extremely important. This is something Sweden already recognized, pre-COVID. The country is implementing a plan to provide one gigabit broadband to 98 percent of the country’s population by 2025. Similarly, the U.S. should focus its infrastructure spending on connecting the entire country through high-speed internet, and not just on building out urban public transportation networks with diminishing return. (Ridership sometimes decreases despite greater investments.)

This may seem like common sense, but in the U.S., it’s not. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, a champion of the megalopolis, writes:
Joblessness has become endemic in parts of the American heartland, but how many jobless people can afford to leave Youngstown, Ohio, where the median home price in 2019 was about $103,000 to go to San Jose, Calif., where the median price was $1.265 million?

When you dismiss Youngstown, Yakima, and York, you are mocking the notion of a lagom and more egalitarian society, and questioning the enduring idea of the civic cohesion and virtues of folkhemmet. Youngstown’s current population is around 65,000, down from a peak of some 167,000 in the ’60s. But the solution to Youngstown’s challenges is not to encourage the city’s population to move to the Bay Area. Instead of devising schemes about how to grow the Bay Area, we should focus on investing in economic opportunity for people in Youngstown, now rebranded as the “City of You” as part of its revitalization efforts.

True urbanism—vibrant, inclusive and humanitarian urbanism—understands that cities—of all sizes, stripes, colors and density levels—are places where we come together to form communities. They offer us a shared sense of place, a shared sense of belonging, and, perhaps most importantly, a shared sense of home.

Because of the speed of communication, cities today have the ability to be more dynamic than at any point in history. Cities that grew for purely commercial reasons based on geography—they were on a river, or near oil fields or coal mines, or near fertile farmlands or stone quarries or whatever—are now free to develop identities unfettered by physical (and often, consequently, economic) necessity. They can reclaim their rightful places within the fabric of a diverse nation in the real and virtual world, and they can take advantage of their physical surroundings without necessarily having to exploit them. Some people prefer the mountains, some the coast, some the prairie, and some the desert. Some people love the bustle of ultra-dense cityscapes like Manhattan, and others prefer more human-scale settings all the way down to isolated villages. All should be able to thrive in the kind of hometown they love.

As a Swede, I’m partial to Sweden. Yes, it is far from perfect: It faces challenges to its ideals, its welcoming policies towards migrants, and its robust support for its citizens, in part from the onslaught of globalization and American consumerist culture. But even in somewhat weakened form, the ideals of folkhemmet and lagom live. In many ways, Sweden still represents the contrast between corporatism and communitarianism, between spite and solidarity, between urban supremacism and urban humanism.

We would do well to learn from Sweden. We would do well to create our own folkhem in America and to learn to live the values of lagom. We would do well to help the entire country become a community of vibrant, dynamic, diverse, inclusive, and thriving communities.

Hela landet ska leva!

John Mirisch has been a member of the Beverly Hills City Council since 2009 and has served three terms as mayor. He is currently a garden-variety councilmember.


Send A Letter To the Editors

    Please tell us your thoughts. Include your name and daytime phone number, and a link to the article you’re responding to. We may edit your letter for length and clarity and publish it on our site.

    (Optional) Attach an image to your letter. Jpeg, PNG or GIF accepted, 1MB maximum.