Malmö: re-imagining the city

Our cities have grown up as the result of a number of factors. Manchester, with its origins in the Roman period, was a relatively small centre until particular geographical, historical, social and economic factors coincided to make it the world’s first industrial city. It then declined, until, facilitated by its business friendly Labour administration, it found a new role as a post-industrial centre. That renewal, according to the official story, is founded on science and technology, science, finance, tourism and sport, emphasising external direct investment, skills and competitiveness. In reality, a construction boom, together with the resilience of some economic sectors, has been at least as important.

Comparisons have been made with other cities with similar history. I have been lucky enough to visit several of these (including Hamburg, Barcelona, Newcastle, Sheffield and Glasgow) and have just been to Malmö, Sweden’s third city (by train). It is a bit smaller than Manchester, with 310,000 residents (in the city itself), but it also has a long history and was an important industrial centre. However, as a port city, with reliance on ship-building, other UK cities (Newcastle, Belfast, Glasgow) might make more apt comparisons.

Central Malmö with cycle traffic

Central Malmö with cycle traffic

I had heard about Malmö’s reinvention of itself as a green city and was interested in seeing to what extent the rhetoric was supported by reality, and to learn more about those transformations.

My visit was not primarily to make this study, so my observations do not pretend to be in any way comprehensive. Nor do I focus on the issues of class, migration, inequality and exclusion which would be essential to analyse in any comprehensive study of the city and its development, comparative or otherwise.

To cut to the conclusion, it seems that indeed Malmö has embraced green transformation, and it can teach us in Manchester a few things. But as in most places that transformation is compromised by the overall economic model.

Strategies for a more viable city.

Malmö’s fortunes began to change with the construction of the Öresund fixed link (The Bridge) between the city and the Danish capital, Copenhagen, which opened in 2000. This was financed by the European Union. At the same time, the national government made substantial investments in the city. The city council also adopted a vision of the city that prioritised the environment.

The City of Malmö Environmental Programme 1998-2002 contains concrete environmental objectives for the city and an action programme. The main objective of the environmental programme is that Malmö, during the programme period of 1998-2002 and forward to 2005, shall take decisive steps towards becoming a sustainable municipality over the long term. One of the programme objectives is that emissions of carbon dioxide shall be reduced by 25 % by 2005 and by 60-75 % by 2050. Another is that emissions of nitrogen to Öresund via water-ways in the municipality shall be reduced by at least 30 % by 2005.” source

There are several aspects to the city’s environmental strategy:

1) Investment in green spaces and waterways. Malmö is notable for its parks, some of which only date from the early 1990s. It has restored its waterways as an amenity and established a ”green points” and ”green space factor” requiring developers to provide features such as planted roofs and surface watercourses. Successive plans continue this emphasis despite the city’s strategy of inward spatial development to create a dense, resource efficient city.

One of  Malmö:'s parks

One of Malmö:’s parks

Integrated water management in Bo01 - "City of Tomorrow"

Integrated water management in Bo01 – “City of Tomorrow”

2) Demonstration housing. The Bo01 – City of Tomorrowneighbourhood was started in 2001 in part of the city’s Western Harbour, formerly a shipyard. It aimed to combine a variety of architectural solutions to low impact housing, at the same time aiming for minimum energy inputs and some other environmentally innovative features. The area is indeed a collection of various building styles with various styles of accommodation. In some areas, small houses face inwards to shared spaces where, on a sunny but cool evening, children played and adults chatted. The higher buildings are on the shore-side, reversing the usual pattern. This sacrifices sea views, but acts to calm the coastal winds, making for more convivial spaces and for reduction in energy demand. Some energy comes from a local wind turbine and solar panels, while high insulation standards prevail. Heating and cooling is based on a large underground water reservoir, using heat pump technology. There are some green roofs. One feature is the management of rain run-off via open channels which feed into reed beds. The planners apparently missed out cycle storage, and visiting people have been known to park their bikes in the open surface water drains! There are some community amenities, shops, a large eco-supermarket and a solar atrium. As an experimental project Bo01 did not meet all its aims, but was one of the first attempts to apply low impact principles in a city development. It has informed other projects in Malmö and elsewhere. It is next to the “turning torso”, Malmö’s noted skyscraper, which also has some energy and water saving features.

Courtyard area in Bo01

Courtyard area in Bo01

I asked whether rising sea levels had been considered in the planning, and it seems that they were not. This is the case for many low lying and coastal cities, but it is an issue that will need to be addressed.

3) Cycling. Malmö has an extensive network of cycle paths. Some corridors extend into the countryside. The level of cycle usage appears to be much higher than in Manchester. It was noticeable that people cycled slowly, sedately even (slower than Copenhagen, much slower than Manchester, and much much slower than London!), mostly on old and well used bikes. Bikes were left with minimal security, often just frame-locked , or just secured by the front wheel (I use a Danish frame lock myself when leaving the bike within sight, and to lock the back wheel). Apparently fewer people cycle in the cold winter, and winter tyres are used. The station has a very impressive cycle parking facility complete with workshop. However, cycle hire is limited in the city (in this it contrasts with Copenhagen, where many hotels have cycles to borrow, although the once excellent facility at the Central Station appears to be no more).


Massed cycles and parking facility at Lund station, near Malmo

Cycles parked with minimal security.  This is Lund but Malmo was similar

Cycles parked with minimal security. This is Lund but Malmo was similar


A cycling culture

In Sweden, as in Denmark and Germany, it is noticeable that motorists defer to both pedestrians and cyclists, always stopping at crossings and also before turning into side roads.

4) Biogas and public transport. Sweden has been using biogas for longer than most of Europe. Food waste is digested to make methane which, with fossil gas, is used to power the city’s buses. Biogas from developments like Bo01 and the turning torso is also fed into the city’s gas distribution system, for cooking and heating. However, outside Malmö, the extent of oilseed rape cultivation is noticeable. Among other things this goes to the production of biodiesel, not altogether the best use of good quality agricultural land, although I have not seen the carbon and monetary calculations for Sweden’s production (which would have to compare any energy savings with energy expenditure from, for example, food imports). There is, however considerable concern about the impact of the high chemical inputs of agriculture on the region’s inland and coastal waters.

"(Bio)Gas bus for a greener and more beautiful Malmo"

“(Bio)Gas bus for a greener and more beautiful Malmo”

5) Strategies at a city level. It is at the corporate city level that the commitment to ecological thinking is most noticeable. This tends to be aligned with strong social policies. An example is the report of The Commission for a Sustainable Malmö: published in 2013 as “Malmö’s path towards a sustainable future: Health, welfare and justice”. It took a life-span perspective on reducing health inequalities and improve living conditions for all citizens of Malmö, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. As fans of both Wallander and The Bridge will be aware, Sweden is not immune from the problems of deprivation, exclusion and discrimination, nor to the associated social problems. The commission focussed on three areas; “Conditions of growing up for children and young people, Democracy and influence in society, and Social and economic conditions”, and made two key recommendations: “1. Establish a social investment policy that can reduce inequities in living conditions and make societal systems more equitable. and 2. Change processes by creating knowledge alliances and democratised management”. Just as we do in our Viable Economy pamphlet for Manchester, the commission insists that economic, social and ecological priorities have to be tacked together, since meeting any two without the other is a recipe for failure. The three elements run through the report, which includes a critique of isolated economic rationality, via the GDP fetish.

The emphasis on ecology is also found in the 2014 COMPREHENSIVE PLAN FOR MALMÖ. It’s four general objectives are

  • An appealing city that is socially, environmentally and economically sustainable

  • Social balance and good living conditions

  • Economic dynamism and sustainability

  • Resource efficient society and environmental robustness

To give a flavour (the summary of the latter objective),

Environmental targets and aspects are high priorities in planning the sustainable city. One basic objective is to protect the basic needs of future generations, which means that natural and climate boundaries must be considered for a sustainable city to develop. Long-term preservation of the ecosystem’s production capacity is a basic requirement, as is protecting nature and human health from negative environmental impact.

The City of Malmö has adopted a number of ambitious goals concerning resource effectivity (sic) and ecological sustainability. In cooperation with Copenhagen, Malmö is planning to make the Öresund Region Europe’s first cross-border carbon-neutral zone. The environmental objectives require Malmö to be supplied by locally sourced renewable energy as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This requires constructing an increasingly resource-efficient city. Biodiversity must be preserved, arable land and natural assets safeguarded, natural resources efficiently utilized and water supplies protected. Commuting habits must be changed in order to create an environmentally sound system, both locally and regionally.”

Now words are easy, but I see nothing like this clarity of focus in the growthist documentation behind our city (Manchester) and regional (Greater Manchester) devolution agreement, city deal, community strategy or growth plan. Whatever the caveats that I’ll outline below, Malmö is clearly a lot further on in embracing ecological thinking into the way it sees its identity now and in the future, and the way it plans to realise that.

Two innovative projects

I also visited two more community-based innovations, relevant to the ideas of strengthening local economies.

1) The Centre for Public Entrepreneurship. This is a resource centre which began in 2009 and that supports both people and organisations with social development. This is loosely defined, but includes “big city problems, the development of rural areas, voluntary activities, new social innovations, exclusion” and, engagement and support for young people, migrant employment among other things. Its emphasis is on collaborative partnerships between civil society organisations and movements, business, local government and the university sector, with a big emphasis on working with people “in their own environment” and providing credible support with organisational, financial and communication issues. As an body independent of government, they do not have an agenda of reducing expenditure, but nor are they part of the profit-orientated private sector. They also operate a low threshold for involvement, although this brings some problems for their own capacity to meet need.

As they pointed out, the three dominant forces in the post-war settlement have been government/public sector, private business and the academy. This misses out active citizens and the organisations of civil society, and their work goes some way to remedy this with its pentahelix orientation (see this discussion).

CPE has supported more than 120 projects, small and large, urban and rural, successful and unsuccessful. As they note in “The Art of Inviting Participation”, “The search for more sustainable development acts as a bond between all these organisations and developments and demands new methods”.

Perhaps what they are doing is not so different from the best of what the non-governmental sector is doing in the UK. One possible difference is in their piloting of new funding models (“compacts”) that instead of reliance on either time-limited project grants or mercantile contracts aim for continuous funding, giving greater stability to this emerging sector of “bottom-up” socially and ecologically sustainable innovation. Thanks to Elin, Nils and Lisa for meeting with me, and to Fredrik Björk for setting up and also participating in the meeting which not only covered the CPE but a host of other relevant questions and issues.

2) STPLN: “STPLN (see also this link) is a makers space available for anyone who wants to create and build things, produce cultural events or experiment with project designs.” Its premises in the Western Harbour area are in a building that was a former shipyard slipway, hence its wedge shape. It is next to a large skateboard park, designed with the participation of the skateboard community, and a similar co-creation model was adopted for the STPLN initiative.

STPLN and Cycle Kitchen in the former slipway building in the Western Harbour.

STPLN and Cycle Kitchen in the former slipway building in the Western Harbour.

In addition to a drop-in and shared office and meeting space, there are several separate projects. The Bike Kitchen is a community cycle workshop where bikes can be repaired, maintained, or built using recycled frames. Fabriken is a “maker space” with machines and tools for digital production, carpentry and electronics enabling people to socialize, build, create, design, prototype and idealize. It gives people (professional designers, students, handymen, school students, women…. ) the opportunity to build, design and develop things that cannot be bought. ÅterSkapa is a creative re-use and “upcycling” arts- and education centre using a materials bank – a collection of cast-offs and other pre-consumer waste materials collected from local manufacturers. There are also textile workshops, a theatre space and a kitchen. The original orientation was cultural (hence the theatre space), and the centre is overseen by the city’s cultural department, but the emphasis on making things emerged early on. Given the origins, perhaps it is not surprising that there is little emphasis on the economic impacts, on access to employment, for example.

Currently a network of repair centres is under development, linked to the city waste disposal service, with tools etc.

I was given a book, Making Commons, published by Malmö Högskola – Malmö University, by Anna Seravali, a designer who conducted her doctoral research there – the book (in English) is that thesis (available as a pdf download). It very interestingly and deftly explores the idea of opening up the production process, bringing together the concepts of “the commons”, co-production, and environmental and social sustainability.

The nearest equivalent to STPLN in Manchester might be the Sharp Project (“A home for creative digital entrepreneurs & digital content production), but, in addition to being bigger and having a digital remit, it is much more jobs and industry orientated, but does not appear to have the community and commons ingredient that makes STPLN so distinctive. It would be interesting to compare the two approaches which might have things to teach one another. While STPLN might be seen as limited by not emphasising its ecponomic outcomes, that also seems to be a strength, insofar as it represents a resistance to a narrow economic rationality or justification for existence.

Like the CPE, STPLN is struggling with limited and essentially short-term funding, searching for financial sustainability.

Thanks to Caroline Lundholm for hosting my visit and explaining everything to me.

Conclusion: possibilities and contradictions.

Malmö (and its city region) has been successful in improving its local environment and in reducing its local impact. I would say, and without the benefit of comparative data, that it has been more imaginative, more ambitious and more successful than Manchester in this.

A constrained greening?

A constrained greening? (an office in the Western Harbour area)

But the limits to its “place-based” sustainability are three-fold, and these problems are by no means unique to Malmö.

1. Malmö, like Manchester, and everywhere else is still pursuing economic growth. Even in its Green Plan, cited above, an objective is that the city is a “regional generator of green growth and employment.” it adds, “It is vital for the city’s development and the welfare of its inhabitants to encourage economic growth, generate employment and secure people’s livelihoods.” This is the standard message of the dominant economic rationalist and ecologically illiterate consensus. As explained time and again, this approach is incompatible with ecological safety since it entails increased material throughputs: resource use and emissions production, which cannot be de-coupled, sufficiently.

2. This developmental strategy, for example increased integration with neighbouring areas of Denmark, brings local penalties in terms of increased road traffic, noise, exhaust emissions, energy consumption, pressure on green space, water resources and so on. So despite the improvements in public transport, promotion of cycling, traffic is increasing in and around Malmö.

3. It is not possible to claim sustainability without understanding the city’s interconnection with, nay dependence on, planetary supply chains and ecosystems. The ecological footprint of the city is huge, probably equal in equivalent hectares to the whole area of Skane, but of course distributed internationally. Again as noted elsewhere, it makes little sense to aim for sustainability solely in terms of local indicators without also taking into account the “outsourced” emissions and resource demands of the local economy.

Sabina Andrén, a doctoral student at Lund University (now at Uppsala University) made a similar point in a 2009 paper entitled “Urban sustainable development from a place-based and a system-based approach: Case study Malmö”:

Malmö is … extremely dependent on areas outside of its own borders, its own area covering only a few percent (around 3%) of the totals required to match its consumption patterns”

Again, this is no different from any other modern city, but it does caution against either premature celebration or complacency in the hard struggle to create a truly green city. However, a more critical perspective on Malmö’s particular embracing of the green city model has been voiced by another Lund doctoral student: Ståle Holgersen argues that:

Malmö has responded to the economic and ecological crises with a particular strategy we call the green fix. This concept builds on Harvey ́s spatial fix – a description of how capital relocates or reproduces space in the aim of resolving sluggish capitalist accumulation. The green fix is also a version of ecological modernism, but where sustainability also serves as a means to growth. ……. For developers the green fix is primarily a business strategy, and we see how the “green urbanism” is currently designed and packed with the aim of selling it as an export commodity. We also propose a twofold critique of the green fix in Malmö. First, it contains elements of “greenwashing” and second, it conceals crucial factors of scale and hence runs the risk of myopia.”

See also:  Ståle Holgersen & Andreas Malm ”Green fix” as crisis management. Or: In which world is Malmö the world’s greenest city? Forthcoming in Geografiska Annaler, series B.

Indeed: to understand what our cities and their elites are doing when they adopt one or another approach to development, green or otherwise, it is necessary to look behind the rhetoric and justifications to the contradictory economic and political contexts to which they are responses. In a true critical spirit this is not to demean good intentions (even when rather half-baked, as in Manchester) but to expose their limits and indicate what has to be taken on board if the social, economic and ecological challenges that our cities face are to be properly addressed.

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2 Responses to Malmö: re-imagining the city

  1. peter bjerg says:

    thanks for a great piece of writing. (and to Fredrik BjÖrk, for linking me)

  2. Reblogged this on Steady State Manchester and commented:
    In this post on his personal site, SSM’s Mark Burton reflects on a visit to Malmö in Sweden, a city that has been compared to Manchester. What are the key characteristics of its green policies and how far do they really go? What innovations are there that we might learn from here in Manchester and the region?

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