What Makes a Sustainable City? The Former Mayor of Stockholm Tells It All

From my cliff-side vantage point, the natural beauty of Stockholm unfolds like a scene from a Nordic saga. The ever-present water, glistening in the sun, divides the city into islands, each with a distinct characteristic. I peer out over Norra Djurgårdsstaden, an industrial port area charting a new course as a sustainable neighbourhood, emblematic of Stockholm’s image as one of the most liveable cities in the world.

What makes a city sustainable and attractive for residents often boils down to the same factors which make it a desirable destination for tourists, and travellers wanting to find a location for longer stays and workations. With Sweden as a country, including its larger cities, ranking at the top for sustainable travel and tourism, I am on a mission to uncover the formula for success.

In this part of Sweden’s capital, where the harbour and sea join the Royal National City Park, the world’s first, I’m set to meet the former mayor of Stockholm, Anna König Jerlmyr. With prior involvement in the Mayors of Europe network, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (Co-Chair), the World Economic Forum’s Net Zero Carbon City Supervisory Board, and as President of Eurocities between 2018-2020, Anna’s credentials are impeccable, uniquely qualified to shed light on my queries.

Profile picture of Anna König Jerlmyr at outdoor garden.

Anna König Jerlmyr, Mayor of Stockholm 2018-2022

Anna has now left the political arena, instead set to conquer the business world as a sustainable city advocate. Today, she dispenses her accumulated wealth of knowledge to advance smart urban planning on a global level. As mayor of Stockholm, during times of unprecedented hardship (the corona pandemic), Anna’s experience offers an inspiring lesson in crisis management. How do you continue to lead on environmental and social issues in the middle of a worldwide emergency, maintaining quality of life for residents, and making sure discerning travellers won’t forget about you?

The Path to City Hall

“Politics is a calling. When you realise you can invoke change, you want to do more.” – Anna König Jerlmyr

I meet Anna in one of the red brick factory buildings, their facades protected as cultural-historical monuments, and the insides repurposed for restaurants, residences, schools, shops, and gyms. Norra Djurgårdsstaden has become a popular area for urban Stockholmers who still want to feel close to nature, with plenty of open spaces, public transport links, and innovative architecture, all designed with reduced climate impact in mind.

Big red brick buildings under a cloudy sky.

Norra Djurgårdsstaden – a neighbourhood in transition

Anna herself is a resident here, together with her husband and three boys. She moved to Stockholm roughly 20 years ago, but hails from Uppsala, less than an hour’s drive to the north. Her hometown provided a gateway into politics, as she in the middle teens got involved with education, specifically students and parents having the freedom to pick schools of their own choice, rather than having the authorities determine it for them.

The political spark came from within, not through parental influence, and the more she achieved, the deeper she dove in, transitioning to Uppsala City Council. Engagement for animal rights, the environment, reducing youth unemployment, women’s issues, and strengthening the inner market in Europe followed. It resulted in her election to the Swedish Parliament, representing the Moderates, a liberal-conservative party, traditionally one of the two biggest parties in Sweden.

Over the years, I’ve interacted with numerous high-ranking politicians through my work with climate and entrepreneurship, and so, Anna’s eloquence and ability to speak with conviction and passion come as no surprise. What I find invigorating and unique is her outspokenness and willingness to call out political shortcomings across the ideological spectrum. Her new role as a free entrepreneur means her strong voice on sustainability stems from personal values, rather than party policy, as you will no doubt discover as you read.

Politics gave her an opportunity to wield considerable influence, and when I ask how it compares to having impact through the business sector, we return to a career-defining moment in her past. After the first spell in the Swedish Parliament, 2006-2010, she got re-elected, but withdrew her seat and moved into Stockholm City Hall as Vice Mayor for Social Affairs. Parliamentary work didn’t suit her, the pace too slow, taking years from idea to decision-making. A person she trusted told her to “let go of the railing and start skating.” In City Hall, policies have a direct, on the ground effect, and after her time as mayor ended in 2022, Anna faced another pivotal inflection point. Where would she skate now?

Anna König Jerlmyr standing on staircase.

Anna König Jerlmyr at Berghs School of Communication

“I want to tell my children I had some part in trying to save the world for them.”

This is what transitioning to business, with a focus on sustainability, represents to her. Big ambition, huge potential, and high stakes.

Mayor of Stockholm – an arena for sustainable city development

“Being in opposition, it becomes too much theatre.” – Anna König Jerlmyr

You might recognise Stockholm City Hall headquarters, it’s the same beautiful buildings where the Nobel prize banquet takes place. Running a city of Stockholm’s size (metro population of 1 700 000), requires a vast organisation, 44 000 in total, and inspiring leadership to steer the ship. Anna König Jerlmyr is a doer with a razor sharp focus on getting results concerning big and complex issues. “If you have a crucial role to play in solving the issue, get involved instead of blaming others.” She describes how they built Europe’s biggest centre for abused children where police, social services, prosecutors, and healthcare all congregated under one roof, to cut bureaucracy, and identify problems much earlier.

After the 2018 election, having spent 4 years in a frustrating opposition role, she formed a majority out of an unusual alliance across political lines. Once again, Anna brought everyone together based on what they agreed on, rather than trying to highlight their differences. Her genuine and long-standing engagement on environmental issues made it easier to find common ground with the Green Party, for example on expanding cycle infrastructure in the city.

She set out an ambitious agenda, with a strong focus on advancing sustainable development, entrepreneurship, and jobs, to make Stockholm an even more attractive place to live and work. With a great team, she felt at ease delegating tasks and empowering individuals to take responsibility for their areas.

Of course, we all know what happens with the best laid plans…Yes, you guessed right. The pandemic happened. A rude awakening for most places around the world, exposing a lack of crisis preparedness. The effects remain with us today, with remote working changing the landscape for cities and companies. All of the above applied to Stockholm as well, and Anna describes how the Covid-19 emergency took an emotional toll on City Hall employees. Everyone wanted to focus on it, but she had to make sure other crucial municipal services still functioned, for example keeping schools open, which in turn allowed critical staff to go to work, helping to reduce mental stress. During this time, the importance of outdoor meeting areas became apparent. Wall Street Stockholm, an open-air art exhibition, turned into Europe’s biggest of its kind, creating human connections through culture.

During her term as mayor, the campaign, Stockholm – a woman’s place, launched. It’s a set of principles including equal pay, career advancement opportunities, and management/board representation, which companies can endorse. Over 100 did, making Stockholm an attractive destination for professional and higher-educated women. This is an issue Anna cares a lot about, wishing for more voluntary action, and the right type of legislation to further it along. “We can’t risk going backwards, jeopardising the progress previous generations fought for.”

Sergels Torg, Stockholm at night

Stockholm Sergels torg – an open space for culture

Today, Anna sits on the board of Pihr, a company that uses AI technology to map salary differences and provide guidance for equal pay. It’s also important to ensure women make entries into professions they are less associated with. Anna is a big believer in data and measuring progress, referencing Michael Bloomberg’s three terms as New York mayor and his obsession with numbers. As a city, Stockholm already excels in tech and impact investments, but she hopes for a more balanced gender representation in unicorn founders (companies valued over 1 billion dollars).

“Pandemic or not, sustainability can’t wait. It’s an existential issue where we have a moral responsibility to lead,” Anna says, reflecting over priorities and achievements during her time as mayor, 2018-2022. Still, some projects had to be shelved or postponed, like the outdoor public swimming facility near the Old City. A pioneering trade exchange between London and Stockholm represented another dream project, where mayors would travel with delegations in hopes of bolstering green investments between the capitals. Overall, she sees cause for optimism, though, given how the business sector has influenced the government to keep ambitious targets for the climate.

Stockholm the Sustainable

“Politics needs more principles and honesty with the voters.” – Anna König Jerlmyr

I find Anna’s openness refreshing, as she wishes for more long-term political visions, pointing to leaders like Churchill who painted a picture of where he wanted to take the nation, narrating what it would mean for them. Instead of shifting policies based on fast changing opinion polls, and leading with spin, Anna says she would rather change people’s views with inspiring ideas for a better society. Apart from international roles in the future, she feels done with the political world. “You grow as a human when putting yourself through fresh challenges,” she says, eager to open a new chapter in her life after the privilege of serving Stockholm.

Anna König Jerlmyr standing next to red brick building.

Anna König Jerlmyr giving us the tour of Norra Djurgårdsstaden

As a long-time champion of environmental issues, her leadership is best characterised by genuine engagement, the formation of effective alliances, and fearlessness in relation to pursuing her stated agenda. Stockholm has become synonymous with inclusivity, a tech boom, green policies, and for providing a thriving environment for talented women; core areas under Anna’s tenure, and elements of what make a city sustainable and attractive on a world stage. It’s not one or the other, you need them all; business opportunities and jobs, a plan for the climate, social cohesion, culture, and ambition to always improve.

A symbiotic relationship between nature and urban life, extreme walkability, clean water, crisp air – sustainability permeates everything that is Stockholm. There is plenty to see and do. Anna especially recommends the outdoor cultural hotspot of Skansen, the many museums like Vasa, and the incomparable archipelago.

On the note of reasons to visit Stockholm, Anna gives us an exclusive. She’s joined the board of an organisation, which in 2024, plans to open its doors to a completely new type of cultural experience. She’s working with Jan Broman, one of the founders of the world-renowned Fotografiska (The Contemporary Museum of Photography, Art, and Culture), and predicts it will become one of the biggest attractions in Stockholm in the upcoming years. Exciting news, so stay tuned!

Throughout our whole meeting, Anna’s love of Stockholm is almost palpable. “I consider it the most beautiful city in the world,” she says, and despite me being from the south of Sweden, it’s hard to disagree.

Quick facts:

Name: Anna König Jerlmyr

Occupation: Sustainable Cities Advocate, Former mayor of Stockholm, 2018-2022

Fondest travel memory: Amazon Rainforest, 5-week honeymoon trip.

Desired future travel destination: Safari, Botswana

Favourite Food: Meatballs

Secret skill: Bakes a mean cinnamon bun – just add double the amount of butter.

Have you been to Stockholm? What did you enjoy most? Tell us in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from tips, interviews, and inspirational examples of sustainable tourism and luxury travel.

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