The Lingering Presence of Richard Florida in Gothenburg’s Future Vision

The Eriksberg Crane in a model of the future RiverCity. Photo by Helena Holgersson
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Relocation, Media Industries, and City Branding.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Comparing Gothenburg’s current promotional film Sustainable City Open to the World to similar films from the early 2000s we were struck by the return of the references to the industrial welfare city of the post-war era. In his second column Lawrence asked us to elaborate on this, and to continue the analysis of our last entry. We would now like to start with looking closer at how work has once again replaced leisure in Gothenburg’s self-presentation. Gothenburg’s identity as a harbour city, strongly manifested in the post-war marketing films, was to a large extent missing in “the City of Events” promotional material of the early 2000s. In the film Göteborg We Love You from 2004 the sea is a place for fishing, swimming and sailing – for leisure or sporting events. Ten years later the port is back on the agenda. Not so much as a lived experience – most handling of goods today takes place in the container port outside of the city – but rather as a symbol of openness and international trade, and as a way of giving the city a more authentic flair. In both the beginning and the end of the film we see an artist painting the harbour skyline. It is a bit ironic that the port cranes are not in use anymore and that their future is uncertain. This site will be part of future RiverCity.

Lawrence mentions the way that urban economist Richard Florida has recently started to dissociate himself from his theory of the “creative class” as a golden road for any city’s success. In the 2009 Masterplan for Gothenburg Florida is one of few academic sources referred to. The municipality highlights his argument that cities with a high proportion of residents that can be categorised as belonging to the “creative class” show a better economic development.1Gothenburg Planning Office, Översiktsplan för Göteborg, 2009: 71 In 2018 Florida is no longer a name that you hear explicitly referenced, but in practice the brand of Gothenburg is much closer to his ideal today than it was ten years ago. At the turn of the century the city was still almost exclusively presenting itself as “The City of Events”, and proudly showing all its hotels and large arenas. Now the voice-over of Sustainable City Open to the World tells us that: ”Gothenburg is investing in an open and creative corporate climate”. Florida’s definition of “the creative class” is wider than one might first think, and in addition to artists, designers and writers it includes researchers, engineers, architects, chefs and journalists. In other words, it incorporates most of the occupational categories that you see in the film. Compared to the marketing films of the post-war era it is a very different economy that appears. When companies such as Volvo and SKF – who were founded and still have their headquarters and part of their production located in Gothenburg – appear, we don’t primarily see the workers on the factory floor, but instead staff at research and development departments. And whereas Göteborg we Love you focuses on cultural events such as arena concerts, Sustainable City Open to the World focuses on small club gigs – much like Florida has recommended cities to do. The tune “Curtains” from the local indie-rock band Vita Bergen can also be heard on the soundtrack in the second part of the film.

We were asked to elaborate on Gothenburg’s left-wing legacy. It is true that the Social Democrats have, with the exception of a few years, been holding the chair in the Municipal Board since the 1970s. People who vote for the liberal or conservative party nationally would to some extent vote for the Social Democrats locally. Through collaboration with, on the one hand the right-wing parties, and on the other hand local businesses, the Social Democrats have in the past decades been able to not only create consensus on what needs to be done to in order for post-industrial Gothenburg to prosper, but to actually “get things done”. And they have been successful in their efforts – in 2013 the city received the award “Best Practice” in the category new marketing and management at Place Marketing Forum for its work with public-private partnerships.2Göteborg & Co, “Göteborg prisas för framgångsmodell,” Press release 15th October, 2013 However, this consensus-oriented local political culture, often referred to as “the spirit of Gothenburg”, goes back more than 250 years. In the 18th and 19th century the private partners of the political government were the industrial magnets, and many of the city’s cultural and educational institutions were initially funded by their donations. Up until the last decades the city worked above all with large corporations such as Volvo and SKF.3Gunnar Falkemark, “The Gothenburg Spirit: From Donations to Networking,” in Helena Holgersson et al, (Re)Searching Gothenburg, Glänta produktion, 2010 Today, we see other types of actors, such as real-estate developers, emerging as crucial partners for the city. What is important to acknowledge here is how Gothenburg during three decades of successful rebranding has also, as we brought up in our first entry, become an economically and racially increasingly segregated city. In her research, our colleague Catharina Thörn has pointed out how Gothenburg’s entrepreneurial strategies since the 1990s demonstrate how neatly neoliberal policies can be merged into a social democratic welfare regime.4Catharina Thörn, “Soft Policies of Exclusion: Entrepreneurial Strategies of Ambience and Control of Public Space in Gothenburg,” Urban Geography 32, no. 7, 2011 The Social Democrats’ vision for Gothenburg is not presented as based in ideology, but in considerations of what is simply “best for Gothenburg”.

But now that the City of Gothenburg has once again started to emphasise the need for equality in its promotional material – and, more importantly, in the initiative Jämlikt Göteborg (“Equal Gothenburg”) – does this mean that the city government could now become a progressive agent of change? So far, our impression is that the governance towards these goals is very unclear. And with such weak governing tools the municipality has yet to demonstrate that its activities are not just what social researcher Shirin Ray characterises as “performative politics”, that is, politics aiming at communication rather than practical efforts.5Shirin Ray, “Political Performance: A Framework for Analysing Democratic Politics,” Political Studies 63, no 5, 2015 So far it does not seem as if the goals of equality have been able to challenge the goals of economic growth in practical urban planning. But on the other hand, since the goals of equality are highlighted in the budget, the municipality’s prioritisations can be made visible and challenged. The question is by whom, given the consensual local political culture of Gothenburg.

Looking at the RiverCity-project the area Frihamnen offers some guidance. In the model that is used in this development process the city (often through the municipal development company Älvstranden Utveckling) invites building companies to join a consortium that then plan the area together. So far most projects have resulted in relatively exclusive areas, predominantly with condominiums.6See for example Catharina Thörn & Helena Holgersson, “Revisiting the Urban Frontier through the Case of New Kvillebäcken in Gothenburg,” City 20, no. 5, 2016 However, in the area Frihamnen, the municipality has decided to push its goals of social sustainability. Since the city owns almost all the land in this old harbour area it decided to force participating companies to build a certain percentage of affordable rental apartments.7The RiverCity’s website:, 2018-02-26 Building companies still signed up for the project, which shows us that the municipality might have been a too passive negotiator before. On a less positive note, the low rents will only be guaranteed for 15 years. And so far, no plan to expand this pilot project to a general strategy has been presented.

Lastly, we would like to expand the discussion from our last entry on the post-political character of the marketing of Gothenburg. Analysing Sustainable City Open to the World our impression is that all the people in the film – café staff, construction workers, young designers and business leaders – seem to come to together in a celebration of Gothenburg. Here we can see a clear similarity with Alex’s text on Disney’s community Golden Oak and how he describes the blurred lines between employees and residents and between ”the ultra rich and the working class”. Despite their joint celebration of future Gothenburg, only some of the people we meet in Sustainable City Open to the World are likely to be able to buy or rent an apartment in the future RiverCity. The economy that they are all part of is one of widening income gaps. One of the real-estate developers that the municipality, much in line with “the Gothenburg spirit”, is currently collaborating with is Ola Serneke, a man with large ambitions as a “community builder”. His primary investment in the RiverCity-project is Karlatornet (“The Karla Tower”). When completed in 2021 the tower will be the tallest building in Northern Europe with its 245 meters (only for a few years though, if Stockholm goes through with its plan to build an over 300 metres high skyscraper). The ”ultra-rich” does not appear in Sustainable City Open to the World or in the general visions for the RiverCity, but in the marketing of Karlatornet’s penthouse suits we get to see their future apartments, with a view over the mouth of the Göta river.

In this marketing film the lead architect talks about creating “a building that resonates with its local community” and how they “really wanted to create this for the city of Gothenburg.” But given the target group of these penthouses and the way they are presented in the film, the tower are most likely to be sealed off from most people’s life in the rest of the city.

In our two posts one of our general argument has been that the current marketing initiatives of Gothenburg should be understood as an extension of the entrepreneurial marketing strategies developed since the 1990 and inspired by Florida. Conflicts of interests are still downplayed in favour of a narrative where everyone works together towards a common goal. One of the problems with Florida’s theories has always been that they offer no tools to slow down gentrification processes, and hence counteract the displacement of low-income people, paradoxically enough including parts of “the creative class”. As far as we understand, Florida has not really, as the rumour goes, revised his theory. He does however say that: “The creative class urban revival ended up being a whole lot stronger than I thought” and that his new work is about: “solving the new urban crisis and creating more inclusive cities”. It remains to be seen how he will advise cities in these ambitions. In order to make room for the skyscraper Karlatornet and its surrounding area, old buildings with rehearsing spaces and art studios for local bands and artists will be demolished. This is a very different story than the one being told in Sustainable City Open to the World, and it illustrates why we have characterised Gothenburg’s current marketing initiatives as somewhat deceptive. Culture practitioners in Gothenburg are now organising in the network Kultur åt alla (“Culture for everyone”), trying to get the municipality to clarify what it means when it says that culture is a crucial part of the RiverCity, and future Gothenburg in general, while at the same time pulling the rug out from under the local cultural life.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Gothenburg Planning Office, Översiktsplan för Göteborg, 2009: 71
2. Göteborg & Co, “Göteborg prisas för framgångsmodell,” Press release 15th October, 2013
3. Gunnar Falkemark, “The Gothenburg Spirit: From Donations to Networking,” in Helena Holgersson et al, (Re)Searching Gothenburg, Glänta produktion, 2010
4. Catharina Thörn, “Soft Policies of Exclusion: Entrepreneurial Strategies of Ambience and Control of Public Space in Gothenburg,” Urban Geography 32, no. 7, 2011
5. Shirin Ray, “Political Performance: A Framework for Analysing Democratic Politics,” Political Studies 63, no 5, 2015
6. See for example Catharina Thörn & Helena Holgersson, “Revisiting the Urban Frontier through the Case of New Kvillebäcken in Gothenburg,” City 20, no. 5, 2016
7. The RiverCity’s website:, 2018-02-26

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