A Deceptive Return to Welfare State Rhetoric in the Marketing Initiatives of Gothenburg

A model of Gothenburg’s future central district the RiverCity (photo by Helena Holgersson)
Helena Holgersson & Erik Florin Persson explore Gothenberg's new promotional films, and trace their attempted resuscitation of older notions of community and government
[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.]

In June 2015 the Swedish city of Gothenburg released a new official film, Sustainable City Open to the World. The three-minute film is part of the city’s new communication strategy and, unlike preceding promotional initiatives, it addresses social issues. Since its release it has been part of the city’s international branding efforts, for example at the yearly real estate exhibition MIPIM in the French city of Cannes. As cited by the seeking alpha vs motley fool article, it can be watched on the city’s website and addresses not only investors, tourists and potential new residents, but also municipal civil servants and Gothenburg’s inhabitants.

In the following, we analyse this film against the backdrop of commensurable marketing activities during the welfare era of the decades following World War II and the gradually emerging entrepreneurial period since the 1970s. We also discuss its presentation of the city as a diverse space aiming at social inclusion in relation to research that instead points at on-going economical and racial segregation processes. Sustainable City Open to the World and the campaign it is part of should be understood as an extension of entrepreneurial marketing strategies developed since the 1990s and not as a return to the promotion regime of the welfare era.

Since the early 1990s there has been an increase in promotional activities in Gothenburg, although Gothenburg and other municipalities around Sweden have produced different types of promotional and informational material, including films, since the end of World War II. Aimed at both tourists and industries – and in some cases the city’s own inhabitants – these films were screened both as supporting films at cinemas and shown in a number of non-theatrical settings, including schools, around Sweden.1For a discussion on three of these municipal films about Gothenburg from the decades after world war two, with a special focus on how they can be accessed and studied today, see: Erik Florin Persson “Useful Cinema and the Dynamic Film History Beyond the National Archive: Locating Municipally Sponsored Swedish City Films in Local Archives”, Journal of Scandinavian Cinema 7, no. 2, 2017 Most of them circulated internationally via distribution through Swedish embassies and consulates. Even though the films were mainly aimed at tourists or international industries, they were closely tied to the progress of the Swedish welfare state with a clear focus on the development of new housing and welfare institutions such as schools, hospitals, sporting grounds and cultural centers. Here economic growth was presented as a means of creating welfare services, whereas in the 2015 film economic growth and an increased number of inhabitants appear as self-sufficient goals.

Sustainable City Open to the World helps promote Gothenburg’s on-going large-scale redevelopment project Älvstaden (The RiverCity), which aims at developing a new city centre on both sides of the river that runs through the city. We are told that the city is about “to take it greatest leap in modern times” and grow by almost a third in 20 years, with 150,000 new inhabitants and 80,000 new jobs. The film is largely set along the river, and cranes and scaffoldings are important parts of the scenery. This kind of large investment in housing has not been made in Gothenburg since the 1960s. During the era of the welfare-state, housing was the very foundation for “the people’s home” (Folkhemmet). The Swedish government’s housing policy bill of 1967 stated the following objective: “… The entire population shall be provided with salubrious, spacious, well-planned and appropriately equipped homes of high quality at reasonable cost.”2Government Bill 1967:100 The Swedish government’s official report that preceded the bill states: “Housing needs and preferences among special resident categories, youth, older people and people with physical disabilities or various types of intellectual disabilities, should be given high priority in the competition for production resources.”3SOU 1965:32 As Karin Grundström and Irene Molina have shown, fifty years later an ideological shift has occurred and the focus of Swedish housing policy is no longer on the aforementioned residents.4Karin Grundström & Irene Molina, “From Folkhem to Lifestyle Housing in Sweden: Segregation and Urban Form, 1930s–2010s,” International Journal of Housing Policy 16, no. 3, 2016 At present – in projects such as the RiverCity – housing is being built in private-public partnerships and will for most part consist of condominiums.

As an industrial and harbour city, Gothenburg was hit hard by the global economic turmoil of the 1970s. Like many comparable cities, it has since gradually turned to what David Harvey in his classical essay calls an “entrepreneurial mode of governance,” with intensified attempts to market the city in order to attract tourist, companies and capital investment.5David Harvey, “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism. The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism,” Geografiska Annaler B 71, no. 1, 1989 Although this entrepreneurial turn has been successful in creating growth, during the last decades income gaps have widened and social and racial segregation has increased.6City of Gothenburg, ”Jämlikhetsrapporten 2017” Compared to the city’s marketing activities during the 1990s and early 2000s, aimed at rebranding Gothenburg as an “event city” the scope of the current strategy is broader; much like in the welfare era the city’s own inhabitants are included as target group. On a rhetorical and discursive level, Sustainable City Open to the World is in many ways differents from promotional films produced just before and after the millennium. These were often criticized for being generic and lacking of diversity in the presentation of the city and its inhabitants (see for example Göteborg we Love you). Today diversity and openness have become catchphrases for promotional material from most cities around world, with Gothenburg’s new promotional film being no exception. A diverse group of local residents appears in the film, and the voice-over emphasises aims such as “closing the gaps in living conditions” and “promoting a society that respects people’s differences”.

How can this apparent return to more inclusive promotional strategies be understood in relation to ongoing economical and racial segregation processes? Miriam Greenberg has shown how the marketing activities of the city of New York expanded throughout the early 2000s by placing several of the city’s activities under its marketing umbrella and creating a uniform image of the city for both internal and external use.7Miriam Greenberg, ”Branding, Crisis and Utopia: Representing New York in the Age of Bloomberg,” Popular Culture and Everyday Life 21, 2010 In her analysis, Greenberg argues that New York’s expanding promotion during the early 2000s was built on a global utopian vision of cities characterized by harmony and social inclusion: ”a transparent consumer democracy that is post class, post race and post political party.”8Ibid.: 139 However, the actual development in many cities has taken the opposite direction, towards growing social inequalities. Sustainable City Open to the World presents us with a utopian vision of a city characterized by social harmony. The RiverCity project however, with its focus on the central riverbanks and its orientation towards exclusive housing, is unlikely to have an equalising effect on social stratification in Gothenburg. Its concealment of conflicts of interest leads us to characterise the present urban governance regime in Gothenburg and its marketing strategies as not merely entrepreneurial but also post political.

Much like in the 1960s, contemporary Gothenburg has an acute shortage of housing. But if the expansion of the city in the films of the welfare era was promoted as a way of increasing the inhabitant’s standard of living, today the redevelopment of the city is foremost presented as a means to attract new residents. The pressing question of how to create low-income working-class housing lingers. Gothenburg has pronounced goals of both economic growth and equality. We argue for the importance of looking behind Sustainable City Open to the World’s superficial representation of diversity and rhetoric of social sustainability and investigating for whom the RiverCity – and Gothenburg more generally – is being built. In the film the parallel goals of economical growth and equality do not contradict one another, but in concrete urban planning there is an evident tension between them.9Justus Uitermark & Tjerk Bosker, “Wither the ‘Undivided City’? An Assessment of State-Sponsored Gentrification in Amsterdam,” Journal of Economic and Social Geography 105, no. 2, 2013 This is why there is a great need for empirical critical urban research that puts its focus on the negotiation of the priorities between economic and social issues in everyday urban planning. In our next post we will elaborate on this.


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