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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 
The Karlatornet is now half-built but is running into problems. Photo: Adam Ihse/TT

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

Member comments

  1. It’s not just Gothenburg. Such urban schemes are going on all over Sweden, especially in communes governed by the same type of politicians. They are ill-conceived, over budget and have long delayed completion dates. Investors and contractors leave in frustration. Ghettos proliferate. Little, and not so little, Muteborgs exist all over Sweden protected by the Swedish constitution which gives central government no planning, fiscal or audit powers over local government. It is Sweden’s achilles heel which everyone talks about in private conversation but no politician wants to tackle.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Why Sweden’s Nobel prizewinner would be a great dinner guest

It is not only Svante Pääbo’s contribution to evolutionary biology that makes him so interesting, but his own personal story as well, says David Crouch.

Why Sweden’s Nobel prizewinner would be a great dinner guest

Elite scientists are maybe not so high on our list of fantasy dinner guests. Too much homework before the conversation. But the more I find out about Svante Pääbo, the Swedish winner of this year’s Nobel prize for medicine, the more I am convinced he would be great company. 

A modest man with a delightful smile, who likes beer and schnapps with lunch and listens to rock band Talking Heads, Pääbo comes across as warm and approachable. When he won the Nobel, his colleagues at the university threw him in a pond. His book Neanderthal Man is peppered with praise for students and colleagues who helped him along the way. 

He is also skilled at explaining in simple and engaging terms what his research means for all of us. At a time when immigration is such a hot potato, Pääbo reminds us that the history of our species is one of movement and mingling of populations. 

It is not only Pääbo’s contribution to evolutionary biology that makes this clear, but his own personal story as well.

Aged 19, his mother Karin fled her native Estonia in 1944, joining tens of thousands who escaped the Soviet occupation. She worked as a cleaner and a cook in Kalmar, then studied chemistry in Lund, where she met Svante’s father. 

But he was married. Karin brought up her son alone in Stockholm. The father visited on Saturdays when his family thought he was at work.

Svante followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a researcher. A surreptitious experiment in the lab with a piece of liver from ICA set him on a path towards discovering how to extract and study DNA from long-dead animals. At Uppsala University he was also a gay rights activist, before he fell in love with the “boyish charms” of a female colleague at Berkeley, with whom he went on to share his life and have two children. 

Pääbo says it came as a surprise that his bisexuality was considered unusual, and the fact that it didn’t cause him any problems he contributes to the high self-esteem that his mother had given him. “The realisation that my feelings were not quite what the majority society expected forced me to change my rather complacent attitude and led over time to me becoming more open,” he said in a talk on Swedish radio. “Not only to myself, but also for the idiosyncrasies of others.”

Pääbo developed the ideas and techniques that enabled the DNA of our closest genetic relative, the Neanderthals, to be fully decoded and compared to human DNA. His work shows that, as early humans moved east and north from Africa some 70,000 years ago, they mingled and mated with Neanderthals, their mixed children living in human communities and passing on their genes. 

“From a genomic perspective, we are all Africans – either living in Africa or in quite recent exile,” Pääbo says. But many of us have Neanderthal DNA, around 2.5% of the total – we are more Neanderthal the further you get from Africa, in fact. “The lesson is that we have always mixed. We mixed with these earlier forms of humans, wherever we met them, and we mixed with each other ever since,” Pääbo says.

Swedish scientist Svante Paabo swims in a pool at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Photo: Matthias Schrader/AP/AFP

Pääbo’s research has relevance for modern medicine because he has enabled scientists to examine how viruses have changed with time. Last year, he and his team made headlines when they reported that people with a Neanderthal variant of their third chromosome were at a higher risk of suffering severe consequences from contracting Covid-19.

As a dinner guest, I think Pääbo would bring the outlook of a person who has experienced both east and west. The Stasi, the east German secret police, investigated after he was given tissue samples from Egyptian mummies at a museum in East Berlin. He moved from California to live and work in Munich, and then the former east-German city of Leipzig. Some of his seminal work is on samples found by Russian researchers in a cave in Denisova, a remote spot in Siberian mountains near the borders with Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia. 

It is wise to avoid politics at dinner parties, but Pääbo might also have something interesting to say about Sweden today. 

Julia Kronlid, newly-elected to the post of vice speaker of parliament, is a senior member of the Sweden Democrats and someone who does not accept the theory of evolution. In 2014, she said in a widely cited interview: “I do not accept the theory of evolution’s claim that humans are descended from apes. One can question the scientific nature of it because it is so far back in time.”

By all accounts, Kronlid appears to be a nice person, whatever you think of her politics or beliefs. Hopefully, she celebrates the Nobel prize for medicine as a great Swedish achievement. And wouldn’t it be nice if she and Pääbo could sit down to dinner together sometime soon?

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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