Dennis Zalamans

What Haparanda and Tornio have achieved in the last quarter of a century is impressive. Twenty-five years ago both Haparanda and Tornio were at the outer edge of their respective state territories, and maps from that time show the ‘other side’ shadowed and to some extent non-existing. The shift came when they started to collaborate and when they formed their common interregional body, Provincia Bothniensis. The co-operation was mainly built on their vision of a future together, but it was also a question of survival. The scale of Haparanda-Tornio gives the local decision-makers a possibility to be involved in every part of the co-operation, which is important. Perhaps it can be summarised as ‘act small think big’! However, HaparandaTornio has now taken the next step in their progress, with some help from IKEA and others. These commercial actors are taking advantage of the platform HaparandaTornio has created in combination with their geographical location. The consequence is that HaparandaTornio are no longer located on the margin of their respective states, but in the very centre of a new regional territory which also includes parts of Norway and Russia.


When IKEA after some consideration decided to build up their most northern IKEA store in Haparanda in 2005, it was the starting point for a remarkable development in Haparanda and its twin-town Tornio. IKEA’s decision was controversial, also internally, because Haparanda is a tiny border-town with just ten thousand inhabitants in the very North of Sweden. Even though Tornio is bigger with around twenty-two thousand inhabitants, its common consumer base seemed to be vague. Although many eyebrows were raised when IKEA first informed about their intentions, it is no doubt that Haparanda and Tornio are located in an advantageous strategic position from a strictly geographical viewpoint. That is, if one is brave enough to look a little wider and think more regionally. Within three hours travel the twin-town might be reached by almost one million people and quite soon their (IKEA’s) ideas were followed by many others. Suddenly Haparanda and Tornio became new Klondikes and the pursuit after attractive land areas close to IKEA and the state boundary was in progress.

Whatever the opinion is regarding IKEA’s bold venture and their courageous step to enter new markets, it is important to keep in mind that none of this would have been possible without earlier efforts of Haparanda and Tornio. The formal co-operation started when the two municipalities established their common interregional body ‘Provincia Bothniensis’ (PB) in 1987. The main purpose of the PB is to create development and growth in Haparanda and Tornio, and to provide better service for its residents. The current expansion of the twin-town will definitely change the spatial situation for the inhabitants significantly, hopefully for the better, with new infrastructure and many new buildings. An issue that is little discussed, however, is the social situation, and the question is if the progress will bring about any important transformation for the people living in HaparandaTornio? However, until this moment there have been almost no objections or resistance with regards to the proceedings. The point is: are there any alternatives to the transition or is this is the only way to survive?


The town of Tornio was established in 1621 by the Swedish king Gustav II Adolf on the western side of the Torne River, and became part of the Grand Duchy of Finland (under Russia) in 1809. On the Swedish side a new town, Haparanda, was established as a replacement for Tornio in 1842, separated from the twin-town by only a stretch of wetlands. Haparanda and Tornio had never been united, and Tornio had always been the ‘big brother’ of the two towns in terms of both size and number of inhabitants. After World War One Finland gained independence for the first time in history. The time in between the World Wars was prosperous for the two towns, while the Second World War changed the situation brutally. Most parts of Tornio were burnt down and destroyed during Nazi-Germany’s withdrawal from Finland.

With regards to welfare and living standards the comparative situations of the inhabitants of the two towns were fluctuating from 1945 until the mid 1980’s. Today there is no clear difference, but if there was any then Tornio probably would be considered to be the wealthier of the two. Due to legislation difficulties, difference in living standards and perhaps also a lack of confidence between the two sides, there was no real co-operation during the decades after the Second World War. The change came in 1960 when Tornio and Haparanda decided on the common use of a swimming pool.

The first years of collaboration were mainly built on money-saving and the sharing of various kind of infrastructure. Since the establishment of the PB in 1987 the co-operation has been organised via the PB parliament consisting of a chairman, a deputy chairman and five members from each town. In addition there are seven different working-committees also with members from each town who normally meet once a month. When decisions are taken in the committees they are merely advisory as they lack juridical rights, and they have to be brought to each town (municipality) to be ratified by local organisations on the respective sides. State governments normally take decisions regarding state-boundaries, and it would also be impossible for any state organisation or its subsidiaries to accept decisions regarding internal issues made by another state.

The language situation is favourable in HaparandaTornio as many people are bilingual. But for those who are not the situation is complicated and to some extent infected. Approximately two thirds of the inhabitants in Haparanda speak Finnish, and among them a clear majority speak Finnish as their mother tongue. In Finland, Swedish is one of two official languages. Swedish is obligatory in schools, but nevertheless few actually speak Swedish in Tornio, or at least prefer not to use their bilingual skills. It is possible to watch television and listen to radio from both Finland and Sweden on both sides. There is no common newspaper, but one local newspaper in Haparanda publishes parts of its material in Finnish.

Cross boundary activities and business
The border crossing between Haparanda and Tornio is the most frequented in the Nordic countries and more than 35 000 people cross the boundary every day. There has always been a lot of interaction between the inhabitants in the two towns based on cultural traditions and shopping habits. Around 90% of the inhabitants in the twin-town cross the boundary at least once a month, and out of these about 70% state that the main reason for crossing is shopping (Zalamans, 2001).

Less than 5% of the workers in Haparanda-Tornio have their work place on the other side of the boundary from where they live. These people are able to work in their twin-town without any changes in their social situation as they pay their taxes were they live and they are thereby able to use all the societal services where they live.

In both Haparanda and Tornio purchases can be made in either Swedish currency or EURO. The currency exchange rate is fixed and changed when needed. Even though Sweden has chosen to stay outside the first stages of EMU, Haparanda has introduced the Euro currency not only in shops, but also in its municipality budgets.

In the Mid 1990s the PB implemented the project ‘EUROCITY’ with the aim of inducing business (mainly private) in Tornio and Haparanda to co-operate more closely. Until that time there were little or no contacts over the state boundary. The ‘EUROCITY’ project didn’t alter this situation to any great degree and never became the success that the authorities were hoping for. One of few results of the project is that state employment agencies in Haparanda and Tornio now inform about the same jobs on both sides of the boundary. There are many reasons for the poor outcome of the project such as differences in traditions and size of companies, as well as personal antagonism between some of the persons involved. Perhaps the most important reason, however, is that the vision and the idea of the project didn’t come from the business itself, as it was politically induced by the PB. Most of the shops and other dealers are competing over customers and they have difficulty in finding common interests for such co-operation.

If the cross-boundary collaboration between private companies in Haparanda and Tornio is, or at least has been, somewhat weak, the collaboration between public companies and organisations is, on other hand, very strong. Over the years PB has implemented many successful projects such as co-ordination of the postal services, common control of the employment agencies and a shared fire-engine to mention a few. The most important achievement is perhaps the international language school and the Eurocollege, which are open to pupils of both towns. Visitors in Tornio and Haparanda can also find tourist information in a common office close to the boundary.

When IKEA opened up its gates in November 2006, its goal was to receive one to one and a half million visitors during the first year. The actual outcome was more than two million visitors. Unfortunately the figure for year two is not official. As mentioned in the introduction IKEA is not alone; they are followed by many other companies who trust their (IKEA’s) vision. Up until 2008, more than 200 000 m2 of new commercial areas have been built in the twin-town, and in addition to that, more than 250 flats and a number of new houses. Much more will follow in the next couple of years. With the Exception of new commercial areas, a new hotel with an activity park situated almost on the border is already decided and outlined, and so are many new flats and private houses, to mention some of the plans.

There is a need for new accommodations as the labour force has increased dramatically recently and the figures for new employment after 2006 show 1500-1800 new jobs. Many of them are connected to the commercial business, direct or indirect, but as the twin-town is growing there are also requirements in other branches as well, such as in building construction and societal service.

Cross boundary Co-operation and the future
IKEA’s store location in Haparanda has changed the conditions for Haparanda and Tornio fundamentally. When the physical planning authorities on both sides, with help from PB, presented their project ‘At the boundary’ back in 2001 with the aim of creating a common town, it was seen as a utopian idea by most people. Nevertheless this marvellous scheme was one of the reasons why HaparandaTornio was chosen by IKEA.

Despite the commercial success, over the years and especially before IKEA’s decision, PB has received some resistance or hesitation about the ideas of a common town, especially in Haparanda. The criticism was founded on the fact that the PB is too hierarchical and that some of the decisions taken were not firmly established among the people, but also on the language issue. In the autumn of 2002 a referendum was held for the inhabitants in Haparanda in which they could vote about the future co-operation with Tornio. The result of the referendum showed a small advantage for those who were against stronger connections. Although the decision was simply advisory - and besides that rather few (in percentage) actually took part in the referendum - this was a setback for the local politicians. It would have been interesting to see a result from a referendum taking place today, both with regards to the number of participants and their opinions, as lately the PB has tried to encourage their work to get the inhabitants more involved and informed.

In the future Haparanda and Tornio intend to intensify their co-operation further. With the exception of the proceedings with all the new buildings and infrastructure and perhaps the public support, the most important point for the PB to succeed with the project ‘one common town’ is to encourage the idea of a new municipality-association between the two towns. Such an interregional body should act as one municipality across the state boundary. If this becomes a reality it will be the first of its kind in the world. The state support has been lacking, although neither of the states are negative to the idea itself. After both Finland and Sweden became members of the EU in the mid 1990s, the co-operation between Haparanda and Tornio has been alleviated, and even if the difficulties in state administration are relatively small despite linguistic and cultural dissimilarities, there are still many bridges to cross before the true dream of One Common Town can be realised.

Dennis Zalamans
(Ph.Lic) is an urban and regional planner who is sharing his time between work at an architect office and academic research. He has a special interest in planning issues and cross boundary communication, and at the moment he is finishing a thesis about the situation in three twin-towns in the Baltic Sea Area; Haparanda-Tornio, Valga-Valka and Narva-Ivangorod.