Malmö: The Many Faces of the European City

Samuel Brandt has studied the relationship between land use and transportation in Chicago, England, Uruguay, and now in his native Oregon. You can follow him on Twitter: @samtbrandt.

Last February, my thirst for diverse architecture, and the interaction between the developing and developed worlds took me Malmö.  By visiting Malmö, one can learn a great deal about the state of Europe in the 21st century and how it got there. Four issues that are central to contemporary Europe - regionalism, supranationalism, immigration, and post-industry - are highly visible in Malmö.

Inre Hamnen, Malmö by: Jorchr

Inre Hamnen, Malmö by: Jorchr

A Regionalist European City

Malmö is Sweden’s third largest city. It’s the capital and largest city of Skåne, Sweden’s southernmost country. The separatist movement in Sweden most likely familiar to non-Scandinavians is that of the Sami or Lapps in the Arctic North. While people calling for Skåne’s independence from Sweden are a marginal fringe, the region’s identity is clear to see. The Scanian flag (Red with a yellow Nordic cross) rivals the Swedish flag for prominence in public display. Evidence of a Scandinavian dialect continuum, the Scanian dialect spoken in Malmö often sounds closer to Danish than the Swedish spoken in Stockholm. Similar to a phenomenon I’ve heard from Rio de Janeiro to Manchester to Chicago, I noticed announcements on public transport using a local accent rather than a national standard.

A Post-Schengen European City

Malmö’s proximity to Copenhagen does not mean Skåne is going to join Denmark anytime soon. Rather it’s a case study in European supranationalism, in which two cities function as one metropolitan area with free movement, despite having different national governments. Copenhagen is over twice as big as Malmö, but the ease of train and car communications (about 40 minutes from center to center) means that it is possible to work, live, and play seamlessly between the two cities.

An Immigrant European City

As I’ve established, Malmö is a Scanian city, a Swedish city, and a European city. But it is also a global city. 41% percent of its citizens were born or have parents born in a different country. What’s fascinating is that no single guest culture predominates. Sweden did not have colonies in the 20th century that contributed to reverse migration from a specific country or set of countries with strong cultural and linguistic ties to the host. Unlike San Antonio, dominated by Mexicans and Central Americans or Bradford dominated by arrivals from the Indian subcontinent, Malmö attracts significant migration from dozens of different countries, with balanced contingents from Iraq, Macedonia, Somalia, Bosnia, and Poland to name just a few. It even drew a disproportionate amount of Chileans and Uruguayans who came to Olof Palme’s Sweden in the 1970s fleeing military dictatorships. For people accustomed to warmer climes and with enough education and income to afford mobility within their new home, Malmö, being the Southernmost and thus warmest point in a frigid Northern country, became a nexus for these political refugees.

 A Post-Industrial European City

De-industrialization hit Malmö pretty hard in the 1970s and 80s. As a city whose main economic role was as a port rather than a center of government or education, it has had to re-invent itself with the times more than say Stockholm or Uppsala. Today, even with all of the new construction and wealth, there’s still a working class port city air about much of the place. Class tensions–in what many outsiders falsely view as a classless society—are also a contentious issue in 21st century Malmö, though poorly understood compared to regionalism, supra nationalism, and immigration.

These four themes aren’t just visible politically, culturally, linguistically, and economically. They contribute immensely towards Malmö’s physical and architectural fabric. In the following post, which will be posted later this summer, I will look more closely at two Malmö neighborhoods where the relationships between the above themes, and sustainability and design are on full display.