Will the Last One Out Please Switch Off the Light? Scandinavia’s Loser Towns

Will the Last One Out Please Switch Off the Light? Scandinavia's Loser TownsNo school, supermarket closed down last year, and plenty of empty houses?

If the answer’s yes, then you live in a loser town, and if Danish professor and planning expert Jørgen Møller got his way, your little village or town that you call home would be eradicated — at least if you live in Denmark that is.

Quoted in an article published last week in The Copenhagen Post, in which 500 of Denmark’s small towns and villages were categorized as ripe for being shutdown, Møller said:

“The wise general plots a retreat tactic and draws a line…

“If there aren’t enough children to populate the schools and the nursing homes are closing, then a complete closure ought to be considered.”

It is clear, however, that it is not only in Denmark, but in many of Scandinavia’s small towns and villages that trouble is brewing. The town of Jokkmokk where I presently live in the far north of Sweden is a case-in-point, and while not a “loser town” as such — it has a school, musuem, two supermarkets, a small cinema, a surprising number of restaurants, and is a base for trekking in the nearby mountains as well as hosts a famous winter market every February — it has definitely been losing.

To put you in the picture: the town’s nicest café shuts down for the winter in mid-August(!), the poster for the cinema remained unchanged for over two months until last week (we’ll be getting, fingers crossed, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno here soon.) And generally, outside of shop opening hours, an air of melancholic desolateness wafts through the streets, but that might also have something to do with the imminent onset of a seven-month winter. Nonetheless, it still exudes a certain charm that has attracted me after having lived in Stockholm for two years.

On a more serious note, the population (including that of the wider commune) has reduced from some 6,500 people a decade ago to just 5,200 persons today. That’s a 20 percent decline in population.

“Each time I come back, I see one more shop or business that has closed down. Who knows about the future of this place,” one student originally from Jokkmokk but now studying in Stockholm tells me.

Jobs are moving to larger population centers. While the large hydropower plants used to be a major employer, and still are, technological advances mean that not so much manpower is required, with the result that operations are becoming increasingly centralized. Furthermore, every year a new batch of high-school students leaves for the universities. Many will probably never return to live as the jobs and opportunities they aspire to do not exist in the small towns, and the lure of the city is hard to resist.

If the future is uncertain for my town, then it is even worse for the smaller surrounding villages with populations numbering in the hundreds, and some in the tens. “They will die,” one local woman told me in no uncertain terms.

It is an inescapable fact that while many Swedes continue to enjoy the great outdoors and own summer cottages to which they escape on weekends and during the long holidays, Sweden has essentially become an urban society with the main population centers — Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö being the top three — located in the south of the country or along the coast. In fact, something like half of all Swedish people now live on 1/100th of the total area of Sweden.

So should these small places be shutdown? They certainly place a burden on government and tax resources — with the EU stepping in to provide much-needed “special funding” for the sparsely-populated areas of Sweden and Finland. They also, some places at least, have alcohol problems, and fears of the prospect of drug use are extending to my little town too.

But it’s not all doom and gloom though. And the answer might lie in immigration.

In the first quarter of 2009, some 22,124 people immigrated to Sweden — far exceeding emigration — with several thousand coming from Iraq and Somalia, according to Statistics Sweden. Some immigrants make it up to the north’s smaller communities of their own accord where they can be bigger fish in a small pond, and where they typically establish restaurants or fast-food outlets, while others as asylum seekers are placed there by the government authorities.

Surprisingly, in a town of just 800 people some 40 kilometers north of where I live, and which on first appearances seems like a cultural backwater, there are 14 nationalities — and something like 33 in the whole commune. “Foreign people come in with fresh ideas and see the potential for new businesses,” one immigrant tells me. In addition, new social clubs that spring up as a result are serving to make such places more attractive places to live in.

There is also a gender dimension to the changing demographics. In many places there are a greater number of women who leave for the cities, with a lot of men preferring to stay where they can hunt, fish, and where jobs have traditionally involved manual labor down the mines and in forestry. In response to the dearth of eligible women, quite a few men have sought out Thai and Philippino wives.

It’s turning into a veritable melting-pot of cultures in northern Sweden’s small towns. Admittedly, sub-minus 30 degree winters can test the strongest of characters and it doesn’t appeal to everyone, but now it’s not uncommon to be able to eat Thai food above the Arctic Circle. Whoever would have predicted that, say, twenty years ago?

And there is an influx from other European countries, too. Many Dutch people, for instance, are moving to Sweden (the south as well as the north) as part of an organized resettlement programme. “They are Europe’s first climate change refugees,” one person half-joked to me, as much of coastal Holland lies under the sea-level. And considering there is so much empty space in rural northern Scandinavia — the population density of my commune is just 0.3 persons per square kilometer — other countries might also be interested in resettling their people. Perhaps China and India would in the future be keen to lease some of Sweden and Finland’s vast tracts of underpopulated land? And I’m almost being serious here…

Town planners and government officials may think in terms of economic rationality and viability. But as more people move to the cities, perhaps we should raise our caps to those who stick it out in their small towns. They might be waging a losing battle, perhaps, and also costing taxpayers a bit more money, but they sure make the world a more interesting and diverse place. And if, in the future, hordes of Somalis and Iraqis, Philippinos and Thais, are all residing out in the sticks in Scandinavia’s far-flung regions, then all the better I say.

It’s clearly too early to switch off the light yet.

Photo by Melani Mallamo

Alec Forss is a researcher and free-lance writer originally from the U.K. Intrigued by the Scandinavian origins of his surname, he has travelled extensively throughout the region, drawn in particular ...read more

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