WORDS: LEILA KAAS ~ ART: ANDERS WEBERG & ROBERT WILLIM
Knutpunkten is the central hub of all transportation in the city of Helsingborg, on Sweden’s south-west coast. Around 45,000 people pass through it each day to catch buses, trains, ferries, and airport shuttle services.
Seen by the city as a problematic place marked by violence, very little was known about its social life. In September 2009 I had just moved to Helsingborg, located around 60 kilometres from Lund University’s main campus where I was studying, so the station became part of my daily commute. In search of the relationships between Knutpunkten’s users, space and objects, I began observing this social setting, mingling as a user of the place while interviewing other users.
Daily routines in space and time
Walking through the main door, a spacious structure opens up, like a bright greenhouse of white metal and glass, paved with a beige marble floor. In the centre of the main hall, metal ticket machines are aligned and there are digital monitors announcing arrivals and departures. In contrast to the spacious hall, this central area is busy,an area where people converge, stand in line, and leave in an anonymous urban ballet to keep moving to their destinations.
Surrounding the main hall, there is a café chain, some convenience stores, a drugstore, a currency exchange, and, curiously, a casino. Looking up, two more floors open up in mezzanine style around the main hall. One can see a restaurant, some pubs, a travel agency, and offices upstairs. The first impression of Knutpunkten is of a mall where people can stroll freely, sit down on cold metal benches and simply spend time.
After a first walk within the space and flow of this transportation hub in Sweden, one question was recurrent: where is the violence and danger strongly emphasised about this place? I had heard of fights and stabbings, and the advice I received when moving to Helsingborg was: avoid Knutpunkten!
We now take the escalator down to the train platforms. Surrounded by the smell of brewed coffee that comes from “to go” paper cups, some people read books, others text messages on their cell phones or listen to their iPods, and many simply stand still in their own spaces, in silence, avoiding physical contact.
For many commuters, Knutpunkten is an integral part of their daily routine, in many cases for years or an entire lifetime. It is tied to their daily work routine and thus, linked with the very act of sustaining life through a pay-cheque. Consequently, Knutpunkten can symbolize both a necessary extension of its users or even a cage from which they cannot escape.
Space and time divides
Moving from the platforms to upstairs, passengers’ efforts for individuality seem to give way to interaction, at least among one group of users – the youth. They usually gather in the back building of the station, at the bus terminal area where there are more benches and the only free restrooms in Knutpunkten, as pointed out by students interviewed during fieldwork. After school and evenings are the prime time when youth use the hub as a “meeting point”, as they defined the place.
When asked why they chose to meet here, answers varied from “It’s easier, everybody comes here” to “It can be dangerous but also fun with groups of people”. However, this group also refers to Knutpunkten with disgust, as a place where they would not like to be if there were other “cool” places to go. The youths’ antagonistic sense of ownership and desire to avoid Knutpunkten bring some questions. What role does Knutpunkten play beyond its capacity as a transportation hub? What kinds of social needs is it filling?
Searching for answers to these questions, I reached out to another group who, like the youth, and differently from passengers who come and go, stay at the hub for hours at a time: employees. Observing and listening to bar attendants, waiters, cashiers, and janitors brought the perspective of those who are immersed in that reality and who have no choice but to interact with users of the space. When asked about their experiences of working there, the feeling expressed was not exactly of pride but of acceptance. However, their experience especially informed this research about a divide in Knutpunkten between day/night, and downstairs/upstairs.
During the day, a flux of workers come and go, as do students, seniors, mums with pushchairs, children, and a few homeless, who according to some Knutpunkten employees, “are nice people”, implying that they do not contribute to insecurity at the hub. However, at night, when most stores are closed, besides places to eat, drink and play, the atmosphere changes. Then it attracts youth and adults whose final destination is the hub itself and who are looking for entertainment. They come from Helsingborg and surrounds, or even from Elsinore, the Danish city, home of Hamlet’s castle, right across the Öresund strait and linked in 20 minutes to Sweden by a 24-hour ferry.
The space at Knutpunkten materialises a strong divide between what is called “upstairs” and “downstairs”. Upstairs is brighter, wider, cleaner and quieter during the day. For businesses run on the second floor, they are separated from downstairs and in their area “if someone starts a fight, this person is immediately removed downstairs by hired guards”, explained the manager of one of the pubs. This dissociated managerial model with private guards to guarantee the upstairs remains safe can indicate that businesses are the ones with more power of command of space production in Knutpunkten, and therefore, the ones more equipped to perpetuate this power even more.
In order to understand the space and time divides in Knutpunkten, I also did fieldwork at night. On a Friday, I went to the busiest pub on the second floor. The music is loud, waiters are busy, men and women laugh, talk, drink and play games. If the pub patrons can choose to not look outside and can forget that this is a transportation hub, travellers do not have the same choice. The sound of music, glasses and chatting echoes in the entire hub, signalling that entertainment is taking place. By contrast, on the first floor and underground of the hub, the feeling at night is one of being lost. Youth congregate in flocks, drunk people wander, homeless sleep, and passengers, confused about where they are, try to stay at Knutpunkten as little as possible.
I witnessed two fights when coming home at night. Both happened downstairs and involved males in their late teens. The causes of the fights were unclear, but in both cases fighters had a group of friends with them, although they were fighting alone. Observing the groups’ interactions amplified the need to analyse youth as an element of the hub’s social structure.
Segregation, alcohol and youth disorientation
Talking to the Social Services/Mobile Team, a group recruited by the city of Helsingborg to work with local youth, I learnt that the province of Skåne where the city is located has one of the highest concentrations of parents who bring alcohol home and develop the practice of drinking in their children. Around 80% of cases of violence and vandalism in the city are alcohol-related. If alcohol is one element of the problem, another feature is the lack of meeting places for the youth. Looking at the larger social context of Helsingborg, some of the issues faced by this hub seem to be connected to issues of the city itself.
Segregation between North and South in Helsingborg is not only geographic but also part of people’s mindsets. Helsingborg has an atmosphere of avoidance towards its southern part and what (or who) it represents. The youth who congregate in Knutpunkten come mainly from the Southern part of Helsingborg and from economically depressed smaller towns in its surroundings, such as Landskrona. For them, the hub is sort of a heated mall, a centrally located shelter from the outside. Here they can congregate for free, i.e. with no demands. However, at night, the hub becomes a territory disputed by different groups and reflects the social tension of the outside world involving power relations, segregation, excessive alcohol consumption, and youth disorientation.
The sense of spatial separation found between North/South, them/us, upstairs/downstairs, brings some reflections regarding spatial practices in Helsingborg. In a time when a new space is being planned in the city through the urban renewal project H+ The Tolerant City, asking the geographer Harvey’s question “in whose image and to whose benefit is space to be shaped?” is pertinent.
It is interesting to note that although there is so much space in Knutpunkten and so many people come, wait, and go daily in the station, there was no sign or space at the hub dedicated to informing people about the H+ project. As a place that is avoided, Knutpunkten seems to materialize invisibility in the city. This invisibility is also felt in the doubt about who is responsible for Knutpunkten’s space, since there are no information desks or channels of communication between users and Knutpunkten. Contact between users and Knutpunkten can only be made through a few policemen spread out in the hub.
How to connect segregated groups in this city in transformation is a challenge. Facing this challenge raises a bigger issue that involves spatial empowerment of growing segregated groups in urban areas. In this case, transformation of spatial practices that bring about segregation seems to be the crucial point to touch upon. In order to develop a city “for all Helsingborgians, regardless of income or cultural affinity” as the city aims, contact with those who are considered “different” and who are now avoided is necessary. Knutpunkten, being a microcosm of Helsingborg’s issues, as this fieldwork suggests, has an important role in the city’s transformation.
1. Harvey, D. (1989). The urban experience. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
2. City of Helsingborg, & Blå, L. (2007). Helsingborg: The continent starts here. Mölndal,
This article is adapted from a paper that was presented at the following conference: Current Issues In European Cultural Studies, June 15-17, Norrkoping, Sweden, 2011.
The extended paper can be found at http://www.ep.liu.se/ecp_article/index.en.aspx?issue=062;article=060