Friday, March 05, 2010

Leading the way to the urban future

GOTHENBURG. With a brand new international research center for sustainable urban development and big plans for future expansion, Sweden’s second city is ready to become a laboratory for modern urbanism.
Gothenburg, or Göteborg as it’s known in Swedish, is a pleasant city of half a million on the country’s west coast. Streetcars form the backbone of public transportation, like they have for over a hundred years, and pedestrians stroll along “the Avenue” as Kungsportsavenyn, the main boulevard, is commonly known.
The jovial people of this city are proud of the strong industrial heritage in car-manufacturing (Volvo is based here) and shipbuilding.
With the shipyards long gone and the switch to a knowledge-based economy already an established fact, Gothenburg is now ready to take a giant leap in transforming the city itself.
In a huge project with a striking resemblance to Hamburg’s HafenCity, the largest on-going urban development in Europe, Gothenburg is now beginning a process of developing old port and industrial sites along the Göta River right in the center of the city.
Centrala Älvstaden (or the Central River City) as the project is called, will greatly increase the city center and eventually add homes for some 30,000 residents and workplaces for another 40,000.
City authorities are in the process of appointing a special project organisation that will work directly under the city government in the planning and developing of Centrala Älvstaden.
At the same time, a new and in some ways unique research center for sustainable urban development is setting up shop in Gothenburg. The Mistra Urban Futures will be an interdisciplinary and international center for urban issues with close ties to Chalmers University of Technology and the University of Gothenburg.
A director for the center will be recruited internationally in the near future and a number of pilot projects are under way.
“We will work with a methodology that we hope will be characteristic for the center. Researchers will work close with practitioners in the field, like planners, builders, developers, energy experts, policy makers etc”, says Henrik Nolmark, acting head of the center during the build-up period of the organisation.
“That gives the city quick access to useful knowledge as it plans new projects. It also generates two types of knowledge, one for traditional research, and one for a more direct input into on-going work”, says Nolmark.
Gothenburg got the center in tough competition with other Swedish cities, primarily Stockholm and Malmö. The two Gothenburg universities, the City of Gothenburg, an environmental research institute and three regional bodies stand behind the winning bid.
The center is also financed by Mistra, a Swedish foundation for strategic environmental research, and the government-run aid agency Sida.
Mistra Urban Futures will form an international network with research institutions in Manchester, Shanghai, Cape Town and Kisumu in Kenya.
“We aim to be a national center for studies in sustainable urban development, but also to be known internationally”, says Henrik Nolmark, and stresses the opportunities future plans for development in Gothenburg will offer researchers at the center.
“It will be very interesting to follow the development along the river, where a great number of homes and office buildings will be built. But the city also has interesting ideas for transforming suburbs.”
On a short visit to Gothenburg earlier this week, I enjoyed late winter sunshine on a walk along the Göta River and tried to image what the city might look like when the visions of the future have been realized.
The river has been a traditional barrier between the city center to the south and the industrial and port facilities on the Hisingen island to the north. With most of port activities now placed further down the river, the transformation of the city began already in the 90’s with new developments north of the river. Commuters cross the river on ferries.
But the vision for Centrala Älvstaden is on a completely different scale.
“For a long time I think it was difficult for this city to accept the fact that the shipyards were gone. But now we are past that and ready to move on”, says Ylva Löf, in charge of comprehensive planning at the City Planning Authority.
She takes me through the comprehensive planning that aims at connecting both sides of the river as Gothenburg will grow through densification of the city center. As the Gothenburg region, with some 900,000 people, grows there is an ambition to strengthen the core to attract new businesses and people.
“More and more people are looking for an urban lifestyle. They don’t mind living closer together, and it’s not only about the environment”, says Ylva Löf.
The future developments in Gothenburg will set high standards for sustainability, but Löf points out that this is something younger planners like her now take for granted. When I ask her what sets Gothenburg apart she points at something else.
“I think there is a clearer social focus in our planning here in Gothenburg, trying to break the segregation in our society.”

Down by the river, where Gothenburg will grow in the future.