In Malmö, social sustainability by policy design … and by neighbourhood surprise

In Sweden, the City of Malmö takes the question of social justice to heart – in the same sense as intended by the World Health Organization in its 2008 report, Closing the Gap in a Generation: “Social injustice is literally a question of life and death.” The Commission for a Socially Sustainable Malmö was struck in 2010 in recognition of the fact that, compounding immigration, neighbourhood segregation, education, employment and health challenges, living in one particular neighbourhood can cost residents 8 years of their life compared to living in another. Although this situation has existed in Malmö for decades, the Commission marked the City’s recognition that it constitutes a crisis of injustice.

In part, this happened in good European company, in light of the generalized European awakening to the grave challenges of inequality pointed out in the 2009 Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi report commissioned by the French President. In part, the stance taken by the Commission for a Socially Sustainable Malmö that social health outcomes differences are “unjust and unethical” is a particularly Scandinavian political stance. But the Commission is also unique in Sweden, in ambition and in tenacity. In fact, this summer 2015, the Government of Sweden has now struck a national committee on addressing health inequity, based upon the success of the Malmö commission and excitement about the potential of some of its recommendations for implementation at a national scale. Connecting health equity to urban sustainability is a key to the success of the Commission for a Socially Sustainable Malmö.

The integrated nature of the challenge the Commission took on is clear and direct:

the differences in health (morbidity, mortality, self-rated health) and welfare between different groups of the population and between different areas in Malmö [are] so great that it is both unjust and unethical, [and] also … affects Malmö’s development and conditions for sound economic growth and a sustainable city.

In fact, the brief handed to the Commission was to find practical means outside of the health care system per se that could reduce health inequities. While this is ostensibly a much more specific objective than social sustainability or social justice writ large, the Commission saw that an integrative approach oriented around sustainability was key to avoiding hardened political battle lines and building the knowledge alliance they needed. The value of a sustainability approach to solving far-reaching urban problems, in this context, is to work against the narrowness of sectoral approaches and ensure that explicit efforts are made to integrate across government departments, across public and private sectors, across the populace and the spatial extent of neighbourhoods, and across the desired outcomes of health, wellbeing, economic security, and human development. The Commission oriented its work around the five imperatives of ethics, sustainability, integration, differentiated gender considerations, and social investment. A sustainability approach as an integrated approach means, in Malmö, recognizing that “processes of social change are complex” and can be facilitated with less social disruption and hardship by “solid pre-planning” (153).

The Commission submitted its final report, Malmö’s Path Toward a Sustainable City, in 2013 and has released two follow-up implementation reports subsequently, with actions and responsibilities allocated throughout the City of Malmö by dozens of different department and non-government entities. Amongst many specific action items scheduled, an overarching social investment approach is favoured, whereby investments by socially responsible individuals and organizations today, to reduce inequities felt by the poor and marginalized, will pay off for all in the long run. The Commission urges Malmö government, citizens, and businesses to invest in the social fabric of the city, through efforts to break down hard and soft barriers amongst poor and wealthy neighbourhoods, with the same spirit of seizing an investment opportunity that they used to approach the challenge of building the new Western Harbour district in physical space, beginning fifteen years ago. Malmö’s Western Harbour (Våstra Hamnen), like many harbour redevelopment projects, was built on new reclaimed land following the pull out of industrial port activities at the site.

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Photo 1: Within the Bo01 Neighbourhood, Western Harbour
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Photo 2: Central Western Harbour (with the Turning Torso on the right)

The first phase, Bo01 (Bo is Swedish for ‘living’; ’01 marks the year it was built), also called “City of Tomorrow” was a demonstration project for European green building, organized as a competition for participants in the 2001 European Home Expo. The diversity in built form resulting from this approach shows, but the project nevertheless suffered from public critiques of being too exclusive, too pricey, too much a privileged place apart from the real city. Beginning with Bo01 and continuing to project build-out in the coming decade, the City of Malmö had set its focus on domesticating this wildly windy new land on the edge, and advancing a green building agenda at the same time.

promenade Western Harbour
Photo 3: A view of Sundspromenanden – the boardwalk along the outside of Bo01, Western Harbour
vegetated roofs Western harbour
Photo 4: Vegetated Roofs, Western Harbour

They built a long, elegant seawall  (Sundspromenanden) with boulders to  break the crashing waves. Buildings and  paths were placed in a “twisted grid” to  block the offshore wind and to prevent it      from tunneling down the interior streets and  walkways. Green features, from vegetated  roofs to waste management vacuums to  reduced parking, are pervasive. Early on,  the City’s envisioned residents of this new  district on the edge were empty nesters and couples without children. City residents saw something different in the neighbourhood, however. Residents from across Malmö began to flock to the parks and promenade in Western Harbour with their bikes,  dogs, friends and children, and to use it as  a place to play, sit and be close to the  water. The City reacted to this by improving  the Sundspromenanden, removing  boulders from sections of the waterfront,  adding in safe swimming access and  lifeguard stations, staffed during summer. They also added preschools, a school, and  a parking structure, by unanticipated  resident demand.

The neighbourhood is known as one of the most popular places to be in the city, and serves in this way as a key integration point across social groups; 75% of city residents responding to a city survey say that they had visited Western Harbour at least once. In a city suffering from severe neighbourhood segregation, such a meeting place is an important piece of the landscape for serving recognized social sustainability goals.

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Photo 5: The Sundspromenanden brings a variety of people with different forms of recreation

In Malmö, we find a policy initiative designed to innovate in social dimensions of city sustainability, along with a redeveloped Western Harbour district which moves toward certain social integration goals by surprise. Both initiatives highlight the importance of attention to the neighbourhood scale. For the Commission for a Socially Sustainable Malmö, it is in comparing social trends at the scale of the neighbour-hood where disparities become sorely evident, and that solutions become more feasible. For the Western Harbour, it is in offering up a public space of connection and intersection, to be further shaped by resident visions and desires, that the neighbourhood does the most work to promote a new view of the sustainable city. Social sustainability outcomes may demand both sound intentions and the good fortune of surprise.

Meg Holden


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