Sweden, Islands and Bridges
Over 100 Swedish islands have been connected to the mainland since the year 1900. How have these bridges and other ’fixed links’ influenced the islands’ number of inhabitants and quality of life? How did the many unconnected islands manage their own transition to modernity? Why did islanders vote ’no’ to bridge proposals in three local referenda during the last decade? This chapter will provide some basic data and suggest answers to these questions, in relation to the unlikely ’island nation’ of Sweden.Islands with bridges (or any other kind of permanent connection with the mainland, such as a tunnel or a causeway) were excluded in two attempts to count the nation’s islands, as were islands lacking a permanent population. The National Rural Development Agency found 576 such islands; while Källgård suggested 401. Note that life on very small islands may be less stimulating, perhaps even boring. Remember that, out of Sweden’s 401 inhabited islands without a fixed link, 64 have only one inhabitant!
It is true that no scientific study of the effects of bridges on Swedish islands seems to have been undertaken, but we still have some facts, some knowledge and some reason to discuss the phenomenon. The general impression, after having contacted authorities and local politicians on somewhat bigger islands that have been linked to the mainland – such as Öland, Orust and Tjörn – is that the fixed links have been good for the economy, the development and for population growth. It is even claimed that life without the bridge would be “unthinkable”. The islanders on Tjörn experienced almost two years without their bridge, after the accident when the 1960 bridge was struck by a ship and collapsed in January 1980; apart from the sudden tragedy (seven car-drivers realised too late that the bridge was gone, eight people died) the islanders really mourned the bridge. For small islands as well, fixed links seem to have had a positive effect on the number of inhabitants. It appears likely that a study in Sweden would come to a similar conclusion: bridges can stop or delay depopulation. If one compares the population development on Sweden’s five largest ‘linked’ islands with the development on the five largest ’real’ (or un-linked) islands, it is evident that there is a difference: the five islands with bridges have all had a very positive population development, whereas only one of the islands without a bridge has experienced any population growth.
In fact, the question: Bridge or no bridge? is considered so interesting and worthwhile to discuss that it has been used by the Swedish Parliament as an example when informing children how democracy works. In the Parliament’s example, if islanders do not want a bridge, then a bridge is not built. Yet, in reality, it remains to be seen if the Swedish islanders who voted ’no’ to bridges on Fårö and Öckerö will be obliged to see a bridge being built anyway.