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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Where did everybody go? How Stockholm becomes a ghost town in summer

It’s July in Stockholm. The streets are empty, the bars are eerily deserted and you don’t have to wait an hour to get a table for brunch. What is going on? 

Where did everybody go? How Stockholm becomes a ghost town in summer
The Local's reporter Chiara Milford trying to interview a lonely traffic light in Stockholm. Photo: Michael Parker

Some tumbleweed drifts down the street. 

You text one of your Swedish friends to meet for fika but they say they’re out of town and won’t be back until August. You check your email but it’s all out-of-office replies.  

Your favourite cafe has a sign in the window saying “sommarsemester!!” with a smiley face and a flower.

A group of international students zooms by on electric scooters. For the first time since you moved to Sweden, there isn’t a queue outside Systembolaget, the alcohol chain.

Where on Earth did everyone go? 

It’s not a zombie apocalypse, it’s not some natural disaster that you missed the memo about evacuating, and it’s not everyone suddenly taking pandemic precautions extra seriously and self-isolating. 

It’s summer. 

Most of the people usually crowding Sweden’s cities will be swiftly on their way to their sommarstuga (summer house) in the countryside to spend the warmest months of the year.   

Around a fifth of the population are lucky enough to own a summer house, and even more have access to one through family and friends. 

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Swedes were among the most-travelled nationalities in the world. Even though many are opting to stay within national borders this year, they’ll still be getting the hell out of the cities for a Svemester (Sverige + semester – “Sweden holiday”).

It’s hard to know exactly how many people leave Swedish cities over the summer – the government doesn’t track the locations of its citizens to that extent – but you don’t need national number-crunching agency Statistics Sweden to tell you that the exodus is pretty high. 

Most employers offer staff a minimum of 25 days annual leave and Swedes take a big lump of that off during the summer, particularly while school is out in July. 

So that’s the reason you may feel like you’re living in a ghost town right now. 

It was difficult to get hold of anyone to interview for this story. The only thing around available to talk to me was one of the traffic lights between Hornsgatan and Ringvägen in Södermalm. 

“Honestly I don’t see the point of me turning on for work every day,” they told me. “There are barely any cars to stop, and barely any pedestrians to usher across the street.”

Even though they’ve been at this crossing for several decades, the yearly summer exodus still comes as a surprise.

“One day there are hundreds of cars at my intersection. The next, it’s just a couple of drunk kids on scooters.” 

“I miss the pollution,” they said. 

Still, with fewer people around you can finally find a place to sit at the city’s outdoor bars, relax on Tanto Beach without feeling the breath of the stranger on the towel next to you, and walk down Götgatan without bumping into the unfortunate date you filed under “seemed like a good idea at the time”.

Glad semester!

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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? 

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.

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