The definitive guide to Malmö’s canals!

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From dykes to defence works to leisurely walks

Here’s the story of how Malmö’s canal environment has changed throughout the centuries.
(source: Malmö Stad)

It starts in the Middle Ages

The original church town of Malmö was ringed by a dyke as early as the 1300s. Our current understanding is that it mostly had a judiciary purpose more than any kind of protective value as a defence wall. Not long after that, during the 1400s,  an actual defence wall was built along the coastline to keep out pirates and other ill-willed seafarers.

Mayor Hans Mikkelsen completed the city’s defence walls in the 1510s by ordering the digging of a moat behind them. In addition, Malmö already had a waterline on the South side in the shape of the “Rörsjöarna”. This made Elbogen, as Malmö was called by the Germans at the time, a town that was very well-protected from possible hostiles in its surroundings.

The 1600s: Malmö becomes Swedish

Once the moats were complete, Malmö was the best-protected city in the region. But this proved insufficient during the battles between Sweden and Denmark in the 1600s, and it became apparent that the city’s defence works needed additional improvements. The Danish king devised drawings of a large-scale expansion with bastions, ravelins and palisades. Only a few bastions were built before Malmö eventually became Swedish as a consequence of the Roskilde peace treaty in 1658.

Erik Dahlberg’s plans

Now that Malmö was part of Sweden instead of Denmark, the Swedish king found it important to further strengthen its defensive capabilities. He gave the assignment to create a plan for Malmö’s defence to the nobleman and architect Erik Dahlberg. His drawings pretty much reminded of the previous danish plans. And just like last time, construction wasn’t even finished before another war erupted in 1675. However, four bastions had already been built before the Danes started to attack the city in an attempt to rule it once again. Their attempt failed and in 1684 Erik Dahlberg presented his drawings for a more advanced constellation of defence walls, which was built during the following 13 years.

The Renaissance: from defence works to leisurely strolls

The peace in Nystad in 1721 meant that Malmö’s fortifications were no longer of strategic importance for Sweden’s defence. In 1804 king Gustav IV Adolf decided to order the fortifications to be torn down. The earth in the defence walls was used to fill out large sections of the water that surrounded the city, creating new areas for urban expansion. This is when the canal was constructed in its current form, partly shaped by remains of the former outer defence walls. The earth that was dug up to create the canal was also used as landfill, particularly in the Rörsjö-area south of the canal. Trees were planted along the canal banks, introducing the first shift in  character of the city’s water barriers.

Renovation and new bridges

Malmö’s harbour was extended in the second half of the 1800s, which meant that the canal’s connection to the open sea was weakened. When city engineer Georg Gustafsson was given the assignment to design the Rörsjö area, he was also commanded to improve the water circulation in the canal. Because it was mostly standing still, the water was heavily contaminated, smelled horribly and was causing the spread of diseases among the city’s inhabitants.

In these days there were fewer and moveable bridges that could let boats pass through. The embankments were not clad in stone and no railings were placed along them. Walks along the canal were very popular in these days and were considered a very social form of recreation.

The industrialisation:
expansion of the harbour

From the beginning of the 1800s until about 100 years after that, Malmö’s harbour was expanded with large amounts of landfill. This caused the city center no longer to be located close to the waterfront, but more inwards. The harbour itself was hardly accessible if you didn’t work in one of the industries that was located there. Since the canals now no longer fulfilled any type of harbour-like function, their character changed more to that of innercity park waters.

Se Malmös arkitektur från din elbåt

The post-industrial revival

By the end of the 1900s, Malmö’s character gradually transformed from an industrial harbour city to a knowledge- and service-based city. Bit by bit, the harbour area became accessible again and many new public spaces came about. The city’s inhabitants once again got closer to the waterfront. These new spaces were often filled with high-profile architecture, and the establishment of a university and high-tech companies further boosted Malmö’s character as a forward-thinking city.

The canal has not received a lot of attention during this transformational period, as it was already well-established in the city’s layout. During the past years however, new canalside real estate development such as the Malmö Live quarters has revived interest in the potential of the canal as a contributor to a lively and enjoyable urban environment.

Long story short…

Pretty much the entire Malmö canal system has been shaped throughout the centuries, serving the dominating needs of the city at each period in time. This makes the canals of large historical and cultural importance for the city.

Two time periods have proven particularly important for the character of the canals:

1. The 1600s, when the canals were part of the city fortifications.  You can still clearly see this today in the shape of the different bastions lining the north side of the canal.

2. The 1800s, when the canals were repurposed as places of recreation and leisurely walks. Today, the people of Malmö still enjoy the footpaths along the canal.