Flexmark is less a place than it is a way of thinking about place… though some devotees would say that it’s as much a state of mind as anything else. Not to be confused with flexblocks—though it shares some cultural-temporal DNA with the community-controlled urban spaces for which Malmö is particularly renowned—flexmark, which translates literally as “flexible ground”, denotes areas which are periodically flooded, and thus unsuited to permanent habitation… but which are nonetheless usable, and indeed sometimes beautiful, at other times.
Residents of Skåne’s coastal settlements have long been aware that their land is vulnerable to sea level rise caused by climate change. Traditionally, defence was the prevailing strategy: building walls and levees to protect continued urban expansion—an option much to the preference of developers (and, as a consequence, of some politicians). However, three decades ago there was a shift in the discussion about adaptation options to surging seas and inland flooding, as tragic images of broken levees and inundated cities from cities around the world forced a re-examination of the strategy—and the failure of the Skanör-Falsterbo levee, long predicted by its critics, brought the point home to Skåne. Analysis of these unfortunate incidents showed clearly that the risk of catastrophe was lower if settlements performed a strategic retreat, allowing water to flow in among urban spaces in a managed way.
For the most part, Skåne was not and is not at the same level of risk as, say, New Orleans or Bangladesh. But lower risk is not no risk… especially not in a pragmatic and cautious culture such as that of Sweden, whose government concluded that strategic retreat would be easier and less risky if planned and executed well in advance. Coastal settlements were the first to get their relocation notices, but not the only ones: certain areas in and around Kristianstad, which has long had an elevation below sea level, were also given their marching orders. Understandably, residents were not happy about their relocation, having formed deep financial and cultural bonds to the land on which they dwelt—and the wider public often loved these locations too, even if only as places to visit. Hence the government came up with a compromise: instead of abandoning the land entirely, they gave it a new purpose and a new designation. Thus the flexmark was born.
Time for some bureaucracy—we promise, it’s worth reading to the end. In 2030 the flexmarks got their own regulatory designation along with specific advice and codes for its usage. Legally speaking, then, a flexmark is a disaster-prone area that has yet to become so destroyed that it can’t host human settlements at all; however, the potential damage and loss of life that would occur were the storm or landslide to happen is too great to accept, given its increasing statistical likelihood. Therefore a flexmark may only be used for temporary functions that can be changed, moved, or abandoned; critical infrastructures, buildings and businesses are successively moved away, in order that other functions can take their place.
The results can be quite spectacular, though this has done little to mollify the relocated, who are a persistent force in local and regional politics. In Skanör-Falsterbo, for instance, you can hike around in the beautiful flexmark nature reserves, while other Skånian flexmarks are now home to some of Sweden’s most popular camping spots (between April and August). Others still play host to big sports tournaments: sandy coastal reaches are popular with the beach volleyball crowd, while flood-prone grass- and scrub-lands are periodically invaded by the wildgolf scene. But if sports and hiking are not your scene, never fear—maybe the cultural delights of the flexivals will be more your speed?
Flexival! The Low Water Festival(s)
When the water’s away, the humans will play! During summertime when the water level is low and there is low risk for storm surges and flooding, people make use of flexmark areas by organising pop-up festivals. The Low Water Festival (often referred to simply as the Flexival) is usually held from early June to late August in various flexmark zones in Skåne—and just as the usage of the land is flexible, the festival takes various forms depending on location, with different local amusements and treats. Solar-powered food trucks with locally-produced food and booze roll right out on the flexmark to serve up fresh delights, while bands and performers—a mix of local heroes and big names from the European touring circuit—bring their sound and fury to these liminal landscapes. The flexivals usually last for a couple of days—weather permitting, obviously—and if you prefer a night under the stars, there are designated camping areas where you can park your e-vans and set up tents for camping. Like other big city festivals before them, flexivals are publically funded and free for everyone to partake in, local or tourist. However, the fines for not adhering to the flexmark regulations are hefty, so make sure that you read up on the heavy stuff.
IMPORTANT! If the flood alarm sounds—it’s only happened once or twice before—it’s time to head inland and avoid the storm surges! No need to panic, though: there is plenty of time to get to safety, as the weather is monitored very closely by the authorities.
Flexmark areas are successively transformed as the risk of disaster increases. Take coastal flexmarks, for example: they can look vastly different, depending on how likely they are to flood. Areas in the initial phases of retreat may have much of their critical infrastructure and buildings left, while others only have a few permanent buildings; others are completely scrapped from all permanent structures. As such, each area has a specific set of local ordinances—so be sure to read the signs at the borderlines!
Planning a flexmark visit? Great—but think like a Swede, and plan ahead. Here are a few big considerations to bear in mind
- Energy Diet. Due to the withdrawal of electricity infrastructures, energy is scarce; sure, in well-maintained areas you might find a solar-charging-pole, but you’ll likely have to join a queue (take a numbered ticket, unless you want to irk the locals), and many flexmarks are essentially e-barren.
- Vehicle Restrictions. Hauling vehicles out of flood water is expensive for the local authorities, not to mention a major hassle. As such, cars and vans are strictly prohibited from some flexmarks, while in others you have to have a fully charged battery even if you’re just staying an hour or two. Make sure to load up before you go!
- Toilets & Waste. Bear in mind that toilets can be hard to come by on flexmarks. Some locations set up porta-potties during the high season, but some don’t—so be prepared! (If you’re not prepared to do your business in paper bags and take them away with you, maybe flexmarks are not for you.) The fines for littering are also eye-watering… so “leave nothing but footprints”, as the old cliche has it.
- Restricted areas and seasonal opening. Make sure to look up the seasonal opening times for the flexmark you plan to visit: due to increased flood risk, they may be closed off during late autumn and winter. Despite the threat of fines and criminal charges for those who trespass during these times, some adventurous (or maybe just rebellious) groups go there anyway. Sometimes it’s just the local teenagers, but there are repeat offenders, a movement who identify as Flexarna (“the Flexies”): they see flexmarks as a sign of society’s weakness and cowardice, and argue that living in these disaster-prone areas simply requires a different mindset. Particularly in the winter season, when attention is elsewhere, Flexarna enter the restricted zones by any means necessary, build up shelters that they claim could withstand anything, and then settle down to getting wrecked on moonshine and boasting to one another of their bravery. This illegal activity attracts a certain amount of spectators, particularly if there is a rumour of two or more Flexie clans planning a “build-off”—but this high risk behavior is not encouraged by the local authorities (or us). If you get caught out there with the Flexies, the police will treat you no differently. You have been warned!