Västra Hamnen - the redevelopment of the west harbour in Malmö

A good starting point for a visit to the west harbour in Malmö is the central railway station (even if you do not arrive by train) because if you stand at the main south entrance to the station and look south, towards the historic centre, then everything behind you and in fact the railway station itself is on land reclaimed from the sea. 

Until the 19th century buildings along Norra Vallgatan, on the far side of the bus station and the canal, would have looked out to open sea and Malmö castle, to the west, guarding the city, was on the foreshore. It was only with the rapid expansion of Malmö in the late 19th century, and with the growing importance of the docks here, that extensive areas of new land were created for wharves, warehouses and commercial buildings. In contrast Copenhagen started to expand out onto reclaimed land from early in the 17th century.

The topographical view shows the historic centre of Malmö protected by water and by the castle to the west. The map of 1871 shows the first stages of the quays and wharves constructed on new land and the current map shows the area of the western harbour immediately above or north of the castle and the huge area of commercial docks to the east.

The great period of growth for the port of Malmö lasted about a century and its decline, or at least serious changes to the economy and the role of the docks, presented the city with problems that could only be resolved by intervention and required a plan that not only covered what was to be done with the derelict area but made decisions about how this redevelopment could be part of a broader economic plan for the city. 

Following the closure of Kockums ship yards, the west harbour, an area of 175 hectares, was bought by the municipality in 1996. The aim was to develop a new city district. Construction work began in 2001 and is ongoing.

Very much ongoing. Although the surviving commercial wharves and industrial buildings are now concentrated towards the east end of the docks, there are still areas of derelict buildings and buildings in partial use between the railway and the new buildings of the west harbour and that gives the residential apartments of the west harbour a slight feeling of isolation or at least a sense of separation from the rest of the city. But such extensive schemes take time and the area immediately west of the railway station is now being redeveloped with the construction of extensive new office buildings that are beginning to fill that break between the west harbour district and the centre of the city.

1 The dock between the railway station and the west harbour
2 Walking from the railway station, The Turning Tower of the west harbour beyond dock buildings
3 New office blocks under construction, west of the railway station and developing the area between the west harbour and the centre of the city
4 The most recent apartment buildings under construction at the south end of the west harbour as you approach the district from the south


For planners, the clearly-stated aim for the west harbour development was to provide high-quality and permanent housing with architectural diversity so, although infrastructure and the overall plan of the site was set out by the city, there was no rigid control for the design of individual buildings. 

From the start there was a strong emphasis on sustainability … not just environmental sustainability but also economic and social sustainability for the area.

Wind turbines in Norra Hamnen produce power for the new district and solar panels provide 20% of the heating. All the new homes have sophisticated meter systems linked to information panels where the residents can monitor their power use and, for instance, assess information about the relative costs of peak and off-peak electricity so they can decide when they want to use appliances. There are also charging points for electric vehicles; extensive waste management schemes and buses serving the district use biogas fuel. Cycles were seen to be the best forms of transport to encourage over private cars so bike routes to cycle into the city were provided from the start.

That broad approach to sustainability is now being extended across the city and a formal report for a socially sustainable Malmö was commissioned in May 2010 and published in the Spring of 2013

The study for the report has collated and analysed some significant new data: planners were aware of the problems of overcrowding and homelessness in Malmö but the research undertaken for the report revealed some startling findings .… for instance health inequalities meant a reduction of up to 5.4 years in life expectancy between different social groups living in different areas of the city. 

Ambitious objective have now been set by the city to reduce energy consumption for the whole municipality by 50% by 2030 and for 100% of that power used by the city to come from renewable energy.

The initial phase for the west harbour was for 600 homes for 4,600 residents and with jobs within the area for 7,000 workers - more people than were employed at the ship yard - and eventually, as the redevelopment progresses, the area will provide housing for 30,000 people.

More than in Copenhagen or Oslo, the redevelopment of the harbour is driven by the need for social housing in the city. In part the new development was a response to economic problems with the closure of ship building yards but it was also a response to a growing housing shortage as the city grew in size and a response to problems with a deteriorating housing stock. There had been a massive programme for the building of new homes in Sweden between 1965 and 1975 under the One Million Dwellings Programme and there were 30,000 homes in Malmo from that period. Inevitably many of those homes now require some level of refurbishment or replacement …. because of their age, but also because of changes in building standards and evolving expectations from residents and because, it s now admitted, some were badly built. These factors also had to be taken into account with the planning and ongoing building work in the west harbour.  

Everything has not gone completely to plan. For instance the cost of houses in the west harbour is above average so the aim to achieve a social mix of occupants has been difficult to realise but the more recent phase building apartments across the north part of the area have included a larger proportion of social housing. The report acknowledges problem with selling public housing to the private sector and accepts that to recoup investment, rents have to increase by between 40% and 50%.

The development was actually launched with an international housing exhibition Bo01 (Live 2001 or City of Tomorrow) that was also the first stage of building. The exhibition was the idea in 1995 by Svensk Bostadsmässa (Swedish Housing Exhibition) with support from the European Commission and the Swedish government.

At the centre of the new development is the Turning Torso or Turning Tower by Santiago Caltrava which is 190 metres high and has 147 apartments. It was completed in 2005 and with its distinct shape, as each floor is offset to form a pronounced spiral, it has become a popular tourist sight and a symbol for the regeneration of the city.

The layout of the west harbour conforms to a grid with a central spine road running north south that seems rather wide and does seem to divide the area. There is a large central open space or park and the main apartment blocks face out either to the north towards a triangular park or promenade or west looking across a broad area of gardens and promenade with views to the Oresund Bridge and Copenhagen in the distance.

If I have any real criticism of the apartment buildings it is that they are rather flat in colour and in relief and mainly rely on the colour of facing panels and the arrangement of windows and balconies to provide pattern or decoration. The courts and smaller houses at the centre, flanking a canal and with individual gardens are much more attractive and seem to at least reflect something of the local historic buildings found around the courtyards in Malmö.

However, there are extensive areas of park and planting which are extremely attractive and the hard landscaping is constructed to a very high standard but the larger proportion of car-owning families than allowed for in the initial plans means that there are large car parks in the centre, a new multi-storey car park and in some areas a high level of on-street parking.

There is a large supermarket and some smaller stores and cafes and restaurants though they seem to cater more for visitors than the local community. On the day I walked around the area, on a Saturday, it was very very quiet which many residents would see presumably as a good thing but actually it seemed slightly bleak with one small boy rather sadly playing football on his own. 

There were more people walking along the west promenade and along the north shore but these appeared to be visitors from the numbers taking photographs or were joggers who seemed to be coming up from the city through the park between the wets harbour and Riborsborg.

It may be that the apartments appealed initially to young adults without children although there is now a school on the edge of the north park although that appears to be in temporary buildings. Maybe that is never-the-less a good sign … if it means that the neighbourhood and its residents are settling in and becoming more established. 

One clear problem about large scale redevelopment at a relatively fast speed is that one feature that people respond to is when a town or city has a sense of growth and development … a sense of story … and of course that is impossible to simulate in just over a decade. The real test will be to see how many families stay over the coming years and what people say about the buildings and the environment created here in twenty, thirty or forty years from now. Sustainability is also about surviving and about new housing not in its turn being torn down for something newer.