Articles · Newcastle and North East

Embracing the Post-Industrial City: The Case of Malmö, Sweden

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Like Newcastle and Sunderland, Malmö, Sweden was once home to a world-leading shipbuilding industry and a masculine working-class identity. In the 1970s, Malmö’s industry collapsed and thousands began to leave the city. In recent years, Malmö has recovered, grown and been reborn. 

In the summer of 2002, the great symbol of Malmö’s shipbuilding heritage was dismantled and shipped to South Korea. Onlookers wept as the Kockumskranen, the largest gantry crane in the world at 138 metres high, lost its pride of place in the Malmö skyline. The city’s industry had begun its decline in the 1970s and by the end of 1980s little was left. But the removal of the crane underlined that Malmö’s days of industrial strength were finally over. The city would have to search for a new identity.

Malmö’s Western Harbour – the location of the once world-leading Kockums shipyard – was chosen as the leading site for the city’s regeneration. Since the collapse of the shipbuilding industry, this area had been abandoned, polluted and derelict: a post-industrial wasteland with a great endowment of soil contamination left over from the days of dirty industry. The troubled car manufacturer SAAB had acquired the docklands following the fall of Kockums, and left the 350-acre site to degenerate with little investment. In 1996, SAAB sold the Western Harbour to the city council who began drawing up plans for redevelopment.

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The “Bo01” district began as an international housing exhibition also known as “City of Tomorrow” in 2001. It pushed development of Malmö’s Western Harbour towards sustainable planning and innovative land use. Here the city collaborated with developers, planners and designers to create an attractive and sustainable modern dockland which would run on renewable energy alone. It has since been celebrated as the “world’s first carbon neutral neighbourhood”. And although it hasn’t quite reached its energy targets yet, cycle lanes, buses running on bio-gas, solar panels, wind turbines and colourful housing projects have successfully replaced the grime, dirt and pollution of industry.

In 2005, work concluded on what would become Scandinavia’s tallest building, the 190-metre-tall Turning Torso, a “neo-futurist residential skyscraper” designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The Turning Torso has since jostled for first position with the recently completed Øresund Bridge (1999) –  which connects Malmö with Copenhagen, Denmark by road and rail and stars in the Scandinavian noir television series The Bridge (2011) – as the symbolic heir to the Kockumskranen. The building includes a private club, restaurant, conference spaces, offices and 147 luxury flats fitted with the finest amenities. It is owned by HSB, a cooperative housing association, who have stressed the building’s sustainability. Kitchen waste disposal units are “available in every apartment for grinding organic waste”, the many “shared facilities lessen the need for car travel”, and the building is “supplied with 100% locally produced renewable energy.” The Turning Torso “facilitates an environmentally adapted way of life.”

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Last week, I travelled to Lund University, Sweden’s oldest university, to meet Roger Johansson, a professor leading research on the history of Malmö. I met him at his office in Lund, a medieval Cathedral City – not too dissimilar from Durham – 15 minutes by train from the centre of Malmö. “Malmö was the city for commercial trade and later factories,” said Professor Johansson. “It was very separated from Lund. No-one from Lund ever visited Malmö and no-one from Malmö ever visited Lund.”

When Johansson attended Lund in his youth, he was one of the few students to come from Malmö. His father and grandfather had both been employed in the shipyards and he himself had spent time working in the textile industry. “When I was growing up there were a lot of jobs. Nobody had any problems finding work. I think most of us weren’t very active in school because we didn’t have to be there. We knew that whatever happened we would have a job in the end.”

In these years, Malmö was dominated by a masculine working-class culture expressed through the world of work, the football pitch and the labour movement. Located far from the Swedish capital Stockholm in the region of Skåne to the south west, the residents of Malmö saw themselves as having a cultural identity different from the national norm. “I think that in most countries the big enemy is the capital,” said Johansson. “We can be friends with anyone except people from Stockholm. They think that we are the countryside, the small brother. And that we are not clever because we talk funny.”

Since the early 20th century, Malmö has been a bastion of left-wing politics in Sweden with ties to Denmark and the European continent that go back centuries. “A lot of early industrialists came from either Germany or Denmark to Malmö,” said Johansson. “And the ideas of the labour movement came from Germany, Denmark and over to Malmö by August Palm. He started the Social Democratic Party and from Malmö it spread to the rest of the country. Malmö became the example of the Welfare State City in the Welfare State.”

After 1945, Malmö city council decided to do something about the poor quality of housing in the city. They initiated a slum clearance programme and the building of social housing and estates to combat the legacy of overcrowding, poverty and illness bequeathed by industrialisation. This was a time of great optimism and aspiration, one which caught the attention of political leaders in the North East of England inspired by the city’s forward-thinking and shared history.

When Professor Johansson was a boy, his family were moved from an old industrial slum to one of the new estates. “We lived in Möllevången, an old labour area with old houses, cold water and no bath. Möllevången was an extremely symbolic place like the Kokkum crane. It was the old traditional meeting place for the working-class and the labour movement. We moved from the old area in Möllevången to the new site. Suddenly, we had three rooms, a kitchen, bathroom and warm water. There were big yards where the children could play. Everyone was extremely happy for that.”

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But not everyone was satisfied with the quality of the new housing in Malmö. “The buildings were raised very rapidly. People moved in, they didn’t know each other like they did in the old areas. In Möllevången, people had lived there for quite a long time. You knew who your neighbour was. You also knew the people around. Suddenly everyone who moved in were newcomers. And there were a lot of children. On our 4th floor, there were nearly 40 children.”

Despite the alienation felt by some of Malmö’s working-class, this was a golden age of full employment and significant growth in the manufacturing industry. The ship-building industry was at the height of its powers, as were the construction and mechanical engineering trades. Malmö had become a very wealthy city, dominated by large engineering firms and a masculine work culture.

But following the 1973 oil crisis, Malmö entered recession and began to shed its industry and some of its inhabitants. Initially, public sector expansion offset some of the losses in industry, as did increased employment in the service sector. By the early 1990s, unemployment levels had reached 12.4% in the city and deindustrialisation forced over 40,000 people to search for work elsewhere.

“This was not only a crisis for the labour force and unemployment but also a big crisis in people’s identity and the whole city’s identity,” said Johansson. “We were asking, ‘What kind of city are we now? We soon started to realise that Malmö was a city without big factories that would not come back. We had to do something else. Discussion turned towards the bridge to Copenhagen and the Metro city tunnel. And towards building a new university in Malmö to attract young people.”

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Although Malmö has had a substantial immigrant population since the 1960s (one of the few ways Malmö differs with the experience of North East England), ethnic minority levels have been growing in recent years. About 43% of the city’s population now have a foreign background and this has led to segregation and tension. “Today, Malmö is a very segregated and divided city. This started in the 1990s. There had always been a more-wealthy-less-wealthy relationship in the city. But up to the 1990s they had basically lived together. But after that the segregation became much more visible. It also meant that those areas which were under attack during the crisis didn’t get any new power when the rest of the city’s economy started to improve.”

Influxes of refugees following the war in the Balkans and the Arab Spring have substantially increased the city’s ethnic minority population. Malmö has since garnered a nasty reputation for far right politicians who have described it as the “rape capital of Europe” and bemoaned the purported amount of violence and tension in the city. “We have of course the most migrants in Sweden,” said Johansson. “Its more than 40% of the population. In a couple of years, it will be more than 50%. In that sense, the far right is quite right. If we don’t do anything, we will be a minority. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. They see migrants as a problem. The mayor sees migrants as an opportunity for Malmö. Refugees often have a lot of contacts back home. New ideas, connections and things like that. This is a resource you can use.”

Due to its proximity to Copenhagen, Malmö is the first port of call for anyone trying to enter the country. Passport checks on the Danish-Swedish border, and the Øresund Bridge, were initiated in 2015 and support for the populist and xenophobic Swedish Democrats is on the rise. But Malmö’s proximity to Copenhagen has also brought wealth and tourism to the city. “Together with the bridge it is very easy to work or visit Copenhagen or vice versa. A lot of Danish people settled down in Malmö because the houses are much cheaper than in Copenhagen. You can have the cheap housing in Malmö and the big salary in Copenhagen. A lot of major companies have moved their main office to Malmö because of the bridge and the connection with the airport.”

The new university has brought thousands of young people to the city, as has the growth of technology industries and the knowledge economy. Today there are over 340,000 people living in the Malmö, over 100,000 more than in the 1990s. The Western Harbour employs more workers than when it was a shipyard, and culture and tourism are on the rise. Johansson tells me that, “Malmö’s a little bit like Berlin, if you are organising a modern art exhibition you have it here. The remnants of old industry are today very chic.” Despite the approval of the remaining ruins of industry by the city’s growing young population, Malmö has lost its macho culture and many of its ties with the industrial past. For the “young people who have moved here, they have no knowledge or experience of that at all. It’s all just a fairy tale.”

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Although Malmö’s entrance into the post-industrial age hasn’t been an unqualified success, and it’s easy to point to some of the problems it is currently facing (segregation, populism, the fate of those left behind), the city’s recent history has inspired many city councils across the world, including those of the old industrial towns of North East England. Malmö has been rightly commended for its move towards a low-carbon economy and sustainable living and in the age of climate change this is urgently needed. The city has also managed to sidestep some of the traps other Western cities have fallen into following industrial decline.

The North East has been taking substantial note since the 1960s when Labour politician T. Dan Smith and other members of the Newcastle Housing Committee first travelled to Malmö and were impressed by the prefabricated housing in the city. Transformative political events impeded Smith’s struggle to bring housing on the Malmö model to Newcastle, but the Scandinavian connection lives on in Newcastle’s Byker Wall, designed by Anglo-Swedish architect Ralph Erskine, and the pattern of culturally-led regeneration launched by the redevelopment of Newcastle Quayside.

In 1997, Gateshead council appointed Sune Nordgren as the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art’s first boss. Nordgren had previously been curator at Malmö’s municipal art gallery and hoped to bring a little bit of Malmö to Newcastle. Although critics are perhaps right to point towards the tenuous link between the regeneration of the cultural sector and economic recovery, the North East’s image has improved substantially in the last twenty years.

Following the Malmö model may cause some problems, however. The city has been blessed by its geographical proximity to Copenhagen and its position on the tip of Sweden’s south coast. Malmö’s location first permitted its transformation from an economy based on the salted herring trade in the 14th century to a port with heavy engineering industries in the 20th century. The Danish connection has subsequently enabled it to transition into a post-industrial city specialising in finance, services, sustainable living, culture and tourism.

So far, Malmö and the industrial cities of North East England have shared a curious history. Has this history come to an end?

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For further information on the similarity between Newcastle and Malmö see Natasha Vall’s invaluable Cities in Decline? A Comparative History of Malmö and Newcastle after 1945

The photographs of the Kockumskranen, Turning Torso and Øresund Bridge are licensed through Creative Commons. The rest are mine. 

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