Unmapping green space: notes on the densification of Rosengård

What means of creating knowledge about space are associated with densification as urban renewal? Which planning epistemologies can be found at work when new housing is planned for the green spaces of welfare landscapes? In a recent article for City, we attempted to study the effects on green space when the ‘compact city vision’ is pushed onto one of Sweden’s most infamous modernist residential areas: Rosengård.

Rosengård was built primarily between 1963 and 1972 as a part of the Million Homes Program, and is located in the southeastern inner-city of Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city. Today, the area consists of a series of modernist neighborhoods and offer homes for just shy of 24 000 residents, primarily in multi-family housing units. Rosengård is the largest of Malmö’s post-war residential areas, and also one of the most clearly racialized as an ethnically othered place in Scandinavia.

Already by the early 1970s, critique was directed towards this (type of) neighborhood(s). Shortcomings in architecture and landscaping in combination with the peripheral location was harshly criticized, amplified by the previous housing shortage turning into a surplus. The allegedly poor built environments were also associated with, and deemed to negatively affect, the citizens.  Since then, both planning, design, community work, associations and other type of citizen-led initiatives has led to many efforts which deal with socio-spatial issues. The once-muddy fields between Rosengård’s building have in the last half-century systematically been recreated as lush green spaces, hosting a range important recreational facilities and spaces.

From around 2015, we notice a clear shift in strategy from these small-scale gradual improvements of the built and lived environments to the municipality opting for taking a much more dramatic redevelopment approach in this area. The urban renewal and densification project Amiralsstaden has sought to improve the social sustainability of the area through the means of redevelopment, aligned with the strategic vision for the city of Malmö to become ‘green, dense, near and mixed’. We studied the public planning documents connected to the Amiralsstaden project in order to find out two things. How does the densification of the Rosengård area affect (public) green spaces? And how do the public planning documents discursively produce knowledge about the existing area and its green spaces, in order to realize this new ‘compact city vision’?

Studying the representation of green space and proposed densification in written documents, maps, and photos shows that planners tasked with densification have adopted a new way of gauging space. While the potential for green spaces to become ‘intense’ and high-quality was consistently highlighted, the loss of green spaces and the increased pressure (through more intense use) was rarely even registered. Instead, the very existence (and, hence, qualities) of many green spaces were fundamentally obscured in public planning visions and strategies. The actual green spaces needed for renewal was thus ‘unmapped’ discursively. Curiously, the Amiralsstaden project not only ‘unmaps’ existing green spaces by refusing to even acknowledge their existence in a systematic fashion, but then also selectively introduce these spaces back into plans as problematic features requiring planning interventions.

By not recognizing the existing (modernist-type) green spaces of the area that is proposed to change, the densification can be rolled out without ever grappling with contradictory aspects of the plan’s green ambitions or necessary trade-offs. The ‘planning epistemology’ unmapping green space we have identified in Rosengård fundamentally undermines the planning craftmanship, leaving professionals with a hollowed out and pre-determined, narrow vision. Furthermore, it underpins the dispossession of green spaces from the existing citizens in a clearly racialized, poor and stigmatized part of the city and undermines the planners’ discursive possibilities to engage productively with local demands to preserve green community assets. Hence, we argue that densification must not be uncritically accepted as a default sustainability fix, but rather clearly account for the risks of sacrificing green spaces for the least politically influential communities and ensure that these voices can be heard and are taken seriously.

Johan Pries är biträdande lektor vid Institutionen för ekonomisk och kulturell geografi, Lunds universitet, och forskar om planeringshistoria, sociala rörelser, rumsliga konflikter, offentliga platser och rätten till staden.

Alva Zalar

Doktorand på Institutionen för arkitektur och byggd miljö samt en del av Lunds universitets forskarskola Agenda 2030.