04 December 2006


(Continued from 1 December post, "Out on the Border")

With an international border, you essentially have one monolith (a nation state) rubbing directly against another, and the whole point of the boundary (although enforcement efforts can be vigorous or lax, depending on international relations) is to prevent seepage in either direction. Insinuation or penetration will be more or less unacceptable in this context, and it often will be regarded as infiltration, illegal immigration, smuggling, or worse. And “triangulation”—i.e., introducing a third element to complicate land use patterns and facilitate integration, or dovetailing, is not ordinarily an option.

And triangulation sometimes only exacerbates the problem. I’m thinking here of the international border between Great Britain and France, which didn’t have “border vacuums” because the English Channel served as a buffer—i.e., a fuzzy, multi-functional “seam”--for many centuries. But since triangulation—that is, construction of the Channel Tunnel and the opening of a high-speed rail link between London and Paris—the international border has become a no-man’s-land of chain-link fences, German shepherds, and high-tech security systems designed to thwart would-be illegal immigrants willing to take grave risks.

We have the opposite of those dynamics on display at another international border, the one between Finland and Sweden, at Tornio-Haparanda, or Haparanda-Tornio, where the European Union is helping to finance an effort to build bridges—literally, and also figuratively—between two adjoining cities.

The scene of this experiment is about 130 kilometers north of Oulu, where the Tornio River (Torniojoki) flows into the Gulf of Bothnia. Given its location, Tornio was from the beginning a key link between Lapland and the rest of the world. The town was chartered by the King of Sweden in 1620. With the peace of Hamina of 1809, the international border was fixed at the river (which, like many rivers, has not wanted to stay put), and Tornio was incorporated into the Russian Empire along with the rest of the Grand Duchy of Finland. To compensate for the loss, the Swedes established Haparanda on the west side of the river.

The border between the two empires was well guarded for a long time, but in the course of the twentieth century it became relatively porous. In 1944, to cite just one instance of international cooperation, Haparanda sent a volunteer fire brigade all the way to Oulu in response to wartime bombing. I gather from various websites dealing with the borderlands that there were a number of cultural links between the two cities, and that the municipalities began to seize opportunities after the war to cooperate any time it meant saving money. In the 1960s, the two cities agreed on construction of a jointly owned and operated swimming pool. Wikipedia reports that the two towns “also have a common golf course, situated astride the border.” You can tee off in one country into the other country and a different time zone. Sweden is one hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time; Finland two.

In 1987, the two municipalities established a kind of advisory council called the Provincia Bothniensis. Since that time, a number of cooperative projects have been undertaken involving fire and ambulance service, schools and libraries, heating services, health care, and tourist information offices. The key event in the history of cross-border integration took place in 1995, when both Sweden and Finland entered the European Union. In recent years the municipalities have undertaken co-sponsorship of a state employment agency, as well as various infrastructure projects.

Today, Tornio is a community of about 25,000 predominately Finnish-speaking people; Haparanda has a population of maybe 10,000, most of whom are Swedish speakers. Tornio has a steel mill and a major brewery. Today, it is estimated that approximately 16,000 people cross the border daily. Access to each municipality’s official website is provided through a common portal (click on the title of this post for a link).

The E.U. has made funds available specifically for border erasure, and Tornio-Haparanda have (has?) aggressively pursued these funding opportunities. Wikipedia provides a characteristically concise account of the current situation: “Tornio and Haparanda have a history as twin cities, and are set to merge under the name EuroCity. A new city centre is under construction on the old border and many municipal services are shared.”

But here’s the neat part. At the precise point where the customs houses (and, presumably, the border vacuums) used to be, down by the Torniojoki itself, there is a major construction project underway to try to knit these two communities together. Evidently, cooperation between the two urban planning authorities is fairly recent. It is said that in the 1980s Tornio was planning to build a new city center (keskusta) on its east side, which would have meant literally turning its back on Haparanda. Nowadays, at EuroCity, the two cities are preparing for a warm, hopefully lucrative, embrace.

I have learned most of this from a post-graduate student in geography at the University of Oulu, Tarmo Pikner, who has written a paper called “Moving imaginations in development networks: a case study about the cross-border town planning” (all subsequent quotations are from this paper). Pikner is interested in the role of spatial imagination, which he sees as a metaphor moving the planning process through three stages—generating interest, “enrollment,” and circulation. The content of the idea becomes active as both a sign and an agent of change. He also is interested in attendant patterns of discourse in the “construction” of cities. Thus, he is very much interested in the metaphorical dimensions of urbanity and the role of language in promoting international integration.

The common ground of EuroCity itself conveys something of the spirit of cooperation, and according to Pikner, the joint enterprise of Tornio-Haparanda is now being referred to as På Gränsen-Rajalla, which is an expression that means “on the border,” and usually is formed by Swedish on the left side and Finnish on the right, though I have sometimes seen it the away way round. Either way, it is a trope, one that “moves and carries the changing package of ideas, practices and institutions.” And it is an exercise in branding, and in “visioning.” There is even a sense in which Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” applies, in as much as images of EuroCity and På Gränsen-Rajalla replace strictly municipal (i.e., national) ideas and nomenclature.

At the same time, there is a physical, or material, dimension to the new enterprise on the border. “European Union membership removes partly practical bordering function(s) between the states and both towns. The border-line area around the river water becomes un-used and it can be translated into transnational development networks. Custom offices and border guards leave beside them activity space for new mediators around the border area development.” The rhetoric is all about “building bridges,” and there will literally be bridges, as many as four, perhaps, to carry vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians back and forth across the border. And there will be boats, as well.

Pikner writes that “The metaphor of centre continues through the development plan.” One vision of the EuroCity would have at its heart a “new market as open square creating contact surface between the towns on the border.” Another vision advocates multiple “markets” that would include a dance stage and various sports activities. A somewhat zanier idea involves a cross-border altar for international marriages. “We build without borders,” boasts a newsletter distributed in both municipalities.

In an effort to promote Jane Jacobs’s ideal of “mixed primary uses,” the common ground of EuroCity will include residential development, including housing for seniors, as well as commercial activity and cultural tourism. A dike is being built to close off part of the river and create new land for these purposes. A map published more recently than the one accompanying this post shows EuroCity under construction on land reclaimed from that bit of blue just to the west (above) of the Tornio town center. The new map also shows the flag of the European Union on that parcel of land, straddling the "green line." There also is to be a shopping mall, anchored by IKEA, which envisions a market that could potentially stretch into four countries—Norway and Russia, in addition to Sweden and Finland.

These, boys and girls, are Big Plans, and I am having a hard time with some of these abstractions. For one thing, it is hard to imagine how IKEA, it being precisely the kind of monolith that tends to generate border vacuums, is going to be incorporated into the higgledy-piggledly unplanned glory of healthy urban tissue.

But I intend to see Tornio-Haparanda for myself before my time in Finland is up. And I will file a report from the front.