Johan Pries - November 2023
To kick things off, I would like to ask you to tell us a bit about yourself, where you're from and what has been your path to get to where you are now?
I have a background in Human Geography and History and I did my PhD in history but writing about urban planning. In this project I undertook an extensive archival study, trying to figure out the changes in the built environment that was happened in Malmö around 10 to 15 years ago. At the time, these changes can be defined as quite typical or even at the leading edge of planning practices. I decided to dive down in the archives and read everything from the relevant departments that passed through the municipal bureaucracy over a 30-year period, and thorough this, find some patterns explaining the underlying motivations behind the development. I ended up seeing that it was not a case of the market being ushered in by neoliberal reforms as much as people might expect. Rather, this was a scenario where social planning was changing its mission- going from an ambition to provide equal care to all residents towards an interest in accumulating human capital and re-making the city as a tool of attracting, so called, “better people”. This project was very much my introduction to urban planning, where the planning subject was essentially a way for me to study a phenomenon that I found very interesting- and since then I have been working mostly with planning related issues but in a quite varied way. In my post doc I worked together with landscape architects in a project dealing with welfare landscapes and density, where we have been trying to figure out the point of what the welfare state was doing in Sweden during the 50s, 60s and 70s in terms of the built environment. I have also kept the interest in Malmö that I stated in my PhD through a project together with a group from Uppsala University and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, where we study how the planning models of Malmö transformed as it entered new areas- focusing on the eastern, industrial areas like Sorgenfri and Sofielund.
Generally, I try to deal with the Swedish planning context by not only looking at the state as the sole planning actor but also looking to civil society through the ´Peoples movement ‘or ´Popular movement´ (Folkrörelser), especially in relationship to my current research on the People’s Park (Folkets park), which is a very Swedish phenomenon as it does not really exist outside of Scandinavia and is mostly contained within Sweden.
And now you are an Associate Senior Lecturer at the Department of Human Geography, can you tell me a bit more about how this department is connected to the Urban Arena and why the urban realm is so interesting to you?
The Department of Human Geography has a couple of legs it stands on, many people are working on what can broadly be called Development Geography which relates to a broad range of topics, there has also been a very strong research environment around economic geography- especially around regional development. And finally, there has been a cluster of people working around urban issues as well as built environment and the inhabited environment in a broader sense, for example landscape geography. There are people working on projects that are much in line with urban studies and more related to urban geographies, like the people working on housing or social movements and public space- dealing with gentrification and displacement and so on. Our department also contain people from various disciplinary backgrounds, for example I have a co-worker with me on the Planning Program originating from architecture, who is interested in technical systems of urbanisms. At the department there are human geographers within all of these areas that relate to the urban realm in many ways, which represents the multiplicity of ways we are interested in the urban, and width of the research we have going on.
Now that we understand more about your background and the context that you work in, I wonder if you can tell us more about your current research?
Right now, I am the leader of two projects about the People´s Parks – one is almost finished and more historical in nature. In this project, we acknowledge the spaces of the People´s Parks and their development as something happening before we had the notion of a strong welfare state and a Social Democratic Sweden. Long before any of the political development we take for granted today could even be imagined, the labor movement aligned forces that were not necessarily Social Democratic but still deeply involved in building the popular democratic infrastructure we still rely on today. When we think about planning, this happened in a quite different way from what we might expect and in lack of better words, it was quite “entrepreneurial”- not in the sense of how we think about entrepreneurs today, but more as a way of acting outside the normative formats of effecting ones’ conditions- in a quite opportunistic practice. The types of people I am referring to where not these technocratic, model citizens who knew best and decided what conditions people should have and how they should behave. The people pushing the development of these spaces were acting from their own circumstances, for instance, if we look at Malmö People´s Park, we see that the people that did the actual placemaking in this political space had to be a certain type. By this I mean that the context meant having to deal with up to ten thousand drunk people, mostly manual laborers working 12-hour days and ready to have some fun. It certainly does not create the easiest setting and therefor puts a certain demand on the people running it to figure out how to actually make money and maintaining control every weekend, year after year. To try and personify what I mean we can look at the first janitor and one of the security guards at Malmö People’s Park who was later convicted for murder after getting into a fight and firing the revolver he always carried with him. It is just interesting how this puts a different light on the kind of respectability we often associate with the welfare state as this socially engineered utopian project, not really taking into consideration the grassroots movements that also where involved- which of course at times could be respectable, but also quite different and pushing their agendas in a way that does not really fit into our view of the post-war world.
Thank you for that very interesting reflection, I now want to ask you if you have any specific ideas of what you want to research in the future, are there any emerging concepts within your field that you are especially interested in?
For me, there is one very clear area that I want to work more with, and it can be roughly framed as the treatment of the urban heritage in Sweden. In the future, I think that people will look back at this period in the same way that we define the 1960s as a period of destruction and ask why there was not more opposition to what was happening. I think that future populations will project their own contemporary resistance onto this period and say that everyone was against what is happening now in the same way that everyone now remembers being against the demolitions of inner-city blocks in the 1960s when, in reality, almost no one was. No one really cared, the choice was between having cars and having old buildings and most people sided with cars for a very long time and did not really take any action until it was already too late. It seems to be a very similar position to what we find ourselves in today, with the architecture from the 50s, 60s and 70s. Dealing with demolishment of very good architecture with high level of craftmanship and very good materials that are getting increasingly harder to find. Unfortunately, it is not really being recognized as such by the people in charge, because for them, it just represents a boring, old Sweden. For me, this is a huge problem both in terms of cultural heritage and in terms of environmental politics where we need to protect the carbon debt that is already invested in all of these building. For example, there is a school here in Lund that will be demolished by one of the best architects of that time, Ingeborg Hammarskjöld-Reiz, who was one of the feminist icons of Sweden and became the first ever female city architect. This school was built at the peak of her career, and she is known for making buildings that are very easily reconfigured, therefore it seems a bit strange that they cannot find any possible solution to deal with contemporary needs, without it ultimately leading to demolition and a completely new building.
The resemblance with how planners and architects in the 60s always wanted to start from scratch is evident in the way we seem to identify a small problem on site and the only solution we resort to is to clear it all up and start over. Even with the very famous architects that we today study and admire within the academic architectural canon like Fred Forbat, a Bauhaus architect that has the most visited archive at ArkDes, who built a few buildings in Lund as a result of his time as refugee here. The way that his buildings are being treated in Lund today is quite unacceptable both in terms of the significant architectural heritage they represent but also, again, simply by the fact that we cannot continue to treat our buildings as disposable. Right now, I am trying to figure out how to “enter” this discussion in a clear way to become one of the annoying people that can say that they were actually against this development 20 years from now.
Now I want to turn towards the urban as a concept again and ask you if there is anything you find especially interesting with cities? Do you have any favorite cities?
I was born and raised in Malmö and there is something deeply emotional about the spaces I inhabited when I was younger that has created patterns in what I desire in a context of living today, but I am becoming increasingly cautious of trying to pin down exactly what the urban is in an attempt at manufacturing urbanity. This seems like a quite common action today, in a process that often glosses over a lot of important and messier things.
I grew up in a city in crisis where the industrial base of it was collapsing and it was in many ways falling apart and “bleeding” population, a scenario that is rarely desired or something you plan for, but maybe this is something we should take seriously and realize that we might have to keep doing this in a conscious way as we move forward. Maybe these grand ideas of the Urban Renaissance, the return of the cities and looking at cities as winners is not the way forwards, nor is the models of cities that I love and where I grew up in from the 50s, 60s and 70s. Instead, I think that in the global conjunction with layered crises we find ourselves in, we will have to profoundly rethink the way we position ourselves on notions of development, planning and progress. Maybe we will have to learn to live with very little in some ways and rethink the notion of austerity and flows from neoliberalism- to ask ourselves, what is it that we want to be austere? What is it we want to be spartan and sparse and what do we want to have excess of? How do we find the things that makes us want to live in an intense social way? I think that cities have a lot of potential in these regards, but I think we will have to rethink them as a sign of progress and an accumulation of wealth, to instead see them as a heritage from the past that we will have to rework to live in a better way.
There are of course some cities that I have an intense relationship to, parts of Lund like Norra Fäladen where I live, as well as Malmö where I grew up, and London, where I lived for a while. Today it is quite hard to be very excited about these places because they are undergoing so much change that makes me a bit sad. I mean Malmö is a much more vibrant and multicultural city now than when I grew up in the 80s so, of course, some things change for the better. But, there is always a sense of loss in a complex way- especially when you are not compulsively seeking a narrative of progress where everything is always about becoming better. Maybe this idea is a key in figuring out what good cities are about and finding the tools to restrain ourselves as human beings, to stop living beyond the planet’s boundaries in a way that still affords us a rewarding, and in some sense luxurious, cultural and social life.
Thank you for those ideas, I'm going to wrap up with a question about your thoughts on the Urban Arena, if you have any ideas about its potential or current operation?
I think it is very important to work across disciplines to find a common ground and if we can do that around the urban and the city, that is a good thing and something to cherish. It is really important for me, not being at home in any one discipline, to talk to people who are also traversing those disciplinary boundaries.