Last week, the residents of Fågelsången (birds singing), a quiet street in the heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read next news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. During blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open windows or be within the blast zone works. We will work on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with extensive roadworks – has been a reality for central Gothenburg residents for the past four years as a huge rail tunnel has been dug to link the current terminus to other parts of the city and provide smoother connections to other routes. The aim is to triple the number of rail passengers and relieve congestion on the main road through the city, costing 20 billion kroner (€1.9 billion).
This railway, known as the Västlänken (Western Link), is not the only major construction project in the city centre. It is just the biggest piece in a giant scheme to revive the docks along the river, which were decimated by the global shipping crisis of the 1970s. The large rusty cranes in front of the opera house and the abandoned Eriksberg portal are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and image. Areas on the North Shore were also home to many recent immigrants and a symbol of poverty. The mayor of the city shamefully and shamefully called it “the Gaza Strip”.
Therefore, in 2012, the city launched an ambitious plan. Christian Elvstaden, RiverCity, a municipal investment aimed at building an attractive modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the largest urban regeneration project in the Northern region. A YouTube video commissioned by the city a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting/brutal (pick your adjective here) nature of the transformation it will bring:
RiverCity revolved around two main projects: a new bridge over the Hissingsbron River (Hissingen Bridge) combined with major new office developments right in the center; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg as a beacon of modernity in a city that has traditionally had strict rules against tall buildings.
Add to all this the proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm and you have a recipe for some pretty impressive urban upheavals involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and most of the city seems to have been turned into a construction site. Here there is a forest of cranes, while chic new office blocks pierce the horizon – a real metamorphosis is taking place.
But many residents of Gothenburg are either restless or downright unhappy. RiverCity is said to be a futile project to improve the docks. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will scar the landscape and symbolize Gothenburg’s new love for finance and real estate, a slap in the face to the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a hello elephantan expensive project that will bring dubious benefits, many believe.
Västlänken’s opposition was such that a new political party, the Democrats, won 17 percent of the vote in 2018 demanding an immediate halt to the project. This sparked a revolution in local politics, reversing decades of Social Democrat rule.
And now the luster of these major construction projects is beginning to fade. Karlatornet was the first to face the problem. Construction stalled for most of 2020, threatening to leave this regeneration flagship as nothing more than an unfinished stump after US financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hissingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction has been fraught with setbacks, and the final cost to taxpayers is still unknown. “There was an awareness from the beginning that this was a high-risk project,” said one of the project managers – said this spring ominously.
RiverCity’s budget exceeds two billion kroner accusations of mismanagement which is reminiscent of Gothenburg’s old nickname Muteborg, or Bribetown, after the 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 the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.
In May, a Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published the leaked protocols from Västlänken management meetings where one of the main contractors for the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years behind schedule in 2026 – in other words, four more years of stunning explosions, roadblocks and related upheaval. With local elections just months away, Democrats have placed billboard and local media ads demanding top politicians tell the truth about what’s going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is true which they kept warning about.
Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, which was postponed from 2021 due to the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move with pristine new freeways and gleaming office buildings. So there is light at the end of the development tunnel for Gothenburg’s urban planners. However, in the case of Vestlanken, they will be hoping that the light does indicate an oncoming train.
David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author Almost Perfekt: how Sweden works and what we can learn from itfreelance journalist and journalism lecturer at the University of Gothenburg.