Malmö’s Bicycle-Mom

Malmo, Sweden

I am a bicycle-mom. My own and all other children’s futures drive me in my work as a freelance journalist, author, and lecturer. That is why I cycle. That is why I buy vintage clothes and talk about that fact on stage in my lectures. That is why I sit on the Malmö Fairtrade City steering group. That is why I am staying in Malmö after having moved around to several continents in my professional life. Malmö has changed from being a gray industrial city with deserted streets and squares into an exciting city of the future where anything at all can happen – and does. Come along with me on a cycling-tour of the city ranked 4th “greenest” city worldwide by Grist Magazine, where living sustainably is made easy by city planners, local entrepreneurs, and engaged and supportive citizens.

We start with history. When I visited Malmö as a teenager, it was a city marked by its industries: Kockum’s Shipyards, Cementa’s big cement factory, and several other big employers such as textile factories and later on a Saab auto plant. But by the end of the 1980s, Kockum’s was closed and thousands of workers were fired. The city’s leadership saw that an epoch was over and that it was time for a new one. The efforts to start a university took speed, IT firms were lured in and plans to build a bridge to Denmark were launched, after years of discussions.

When the new century started, I had lived just one day in Malmö. After having lived in New York, Stockholm, and Singapore, I decided to return to my roots in the southern part of Sweden. As I cycled around, everything felt unfamiliar at first, since many things had changed since the ’80s. The once-empty sidewalks and squares bustled with tables, chairs and people, part of a city-wide initiative to return a sense of community to public spaces. Increasingly, cyclists who use some of the city’s 410 kilometers of cycle paths replace cars. About forty percent of Malmö’s population of 280,000 chooses the bicycle every day to take themselves to work and studies.

We can start our tour in the Western Harbor, the area carrying the most symbolic force for what has happened in Malmö. When construction began for a 2001 housing expo, this was a partly-abandoned industrial area sitting on a landfill. Despite its proximity to the city and sea, no one would have expected that it would soon be one of the world’s most noted residential areas, known for its sustainability profile. It was built in record time – 1.5 years – which entailed a number of building faults that had to be corrected.

tegelborgen_sofangare_virvelmoln_0.JPGI worked for more than a year’s time with a website that informed the area’s residents about all the sustainability efforts, including 100% renewable energy and garbage vacuums that suck trash through pipes from the waste separation and garbage rooms in the buildings to an outlet at the outskirts of the area. This vacuum system also means no more slow-moving garbage trucks clogging traffic. Other features from the housing expo are low energy usage in the residences, green roofs and other so-called green points that maintain the level of biological diversity despite the dense cityscape. The Swedish government earmarked 250 million SEK (~30 million USD) from the local investment fund to invest in this pilot sustainable area. Some 30 building projects, ranging from large multi-family buildings to private single-family houses, were invested in by 19 building companies. The residences are high-end, a mix of condominiums and rentals, and a few are owned by the city’s housing agency.

When you cycle along the sea and approach the Western Harbor, it is a magnificent urban silhouette with a very modern and bold architectonic profile that meets the sea and eye. Here, the residents go right down onto wooden decks and dive into the clean Öresund, some even do so year-round. An open-surface water system with canals and ponds contributes to the beauty and life among the meandering streets. Here, it is almost car-free, and cyclists must even walk their bicycles along some stretches. Located in the Western Harbor Towers is the Turning Torso, Europe’s highest residential building at 190 meters and 54 floors. It is built with a high sustainability profile; for experts around world this is now a site of pilgrimage.

From the Torso, we pedal past Stapelbädds Park, a part of the old shipyard. Here Malmö has constructed one of the world’s most renowned skateboard ramp parks, designed by the leading experts and now used in international competitions. Social sustainability is a strong focus area in a city like Malmö where 28 % of the citizens are born abroad, foremost from Denmark, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Poland or Bosnia-Herzegovina. Some 174 nationalities are represented in Malmö. This is, of course, a major challenge and creates culture clashes. The city has problems with housing segregation, and youth riots flashed again in December 2008 in the most segregated areas. However, in Stapelbädds Park, children and youth from different cultures meet and skate together. A simple booth beside the skateboard ramp holds a café that sells Fairtrade coffee. Malmö was certified as Sweden’s first Fairtrade City on the 17th of May 2006, and since then the extent of ethically produced coffee in the city’s cafés and restaurants has grown noticeably.

The cycle path leads us further, to the heart of Malmö University, founded in 1998. A building called The Hurricane stands by the harbor entrance to Malmö. The Hurricane, built in 2005, holds the Teacher’s College, the largest educational part of the university. The building, which also houses the University Library, is not experimentally green, but the University has an overall theme of sustainability – all courses must include a sustainability perspective on the subject. Opposite the Hurricane sits Helix, a building full of companies and organizations that work with sustainable development, such as Solar City Malmö and the Skane Energy Agency. The entire building is renovated with sustainable characteristics, the interiors are environmentally certified, and the roof has a demonstration facility for solar energy.

SeaU4_0.jpgWe pedal onwards, over a bridge and into the old city center, encompassed by a canal. Here one can, without any difficulty, shop and lunch sustainably. With five clothing boutiques that sell organic and fair-trade clothes, three grocery shops with an organic focus, a multitude of cafés, and two highly-rated organic restaurants, the city has become a mecca for those who reflect on their consumption. Malmö’s Environment Department has put together an organic/fair trade pamphlet to guide shoppers. These kinds of products have even started appearing in normal boutiques, restaurants and cafés. Even our Pizza Hut sells Fairtrade coffee, which is, at least, a nod of recognition to the green movement. Malmö has its share of fast food chain outlets spread throughout the city, but they are by no means taking over. The opening of locally owned coffee bars and restaurants is more prevalent and the fast food chains tend to be located in shopping malls.

From the old city center, we pedal past Möllevångs Square, an area characterized by the more-than-150 nationalities that live in Malmö. Soon, even the outdoor market here will offer more and more organic alternatives. East of here, on Drottnings Square there is already a mostly organic farmers’ market held on Saturdays. Around Möllevången, there are many restaurants that are now starting to sort their food waste. As a next step, the multiple-dwelling buildings will begin sorting, and thereafter single-dwelling houses. The waste becomes biogas in a partnership project with the energy company E.ON. Already, half of the buses in Malmö run on biogas.

Individuals change their behavior due to effective city organizing. The Roads Department has run a campaign, “Friendly Way to School,” to persuade parents to walk or cycle with their children. It has been successful. At my youngest daughter’s school, car driving has been reduced by 50%, thanks to the campaign, which focused on health, safety and the environment. This, and many other public information campaigns on traffic issues, has created a culture in which ‘thinking green’ is considered cool and waste is taboo. Big SUVs are now looked upon by many as outdated and embarrassing status symbols.

The interest in sustainable urban development has taken off faster than anyone dreamed. Yes, the selection of conventional food products still dominates the organic, and cars outnumber bicycles on the streets at rush hour. But the number of citizens reached by the information that the city tirelessly presents is increasing. This past holiday season, for example, there was a sustainable Christmas market in the middle of the city. A fair-trade festival has been arranged for three years running. The city’s initiatives have now started to be taken over by businesses that see the importance of a sustainability profile. Southern Sweden’s largest women’s network had ‘sustainability’ as its theme for its annual conference, and an ecological theme event was held this fall at one of the city’s most stylish hotels.

badare_bo01_fixad.jpgMalmö City has consciously renewed its shape and changed its clothes from builder’s overalls to eco-chic party dress. As the city’s purchasing department begins to demand ethical standards from its suppliers, it makes a difference on the other side of the world. There are, of course, rips in the new clothes: a gigantic natural gas–fueled power plant is currently being built, for example. But when biogas production rises in volume, perhaps it will be used instead. There are still considerable numbers of products the city purchases without high ethical and environmental standards. We definitely need to bring people from different cultures together more, both physically and spiritually. The air quality in the heart of the city needs to be improved and traffic noise reduced. Even more people need to use bicycles or public transportation. It is, for sure, a living process.

As I cycle further from Augustenborg to my part of town, I see the city district called Hyllie growing by leaps and bounds. Just like other new parts of Malmö, Hyllie is being built with the high environmental demands developed for Western Harbor. The pilot project has become mainstream. Malmö, with its beautiful green parks, is on its way to becoming a green city – for real. I am proud that Malmö is the city I pedal my bicycle in.