(2019) Socio-spatial segregation in the periphery of Stockholm (Sweden)

Monday 8 July 2019, by Miguel Angel Martinez

All the versions of this article: [English]

A walking visit and conversation with René León Rosales and Christophe Foultier. And notes for guiding future research.
Fittja, Botkyrka (Sweden), May 2019.

René works as a researcher at the Mångkulturellt centrum-MKC (https://mkcentrum.se/) which is a municipal foundation devoted to work on issues of cultural diversity and migration (”verkar för ett samhälle där mångfalden reflekteras i den nationella självbilden och där migration är en självklar del i det svenska kulturarvet”). He conducted his PhD research through extensive fieldwork in the local primary school. Christophe has also collaborated with MKC members in the past and his own PhD dissertation was related to multi-ethnic suburban areas as well, but in France. I am a Spanish urban sociologist affiliated to the IBF (Institute for Housing and Urban Research) at Uppsala University.

After a meeting in Uppsala some time ago, we agreed on a date to visit Fittja and walk around the neighbourhood together. For me, as a relatively newcomer to Sweden, this is the first approach to Fittja as one of the highest segregated urban areas in the Stockholm metropolitan region, although I had already visited other similar places such as Tensta (Stockholm), Gottsunda (Uppsala) and Rosengård (Malmö) over the last two years. The purpose of this guided tour was to exchange insiders’ and outsiders’ views, and to explore possibilities for future cooperation. To me, it also represents a source of research questions that I would like to address with my students and colleagues, first of all, and with local residents and activists too, if possible, in the coming future.

René was the main ‘insider voice’ during our conversation. Christophe and me asked him about details and extended accounts of the stories he told us. I also took a number of pictures to remember the general aspect of the neighbourhood, although this time I avoided portraying people due to the fact that I had no previous contact with them and felt no confidence to ask for permission.

Once at home, while editing the pictures, I check how Wikipedia describes Fittja with just four short paragraphs:

“Fittja is a part of Botkyrka Municipality and the name of the Stockholm metro station in the area. It was settled during the 1970s and consists mostly of rental apartments. As of 2008, there were 7,458 people living in Fittja; 64.7% of them were of non-Swedish origin, of whom 25.1% were non-Swedish citizens.

Fittja Mosque is also located here.

In its 2017 report, Police in Sweden placed the Alby/Fittja district in the most severe category of urban areas with high crime rates.

Fittja metro station is a station on the red line of the Stockholm metro. The station was opened in 1972. The distance to Slussen is 17.5 km.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fittja)

I will use it to recall some parts of our conversation, but also as a starting point to question the public image of this urban area.

Why is this description so short and poor? Wouldn´t be politically important to enhance it with local insights (for example, through a workshop with the aim of editing this article)? What are the most important facts and updates to reflect there? Is this article a symptom of a general lack of interest in Fittja and similar suburban areas all over Sweden, except for the police? Is it fair to identify this area, above all, with crime and the existence of a mosque?

In terms of demographics, the insiders’ views are even more extreme. According to René, near 91% of the residents has a non-Swedish background (i.e. they or their parents were born abroad) although most enjoy a formal Swedish nationality.

Different areas and particular streets show more specific compositions.

White Swedes do not dwell in Fittja. It is almost impossible to see them here, unless they are on duty.

Migrants from Turkey were the main group who moved in, and the principal community who promoted the construction of the mosque.

In the recent years, the white-skin population has increased because of the arrival of more people with an East-European origin.

Students from Södertörn university used to live in some of the apartments as well as some groups of young activists who settled here over the last decades.

An apartment at the ground level of one building also serves as a temporary residency for artists.

How many ethnic groups (across cultural, national or religious lines) can be identified in Fittja? How have they evolved over time in terms of their respective size, presence, access to Swedish citizenship, location, employment, etc.? How are their mutual (intercultural) relationships? Why are these communities here? How is this migrant background combined with income, education and employment?

The urbanization of Fittja dates back to the 1970s –the period of the so-called ‘One Million Programme’.

Only the four old buildings that are part of the MKC complex remain as a memory of the previous landscape, around the traditional road going South-West from central Stockholm. Some “summer houses” were demolished when the new neighbourhood was developed, despite the contestation of the owners.

The one-million-programme buildings in Fittja are mostly made up of “rental apartments” (hyresrätt). They are managed by the housing company of the municipality (AB Botkyrkabyggen: https://www.botkyrkabyggen.se/) but interested newcomers can only search for available houses in Fittja via the general mediation service for the whole Stockholm region (https://bostad.stockholm.se/).

René mentioned a crucial incident concerning the housing situation of the area. A whole street of buildings was privatised. The company that bought the properties promised to take care of the maintenance, but, after years of being in charge, it is obvious that their buildings were left behind compared to those still managed by Botkyrkabyggen. Initially, there was no opposition by the residents who were not aware of the consequences of such a privatisation. However, their dissatisfaction was a worrisome sign that prompted residents in Alby (a nearby area within Botkyrka municipality) to protest against a similar move there.

Why a social-democratic government decided to privatise socially affordable housing? What did exactly do the company who bought the apartments? Did they maintain buildings and public areas in an acceptable manner for residents? Do they intend to sell the properties again or to renovate them in order to justify rents increases? Has this privatisation sparked new conflicts and a collective organisation of residents? How was the involvement of the tenants’ organisation (Hyresrgästföreningen) in this and other parts of the neighbourhood over the years?

The layout of the area seems to be the same as it was originally designed. Only some public spaces in between buildings have experienced a recent improvement with more plants, gardens, new benches, playgrounds, and colourful designs on the pavements. Occasionally, artists were behind the proposals to change the outlook of the public areas.

The style of buildings is very functional, with almost no decorative elements. Facades are brown-red (due to the colour of small stones covering them) and grey (due to concrete). Balconies display red or yellow colours, and the old metal structures have been homogeneously replaced in some blocs with the same, but shinier, colours. Perhaps other renovations have also been undertaken (https://www.ncc.se/vara-projekt/fit...).

Most buildings are divided between those of around 10 floors-height and those with around 3 floors-tall.

There is also a more privileged section of the neighbourhood, close to the lake and a large green area, consisting of individual terrace houses with a similar construction date (the 1970s). They have, probably, changed to a “bostadsrätt” status which implies a form of collective ownership independent from the municipality.

Next to MKC a few rows of more modern and somehow fancy houses have popped up in the recent years. René told us that they are mainly occupied by former neighbours in the area. Fittja seems not very attractive for outsiders.

The building that hosts the “centrum” (the concentration of most shops of the area, many that reflect a diverse range of migrant background, and other public services: https://www.fittjacentrum.se/vad-fi...) around the metro station has gone through renovation and just in front of it, a new white building encompasses residential apartments and a new facility –a combined library and art museum.

There are plenty of open spaces and pedestrian paths in the area. Parking space is mostly placed underground. Children can walk safely to the schools (there are three; the closest gymnasium is in another neighbourhood).

Despite the functional and rationalistic appearance, in addition to many high-rise and almost identical buildings, the whole design of the area offers a balanced organisation of public and private spaces, access to public transport, a large green area, and some basic facilities, plus the existence of an industrial-commercial area on the other side of the main motorised corridor.

The density of houses is probably high for the Swedish prevailing taste, but it would likely fit most environmental standards of compacity and human scale.

Vacancy seemed to occurred for some years, especially after the “white flight” of native Swedes, but it has been rapidly filled in with the inflows of other immigrant groups and, partially, with the transfer of some apartments to Södertörn students. This university is located just 5 kilometres away.

Are rental prices still affordable in the area compared to the past (in relation to average income) and to other areas of Stockholm? How much residential mobility (outflows, inflows and internal moves) has occurred? Who is moving (which social groups according to their migrant background, education, income, previous residence, etc.) and why? Are “bostadsrätt” houses subject to the same speculative and inflationary patterns as the rest of Stockholm? Given the pressure of the housing market in the region and the attractive features of Fittja, are any indicators of forthcoming tensions here? How do residents perceive the quality, density and variety of their built environment? What about the maintenance, renovation and improvement works (executed, ongoing or planned)?

There are also important community centres for cultural associations (two next to the park) and one youth house (Ungdomens Hus) closer to the metro station. The latter is going to be shut down by the municipal government because, according to the authorities, it does not contribute to improve the employment rates of the local youth.

The MKC is a well-established institution with a specialised library, an exhibition hall, office space, and venues for teaching, meeting, and workshops, founded in 1987. It was an original site of the Södertörn university but it became independent since the university concentrated all the departments in one campus. There are three main areas of activity: cultural heritage, urban living conditions such as migration, and ethnic identity (race and “Swedishness”). Their website offers many interesting publications such as “One thousand voices on Fittja” (2001) https://mkcentrum.se/wp-content/upl...

On the other hand, a more controversial issue was the construction of the mosque. It was demanded by the Turkish community over many years, but their proposal was continuously rejected. Most locations seemed inappropriate for the authorities and different groups, even the most peripheral ones. Eventually, the municipal government reached an agreement with the promoters of the mosque to place it next to the industrial zone. According to Wikipedia, “the mosque, which began to be constructed in 1998 and was completed in April 2007, is owned by the Islamic Cultural Association in Botkyrka, a mainly Turkish association with more than 1,500 members.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fittj...) Far-right activists (mobilised by the Sverigedemokraternas) and Christian migrants regularly gathered and protested against the construction of the building and the “islamisation of the Swedish society”. All the expenses of the construction were paid through crowdfunding -however, one treasurer ran away with the money before the construction started so it was necessary to raise new funds again.

What are the roles of the public facilities (MKC, library-museum, cultural associations, youth house) in the articulation of the local public life? How have they evolved over time? How are they used by locals and visitors? What are the real arguments and assessments made by the municipality regarding the eviction of the youth house? How have users and locals reacted to that threat? How are the local schools and students related to the public facilities? Are there any facilities missing or highly demanded? What is the role of the mosque in the area, how is it used, and has the controversy vanished? Are there other temples nearby and associated to other religions?

Regarding the official high records in crime rate, it seems most are related to drug trafficking. Small groups of traffickers have well-known spots to distribute illegal substances where buyers come, usually by car. There are sometimes disputes between different groups of drug dealers that may end up in murders. This lucrative activity is very appealing for young unemployed people.

In the parking lot of the industrial area, next to the mosque, we observed a burned car. Burning cars has been portrayed by mass media as a serious crime that tends to only occur at marginalised neighbourhoods.

Over the last years a case of group rape was often in the news (for example, https://www.svd.se/friade-for-valdt... and https://www.expressen.se/nyheter/br...).

How has crime evolved in the area over time according to both official and residents sources? Is it mostly related to illegal drugs? How does the police deal with it? What are the implications for social life in the area? Is racism a key factor in the way crimes are managed in Fittja (stop-and-frisk practices, etc.)?

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