As an urban developer, Mikaela Åberg improves lives in one of Helsingborg’s most socially deprived districts: Drottninghög. Just a month before she is due to speak at the UF22 conference, this CityChanger tells us what led her here, why neighbourhoods like this matter, and how we can improve deprived places better to make the inhabitants happier.
Many CityChangers say the same thing: this isn’t where they planned to be. At university, Mikaela Åberg always thought she would work in tourism. Yet she finds herself at Helsingborgshem – the municipally owned housing company in her Swedish hometown of Helsingborg – creating a more optimistic, inclusive, and liveable neighbourhood.
The change of direction, she tells us, just felt natural. For Mikaela, it was very much a case of following her heart over listening to her head. “I think it was about finding a deeper meaning in what I do that I didn’t at first know that I needed and wanted.”
Now, to quote Mikaela, her “field of expertise is bottom-up neighbourhood development, with a focus on social sustainability and tenants’ and inhabitants’ involvement”.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Drottninghög, a socially stigmatised neighbourhood of monolithic proportions. It is one of the largest areas of urban development in the city, with a history of being the most socially deprived neighbourhood in the city, suffering the worst reputation.
The homogenic nature of this post-war neighbourhood, packed full of rental apartment, meant the issues present were once worse here than other areas of Helsingborg built during that era. The district became closed off and the social challenges, Mikaela notes, “started earlier than in the other areas with a similar character”.
Change began in 2011 with the 25-year project, DrottningH. Mikaela explains how this City-wide collaborative commitment encompasses “schools, the social department, and the planning department in the housing company”. Our CityChanger for one is empowering local inhabitants to develop their own neighbourhood. Here’s how…
Residents felt sceptical towards the authorities. This is common for inhabitants of socially deprived neighbourhoods. Exclusion from wider society can “breed suspicion and distrust,” Mikaela observes.
Inverting this situation, our expert discovered, pivots on your ability to listen. As a natural talker, it was her former mentor that taught Mikaela to use listening as a professional tool.
Helsingborgshem invested time in arranging to meet more than 300 residents in their own homes. They discussed what inhabitants felt was missing in their neighbourhood. This established a foundation of trust which, according our CityChanger, translates into a long-term sense of responsibility for the neighbourhood. This is passed on to subsequent generations and creates a position from which issues arising in the future can be addressed.
“I think that is one of our key success factors for the future: making our cities more connected to their inhabitants and the inhabitants more responsible towards the city.”
A Matter of Trust
It was essential for the people to physically see transformation. It showed that this wasn’t just a case of yet someone else coming in, talking about improvement, then disappearing. Residents are weary of such let-downs, most often a symptom of political canvassing.
Mikaela ensures Helsingborgshem had a physical presence in the neighbourhood, building a relationship with tenants. This formed a platform for discussion and opportunities to learn what life for the people there was really like. She noticed positives often not seen by ‘outsiders’, such as Drottninghög’s greenery and affordable family housing. The residents know this, and if their emotional connection to the district is incorporate, this provides foundations for sustainable change.
“From the outside, we can see the weaknesses in these areas very evidently. But from the inside, that’s how you learn where the qualities are.”
Just Do It!
Developments in Drottninghög got off to a surprising start. It began with “life in between buildings”.
Rather than the city administration deciding what was best for the area, “DrottningH started a design collaboration with local children to create a new playground in the neighbourhood,” Mikaela tells us. She continues: “An urban farming initiative was also launched to create a new kind of meeting place in Drottninghög.”
“It was a consequence of what we heard,” Mikaela recalls. “They were missing meeting places, places to meet your neighbours, places to engage, both outside and inside.”
There were some initial doubts over setting up what our CityChanger describes as “a really pretty greenhouse” of glass and tiles imported all the way from England. Outspoken opponents were sure it would be trashed in a neighbourhood like this. In reality, it brought a sense of enormous pride and stewardship. Mikaela offers an explanation:
“When you show that you mean business and you trust the inhabitants to be a part of the change, that’s when you’re actually able to be successful.”
Share and Share Alike
Helsingborgshem links with similar housing companies via Eurhonet – the European Housing Network. They exchange learning gained through tried and tested practices on the most important issues, such as social impact in neighbourhoods, ecological construction, and energy efficiency.
Visits to fellow housing companies in Turin, England, and the Netherlands amongst others, our CityChanger points out, inspired Helsingborgshem “to test new concepts to reduce involuntary loneliness” and around shared living. As a result, Drottninghög and the neighbouring areas have two new housing concepts: Co-Living and Sällbo. The latter is designed to reduce involuntary loneliness via social interaction with neighbours.
“We learned really quickly that this is not a problem just for the elderly,” Mikaela tells us. Young people and newcomers to Sweden – especially migrants arriving as unaccompanied minors – are at most risk. These contemporary living spaces offer more than a home. It’s a shared social space that overcomes isolation.
Co-create to Re-create
Emphasis has been put on improving the social aspects of sustainability throughout Drottninghög’s development. A decade in, Mikaela mentions with determination, “we need to improve our focus on the environmental issues of developing Drottninghög, amping up both the expectations on ourselves as well as on our partners”.
Already taking steps in this direction, Helsingborgshem became a partner of the European project ReCreate, establishing the reuse of prefabricated concrete in new buildings taken from houses the city decides to tear down. Now they are working with the industry to establish reforms that support builders in developing the skills necessary to ingrain sustainable construction methods in the city.
Pride Not Prejudice
Aside from the physical alterations Mikaela and crew have put in place, she has seen considerable demographic change. “I describe it as a ‘social robustness’ that you don’t see in typical neighbourhoods like Drottninghög was 10 years ago,” our expert reports. What does that look like?
First off, it has become a neighbourhood “defined by pride and a sense of being a part of the community”. This has worked so well that the area has weathered a decade of societal storms: the financial crash of 2008, a “migration crisis”, and then the COVID-19 pandemic. The future looks hopeful.
“I think that’s another really important aspect of neighbourhood development: for it to be long term, for it to be resilient, and not to back down or give up because you have factors impacting in a negative way.”
Drottninghög’s Revival in a Nutshell
Deprived neighbourhoods have more than their fair share of problems. Mikaela Åberg has shown what we can achieve with bold, brave steps. As the case of Drottninghög has proved, the residents must be involved. Meet people on their own terms, listen, implement changes – however small – and trust the people to respect and care for their neighbourhood. And certainly, don’t overlook the fact that they may see a beauty already there that can be built upon if you try to share their outlook.
Speaking as someone who has dealt with the complications of deprived neighbourhoods for the past ten years, Mikaela shared her insights for effective engagement. Check out our guide here.
Mikaela will also be imparting more of her experiences and in-depth knowledge as a speaker at Urban Future 2022, which opens the H22 City Expo in her hometown, Helsingborg. Join her sessions and hear for yourself why this event is set to become the fuel for the next stages in Drottninghög’s development.