What does the Malmö Commitment mean to Malmö? Ultimately, a good life for all in a more sustainable world

Photo: Malmö Mayor Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh signs the Malmö Commitment on Inclusive & Equitable Communities during the ICLEI World Congress held 11-13 May, 2022 in Malmö, Sweden. 

In the wake of the ICLEI World Congress in Malmö which wrapped up on 13 May, a broad cross section of cities and regional governments spanning multiple continents have signed on to the Malmö Commitment. Jurisdictions range from the event’s host city Malmö to Recife, Brazil, to Austin, Texas, in the United States.

Arne Nilsson, manager of Malmö’s Environmental Department, said it is fitting that his city hosted the conference and that the Malmö name is now aligned with the belief that sustainability initiatives must go hand in hand with the overarching goal of creating a more equitable society.

Reflecting on why Malmö was chosen to host the World Congress, Nilsson observed, “We are not the perfect city,” and over the years “we’ve had our share of challenges and problems.” But the city has a long track record of responding to potential obstacles “by always being willing to try something new.” All this positions Malmö as a place that other cities faced with their own challenges can relate to, he said.

Decades-long challenges spur innovation

Malmö’s challenges date back to the early 90s when the city was financially bankrupt. Around that time, wealthier residents had fled their apartments in the downtown core in favor of purchasing homes in outlying areas. As Nilsson recalled, “We had a lot of immigrants coming to Sweden … attracted by the fact the city is so close to the European continent. Then all of a sudden, we had a new population that was very multicultural, but also had problems with integration.”

From Nilsson’s perspective, those early issues represented the start of the city’s process of finding a balance between the potentially conflicting agendas of social inclusion, environmental action, and economic growth.

Putting the city’s remarkable transformation into perspective, fast forward three decades from those difficult times, and just last year (2021) Malmö was voted as Sweden’s Environmental Best Municipality by Aktuell Hållbarhet magazine. The award recognizes that Malmö has become a living lab for sustainability, with the ambitious goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030.

Trevor Graham, director of the environmental consultancy Urbanisland, came to Malmö during those tough times in the 90s, working for the city to help oversee the transition of the Augustenborg neighborhood to a more sustainable community through multi-departmental work tied to improving transportation, stormwater management, energy efficiency, waste management, biodiversity, and social innovation. The outcome is now seen as one of the most ambitious, most successful transition projects in all of Europe.

District and neighborhood level initiatives

Despite such accomplishments, Graham feels there’s still work to be done toward better integrating environmental initiatives with socioeconomic development. “It feels like we never quite got there,” he said. “But now there’s the potential to do that with the target of the city becoming climate neutral by 2030. So what we’re currently looking at is: Can we work through various (initiatives) on both a neighborhood and city district scale” to achieve both climate neutrality and social equity?

Not unlike other cities that have embarked on the path of getting to zero emissions, Graham said, Malmö’s current challenge is, “We can aim for such things as 100% renewable energy and heating for buildings. But at the end of the day, it’s the lifestyle choices of people that will impact” the city’s ability to achieve climate neutrality.

Apart from incentivizing such physical investments as the installation of solar panels, Graham said, it’s also a matter of emphasizing equity components such as “decent quality housing for reasonable cost, which is also going to be energy efficient” and “housing that’s close to public transportation.”

So how does the Malmö Commitment tie in with all of this? In the words of Malmö Mayor Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh, it comes down to “a long term goal of fostering safe, vibrant cities, towns and communities for all to live, work and thrive. It means a work in progress and an ongoing commitment to get things done.” This process “is more organic than just a declaration,” she said. It’s a mindset that speaks to how Malmö is seeking to transform itself and enliven the city’s downtown core on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

Transit improvements increase equity citywide

Based on a more than 20-year history of tackling projects for the city, Graham views “densification a key driver” for positive change, along with continuing to improve the city’s public transportation infrastructure, a process that is already well underway. He noted that thanks to such accomplishments as the city’s bus rapid transit system, “the travel time to central Malmö has gone from 30 minutes to being 15 minutes … which increases the attractiveness of (less affluent) areas and helps unlock the door for investment in these neighborhoods.”

The construction sector has embraced this investment wholeheartedly, with about 200 companies committed to building about 28,500 new homes using smart energy solutions and environmentally friendly material, as pointed out by a recent article in CityTalk.

Graham was inspired by equity initiatives he saw during the World Congress through mobile workshop tours across Malmo, including “visiting a rescued food supermarket for people on really low incomes who are struggling to feed themselves, learning about an organization that is doing employment training for women who are a long way out of the labor markets and getting them involved in textiles work and catering, and going to a community farm where they’re doing catering training and getting people involved in community agriculture … so an accelerator for urban farmers.”

Nilsson of Malmö’s Environmental Department said these and numerous other sustainability initiatives help to underscore “our goal in Malmö of combining a green agenda with a better life for everyone. That’s the main purpose. I think that’s what our mayor saw when she told us to pitch hosting the World Congress in Malmö in the first place.” Making Malmö “the stage” for this international event helps not just visitors but the host city focus on fast-tracking social and environmental initiatives, he said.

Nilsson added that Mayor Jammeh’s ultimate goal was to “develop a more sustainable city that’s tied to what people want. They must see that it is possible to have a good life in this new sustainable world.”

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