New borders for the old world

In the global economy, provincial cities look to foreign neighbors for commercial survival

Until recently, Per Belfrage could tell he lived in a provincial city every time he journeyed back to this Swedish university town from an overseas conference.

"It would take six hours to fly from New York to Copenhagen, and in bad weather sometimes another six hours by taxi, boat, and train to get back to Lund," says Mr. Belfrage, a researcher and former dean of the Lund University Medical Center. "Now I hop in a cab and I'm home in 30 minutes."

Citizens of Lund, Malmö, and other southwestern Swedish towns are discovering that they've suddenly become part of a newly emerging international metropolitan area.

The Danish capital, Copenhagen - the "big city" in this part of the world - has suddenly become as close to this part of Sweden as San Francisco is to Oakland or Washington to Baltimore.

That's because last summer workers, completed the new $4 billion Oresund Fixed Link, an impressive 10-mile long tunnel and bridge project across the Oresund Strait, connecting Denmark and Sweden for the first time since the last ice age.

The bridge, which carries cars, trucks, and trains, promises to create an integrated transportation system stretching from the Swedish university city of Lund to the farming hinterlands of western Zealand, the large island on which Copenhagen is situated.

"With globalization, competition is not so much between nations but between large cities," says Christian W. Matthiessen, a professor at the University of Copenhagen's Institute of Geography who helped plan the bridge. "By building the bridge, we've made it possible to create a regional economy that can compete with the large metropolitan areas of Europe."

Until completion of the bridge, the Danish capital and the southwestern Swedish region of Scania had little to do with one another. Of the 1.2 million people who commute in this area, only about 2,000 crossed the Oresund in 1999, according to the Institute of Geography.

Zealand's trade flows with Scania were 1/14th that of its trade with the similarly sized Danish region of Jutland, which is 100 miles from Copenhagen across another enormous bridge connecting Zealand with the rest of Denmark.

But now Sweden has joined the European Union, and from Brussels to Berlin, from Cadiz to Copenhagen, the new buzzword is "regionalization." This is the idea that as globalization erodes the power and relevance of nation-states, cities are replacing nations as the basic unit of economic competition, much as they were in the Middle Ages.

Large urban clusters like San Francisco Bay, Greater London, or the Amsterdam-to-Rotterdam corridor are duking it out in a battle for skilled workers, investment capital, and a share of global trade. But smaller, more peripheral cities like Copenhagen or Malmö will fall behind, according to the theory, which is somewhat self-fulfilling because it's become part of the thinking of many European companies, banks, and multilateral organizations.

Nonetheless, Danish and Swedish planners think that if the 500,000 people of the Malmö-Lund area can be added to the 1.7 million in Copenhagen, the new region might play with the big boys.

It was with this in mind that Sweden and Denmark decided to build the Oresund Bridge over the 10-mile wide body of water separating them. Now authorities are confronting the more difficult task of building an integrated metropolis across the shared frontier.

This task is simpler for Sweden and Denmark than it might be for many other countries. There's a long history of regional cooperation in Scandinavia, including shared working privileges, power grids, and SAS, the cooperatively owned regional airline. Danish and Swedish are also mutually-comprehensible languages.

"In meetings we speak Danish and they speak Swedish, and everyone understands one another," says Ole Kraup Jensen of the University of Copenhagen, who helped set up a degree program in Hebrew, run jointly with Lund University.

The new "Oresund region" is still in its infancy, but Matthiessen and other supporters say the benefits are already visible. Copenhagen's Kastrup Airport is expanding, international hotel and retail chains are coming to the region, and rents and property values are rising sharply in Malmö, a long struggling rust-belt city.

The 11 universities and colleges in the area have come together to create Oresund University, a confederation that allows students at any one school to take advantage of classes, libraries, and technical equipment at all the others. By sharing resources, the institutions are establishing specialized programs that would otherwise have been unaffordable. Small departments and disciplines once threatened with extinction are being revitalized, such as Hebrew, which had been on the verge of elimination at Lund University before the completion of the bridge.

The universities have also formed a research alliance with the region's 26 hospitals and 150 biomedical companies, hoping they can dominate biomedicine the way California's Silicon Valley dominates software.

"We want to become the number one bio-region in Europe in five years," says Dr. Belfrage, who chairs the board of the alliance, which is named "Medicon Valley."

But it isn't easy building a new metropolitan area where none existed before. Despite the construction of the Oresund Bridge, transportation remains a major problem.

Authorities set bridge tolls so high - $30 each way for a passenger car - that most motorists take the old ferry service instead. The bridge trains are also expensive - $20 round trip from Copenhagen to Malmö - nearly twice as much as the hydrofoils that criss-cross the sound. The special bridge trains suffer from technical problems, and they only run between the central stations at Malmö and Copenhagen, with a stop at Kastrup Airport. Until through service is expanded elsewhere, most commuters have to make several time-consuming connections.

Ola Bunte, a graduate student in molecular biology at Lund University, spent a frustrating semester trying to commute by train between Lund and the Danish Technical University on the other side of Copenhagen. Each day, Mr. Bunte had to catch a commuter train from Lund to Malmö, board an Oresund train to Copenhagen-Central, take a Danish commuter train from there to the western suburbs, then catch a bus that would take him the last mile and a half to DTU. To make matters worse, the Oresund trains are plagued with technical problems and delays.

"The very first morning I commuted, it took me 3-1/2 hours, because of troubles with the trains," he recalls. "I remember thinking: Am I going to sit on trains for seven hours every day?"

Bunte's typical commute was more like two hours each way, but he and other commuters find it frustrating all the same.

"Suddenly people think that Copenhagen is a lot closer than it used to be, but that hasn't been my experience," he says.

Despite the barriers, however, more and more Copenhageners and southwestern Swedes are discovering one another's towns and cities.

"The biggest surprise for me was that Lund was there," says Danish university student Daniel Lehrer. "If it wasn't for the Oresund [cooperation], I might never have known what was available right across the water," he says.

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