Malmö is a city with much potential.
It is situated as Sweden’s port to the rest of Europe, with great transport infrastructure by land, sea and air. Sweden’s third-largest city is so closely linked to Copenhagen that the two urban regions almost function as a single labour market. Malmö is also home to its own university, and is located near Lund, one of the premier academic centres in Sweden where the EU is currently investing billions of kronor in creating a modern materials research facility.
Academic excellence is clearly creating benefits. When the OECD recently ranked cities around the world according to patents per immigrants, Malmö did not only beat the other Swedish cities – but reached an admirable fourth position globally.
However, Malmö still does not reach up to its full potential. If we look at the various Swedish municipalities, we can note that Malmö ranks at 15th place when it comes to average incomes. Spectacularly, this is not a 15th position from the top, but rather from the bottom. Many of the 290 municipalities in Sweden are rural places with shrinking economies and high unemployment. The vast majority of them, however, have higher average incomes in Malmö. In 2007, before the financial crisis, Malmö did even worse – ranking as the municipality with the tenth lowest average income in the entire country.
Granted, part of the explanation is that the city attracts many newly arrived immigrants. But as research has shown, Malmö is particularly bad at integrating newly arrived foreign-born residents, even compared with other parts of Sweden.
The poor economic performance doesn’t come as a surprise. For a long time, Malmö has shaped by a policy where local politicians attempt to “pick winners” in the marketplace, giving political favours to some businesses and creating bureaucratic obstacles for others. Not only are the traditional Social Democrats in Malmö sceptical to business interests, but also much alike Berlin, city leaders are influenced by the idea that politicians should favor “creative” industries over others. Berlin, much like Malmö, has many of the benefits that a metropolitan area can have in a time dominated by rapid urbanization – but the city that attempts to become a “creative capital” through central planning is in many regards a capital of poverty.
The problems in Malmö also remind one of what New York experienced a couple of decades ago. In the beginning of the 1990s, crime and insecurity had come to plague this great city. Although New York in many -if not most – regards, is the envy of cities around the world, its inability to protect its citizens and businesses lead to a decline. However, a combination of police and social action reduced major crimes by up to 80 percent during the coming two decades – twice the rate of decline compared to the rest of the US during the same period. There is much debate about what exactly made this decline possible, but the policies of crime-fighting Republican mayor Rudy Giuliani that managed to twice win him re-election clearly worked.
The lesson for Malmö is clear. Many successful individuals and firms exist in southern Sweden. But they often choose to live close to, rather than in, Malmö. Clearly the insecurity created by high crime rates is hurting the city. Recently Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh took over the reigns as Malmö’s mayor from Ilmar Reepalu, who ruled the city for 19 years. It remains to be seen if Stjernfeldt Jammeh can transform Malmö’s reputation in the same way that Giuliani did for New York.
After all, as urbanist Joel Kotkin vividly describes, since the first cities arose in ancient Mesopotamia, one of the key roles of cities has been to stimulate business. Another role is to afford safety to its citizens. Malmö has great potential. But reduced crime and a better business climate are clearly needed for this potential to be fully realized. With the right policies, Malmö could very well surpass Stockholm as Sweden’s top city.
Nima Sanandaji, a Swedish writer of Kurdish origin with a PhD in polymer technology, has written numerous books and reports about subjects such as integration, entrepreneurship, and women’s career opportunities. His forthcoming book, published by Sweden’s Reforminstitutet think tank, is entitled Krympande eller växande städer (‘Shrinking or growing cities’). He is a regular contributor to The Local.