Take back the town: urban flexblocks in Malmö (and beyond)

Flexblocks are what happens when a neighbourhood collectively decides what it wants to do with a vacant lot which the official development system has chosen to ignore.

The Skånian tradition of the “flexblock” presents something of a challenge for a travel guide, given that a travel guide is meant to tell you what is happening and where it can be found: while the location of a flexblock can be fairly stable, it can be more challenging to know what exactly will be going on there from one week to the next.

That said, one can at least generalise: flexblocks are an urban phenomenon, with the vast majority of Skåne’s fifty-odd examples to be found in Malmö, and they are each tied to a particular neighbourhood, which in turn tends to influence the general vibe of the place. Or, more simply: flexblocks are what happens when a neighbourhood collectively decides what it wants to do with a vacant lot which the official development system has chosen to ignore.

As such, they should not be confused with the city-managed sommargator (“summer streets”) which shut out traffic during the sunny half of the year, extend restaurant patios, and provide street furniture. Don’t get us wrong, sommargator are lovely—but flexblocks are something quite different.

Urban spaces in flux

A bit of history might help, here. Since the start of the C21st (and, some would say, earlier than that) there has been a growing global debate on the use of urban space, which started among activists and academics (with the latter drawing strongly on the C20th writings of French theorist Henri Lefebvre) before slowly working its way into the more radical corners of cities all over the world. Malmö has always been well-provided with such radical corners—much to the chagrin of its more conventional inhabitants, and indeed to the rest of Sweden—so it should come as no surprise that it was a hotspot for the activities that would come to be gathered under the flexblock banner.

Historicising activist movements is a mug’s game, but most Malmöites—in favour of flexblocks or not—would agree that the city’s eviction of the migrant camp in Östra Sofielund in the late 2010s was one of the sparks that lit the fire of the Äga Rum! squatting/anti-austerity movement (transl. “Take Place!”), which in turn created momentum for discussions on urban public spaces through their various direct actions and squatting projects in Lund and Malmö. The movement—whose name in Swedish plays with the doubled meaning of, on the one hand, something (e.g. an event or action) taking place (or happening), and, on the other hand, a more literal claim to owning a space—demanded that “empty” urban spaces be turned into spaces in which local residents could enjoy themselves, while also calling for a citizens’ stronger democratic influence in the designing of public spaces.

Out of Äga Rum‘s activism (and Malmö Stad’s attempt to declaw the movement) came the flexblock model, which combined the freeing-up of un(der)developed urban space with more participatory approaches to local democracy. To create a sense of local community, and to make sure these spots were looked after, the municipality set up boards of local citizens who represent the neighbourhood. Äga Rum‘s great victory was that the local boards were promised a 10-year period of control over the spots, after which the “tenancy” would come up for review. This has resulted in a sort of local semi-ownership of the flexblocks, and a confidence that they are not merely serving to create cultural hot-spots and drive up property prices in the area—a phenomenon all too familiar from the gentrifying “pop-up urbanism” of the 2010s and 2020s.

While they are supposed to be open to all, some flexblocks have become tacit gated communities: visitors are not formally excluded, but they are nonetheless characterised by a somewhat hostile vibe for utomstående (outsiders). Moreover, flexblocks are not quite the pocket utopias they are sometimes described as, thanks to the city’s veto on proposed uses. For instance, during the 2030s, the Kirseberg community sought to use their flexblock for hosting climate migrants, a proposal which was rejected by the municipality. Thanks to this and other similar cases elsewhere, the flexblock phenomenon is sometimes dismissed by radicals and activists as mere symbolism, its participatory processes acting as a sort of “democracy-washing”.

Block-rockin’ treats

As the name suggests, flexblocks are flexible (at least in theory), so what you will see therefore depends on when you visit. They are strictly non-commercial, at least in principle, though there’s usually some decent eating options available—though payment may only be possible using Swish, Sweden’s long-running peer-to-peer mobile payments system, which can make it tricky for non-Swedes to transact. (Top tip: make friends with locals!)

Flexblocks are managed by the local community in coordination with the municipality, and the activities they host therefore vary and tend to be emblematic of the local neighbourhood. For instance, the Norra Sofielund flexblock is well-known for its bring-your-own beer testing festival in late August, featuring only non-commercial brews made in the area, while Östra Sorgenfri commonly uses their flexblock to extend the legacy of the informal squatted skate-park that popped up in the late 2010s. If you’re in Malmö during winter, you might even be lucky enough to go ice-skating—though skating rinks have become a rarity as the winter temperatures have increased.

For up-to-date info about what currently inhabits the local flex blocks, check out the maps on municipality websites!

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