Battle of the Elms at Kungstradgården

The calvary were called in and steadied… the commander raised his arms “at the ready!”

The cavalrymen pulled the reigns of their horses, their eyes focused their minds directed at the task at hand, muting out the cries of the protestors near by.

“Charge!”

The police cavalry charged into the protestors at Kungstradgården. It was an attempt in vain to force the protestors out of Kungstradgården so that demolition could take place. A chainsaw went into a tree. But the tree did not fall, and the protestors came roaring back.

The mark of the chainsaw still visible today (source)

But even the cavalry charge failed, and the protestors grew stronger and stronger by the day until the builders had to give up.

It wasn’t that the builders were trying to build residential apartments in a public square, no, the builders were trying to construct an entrance to the public metro station Kungstradgården for the public. But they were trying to build something at a time when resistance was at its peak.

Sweden in the 1970s was at the height of its economic prowess. The post-war construction boom across Europe led the Swedish economy (through the sale of raw materials) to develop into the third largest in the world per capita. Public infrastructure was undergoing a building boom. The Stockholm Million Programme to house the growing numbers of people moving to Stockholm was midway through its boom. New metro stations needed to be built to transport the people living outside the city into the city to work. A whole new line that was to be built was the blue line running from east to west. The first station in the city was to be in Kungstradgården just opposite the Royal Palace in Gamla Stan.

This was all part of a larger plan. The Stockholm City Council had grand plans for the city district of Norrmalm.

The decision was made in 1945 during the economic boom and was slowly realised from the late 1940s till the 1970s. The plan was for the whole area to be redeveloped into a Central Business District, dominated by high rise buildings and the most modern skyscrappers of the time. This was the time for Stockholm to be a metropolis, they thought. The whole Klara district was torn down to build a Central Railway Station, some 750 buildings were demolished in total.

The Klara District today

Seeing the destruction of the Klara district shook many Stockholmers. It was modern, as the colour films showed.

But was this the soul of the city? What was becoming their beautiful Venice of the North? The emotions stewed.

Everything went around smoothly at first, then one day the construction staff realised a deep, faulty crack along the subway structure in the vicinity of the Elm trees in Kungstradgården. Because of the engineering difficulty in repairing the crack, it was decided that an easier task would be to create a large entrance at that part of the subway. It was reasoned that the Elm trees, were close to the end of the lives anyway and would have to be removed anyway. The decision made, politicians, engineers and the journalist went round making the case to the public that this was to be done. The city council took a vote and decided on destroying the trees (63 to 34 votes).

But the people did not buy this argument. They did not agree that the beautiful garden had to be destroyed for an entrance. They refused to accept it. The authorities in a bid to mollify the crowd then said that they would not pull down the trees and would build the station close to the trees on 13th May. Activist smelt something fishy and set up smart mob techniques.

Then on the 11th of May, 1971, an off duty police officer was called back for “night shift”. His wife was surprised, sudden night shifts were exceedingly rare, “I think it’s tonight,” she said to her fellow activist. The authorities had tried to pull a fast one on the activist by giving a public act of deference. only to stealthily engage in tree “pruning” dead in the night. The stink of a lie was discovered and an angry mob of 1000 descended on Kungstradgården. The protesters chained themselves to trees, some climbed the trees to stop the demolition squad from proceeding. Things got violent.

The media came down on the side of the police and criticised the activist for incivility and undemocratic behaviour, ironic in my view.

However, a compromise was found and the train station was moved a few hundred metres away. A conclusion that made international headlines and that led to greater citizen input in the decision making process.

Entrance to Kungstradgården that was built a short distance from the original site

These 14 Elm trees still stand at Kungstradgården today, sheltering people from the sun and housing a cafe underneath.

There is something we can learn from this even today, a lesson relevant for the world we live in today. Regardless of the form of government, power is derived from the people (willing or otherwise), the views of the people need to be listened to. Not listening to the people led to the Battle of the Elms. Likewise, not listening to the cries of the people led to the symptoms of Brexit, Trump and the rise of the extremist parties. These are symptoms, not the cause.

ON THE MAP

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