© Agneta Dellefors

Gothenburg’s Jubilee: rain takes the spotlight

Gothenburg is not the rainiest city in Europe. Bergen can claim that record. However, with about a third of its year characterised by rain, Gothenburg has similar challenges and wants to change its residents’ relationship with it and be recognised as the best city in the world when it rains.

After all, that position is free. “Let’s take that position and use it as an asset to build a better city,” says Jens Thoms Ivarsson, Creative Director at Rain Gothenburg. And back in 2017, when the City of Gothenburg hired him, he started working to bring this idea to fruition. “We created our strategy around the idea of transforming rain into an asset,” says Thoms Ivarsson.

Playing with function

Initiated as a Jubilee project, Rain Gothenburg has experimented with ways to get excited about the rain. Like the first rain playground, Regnlekplatsen, with deep puddles and lilypad-shaped rain shelters channelling the water into a sandpit where children can create rivers and dams.

Another example is the school, Torslandaskolan, where architects used Rain Gothenburg’s vision by using the qualities of rain in as many aspects of their proposal as possible. For example, the courtyard functions as a skateboarding square on dry days and as a fun water playground on rainy ones. Children are even allowed to get muddy because there are hoses outside to clean up. Rain was integrated into the school’s architecture, and its use had the students and sustainability in mind.

The idea behind projects like these is to combine function with amusement and joy. This spirit can be observed even in small interventions, like cutting the end bits of pipes of private buildings and replacing them by watering can-shaped bits to delay the fall of rainwater and, at the same time, water the plants nearby.

“Everywhere in the world, we need to make cities truly sustainable, not just functional,” says Magnus Mott, Project leader at Rain Gothenburg. “We need to do it with joy and sensitivity to improve our living, our health, and our social relations.” As an example of how transversal the work at Rain Gothenburg is, the team is also working with social issues like homelessness. A workshop with homeless people will help develop solutions to help them deal with rain.

A change in perspective

These ideas start by looking at the city and its environments differently. Where someone sees a utility hole cover, others see the perfect space for urban poetry. Where some see a broken window in a bus with rainwater trapped in between the two glasses, others see an exhibition on wheels.

“What differentiates Gothenburg from other cities is that Rain Gothenburg choose to embrace the rain,” says Thoms Ivarsson. “We use the design process to find inspiration, change people’s mindset and achieve good solutions.” To do this, the city hired a project leader and, for the first time, a designer as a creative director.

Rain Gothenburg chose to embrace the rain
— Jens Thoms Ivarsson, Creative Director at Rain Gothenburg

While most cities let engineers and landscape architects plan and create functional solutions around rain, Rain Gothenburg takes it a step further. It involves designers, artists and citizens to change the way the city looks at upcoming projects.

“If we want to put a rain garden or another solution for dealing with the rain, can we do something at the same time that deals with social issues? And how?” asks Thoms Ivarsson. “We don’t want to do business as usual.” Jens and Magnus, the creative duo behind Rain Gothenburg, have earned the reputation of stepping outside the local administrator’s box, encouraging their colleagues to leave their comfort zone and change their ways of working. “The design method is all about not having the correct answer but asking the right questions,” says Thoms Ivarsson.

It is all about not having the correct answer but asking the right questions
— Jens Thoms Ivarsson, Creative Director at Rain Gothenburg

What do you think about rain? What would you like to change in Gothenburg to make it a better city when it is raining? These are the questions that Rain Gothenburg is throwing at its residents, and when they get replies like “I hate the rain”, they invite residents to think about what they would like to do to make it better. “We are not pushing anyone to love rain, but at the same time, it’s raining, so why not make it a better part of life?” says Mott. It’s by asking people to be part of the solution that Rain Gothenburg encourages them to think creatively and come up with good ideas.

Some proposals can sound like a joke, but for Rain Gothenburg, there’s no such thing as a foolish idea. Even the ones that are not feasible contain intuitions that can be used positively. “There was one guy that suggested that whenever it rained, there should be free beer in Gothenburg,” says Thoms Ivarsson. “That’s obviously fun, though not feasible. But what if restaurants that want to attract people when it is raining create an offer or do something fun around that idea?” Another idea that was not possible was to create roofs for all bike lanes in Gothenburg. However, it brought up a real issue, and the team is now looking at some areas along bike lanes where shelter is needed and could be integrated in a fun way.

Thoms Ivarsson also points out that it’s not enough to involve citizens only at the beginning of the process. “We believe in testing. Develop a solution and install it for a couple of years, then evaluate what worked and what didn’t. It creates a process, rather than a finished permanent product, which is a good way to continually communicate with residents and visitors about its relevance and function.”

Standing out and sharing

Rain Gothenburg’s approach is bold, and it hasn’t always been welcomed with open arms. However, a lot of determination and successful results have made more and more people support their vision. “Our survival is in our results,” says Mott. A reason why they wish they had more resources to develop concrete solutions and different ways to communicate their results better.

Our survival is in our results
— Magnus Mott, Project Leader at Rain Gothenburg

“Rain Gothenburg has a plain website, and we are limited in what we can do with it,” says Thoms Ivarsson. “For example, we can’t communicate directly with residents. They can’t comment on the projects and interact with us.”

The visibility of the project, at home and abroad, would also help them get more buy-in from the political level. “Right now, we are very successful in sharing our knowledge abroad,” says Mott. “That helps us at home because people usually listen more when you are successful outside your hometown.”

And while the Rain Gothenburg team depends on Jens and Magnus’s drive and energy, the project relies on many collaborations. “We don’t create a solution by ourselves. Everyone should get on board, from politicians, to civil servants, to ordinary citizens,” says Mott. “We work with private companies, with citizens, with the creative sectors, and the academic world.”

The project also reaches out to partners around Sweden to share specific challenges, such as improving citizens engagement done digitally. Other cities in Europe, like Copenhagen and Rotterdam, have also been a source of inspiration to continue learning about what others are doing to improve their cities.

We get better when we work together with other cities
— Jens Thoms Ivarsson, Creative Director at Rain Gothenburg

Rain Gothenburg isn’t new to European collaboration. They have participated in the European projects Begin, Blue and green infrastructure, and Cultural Adaptations and are keen to continue exchanging with other cities. “We get better when we work together with other cities,” says Thoms Ivarsson. “So, we want to keep collaborating to change mindsets about rain globally.”

Because the project is linked to the Jubilee celebration – Gothenburg celebrates 400 years today – it will come to its covid-extended end in 2023. “We don’t know the future of Rain Gothenburg,” says Thoms Ivarsson. “We know that it will continue to rain, so we want to get politicians and citizens behind the vision of Rain Gothenburg: to make this the best city in the world when it rains and to make that a proud part of our DNA and our strategy,” adds Mott.

Rain Gothenburg is working on turning the rain, which could be seen as a disadvantage, into an asset and a part of the city’s identity. Now that travelling is slowly getting more accessible, you might want to add to your to-visit list the best city in the world… when it rains.

Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer