From Iceland — Extreme Makeover: Skeifan Edition

Extreme Makeover: Skeifan Edition

Published March 20, 2023

Extreme Makeover: Skeifan Edition
Photo by
Art Bicnick

There’s a raven that hangs out by the hot dog stand, a giant pothole in the pavement and homebound partygoers stopping at Hagkaup for post-djamm snacks. It‘s Skeifan. People love to hate it. It‘s also probably one of the few places in town where you can get your car‘s oil changed while you shop for long johns.

Everyone who has spent more than a day in Reykjavík and traversed this borderline post-apocalyptic hellscape has a strong opinion about it. Most of those opinions are based on regret, as Skeifan itself shows potential. Its convenience is only overshadowed by its awful planning. Due to the fact that most of Skeifan‘s streets are parking lots, neither human nor natural laws apply. 

“The opening of Iceland’s first McDonald’s in 1993 (blessed by a priest) and closed in 2009 (RIP), was the final nail in Skeifan’s car-dominant McCoffin.”

This awful policy failure, like many others, has its root causes. In the 1960s, the area was zoned exclusively for industrial activities, creating the foundation for today’s mish-mash of parking lots. Furniture stores, car repair shops and dealerships were the backbone of Skeifan’s industrial activity. The opening of Iceland’s first McDonald’s in 1993 (blessed by a priest) and closed in 2009 (RIP), was the final nail in Skeifan’s car-dominant McCoffin. 

“Skeifan is the legacy of an area that was never supposed to be pedestrian-friendly,” says Hjálmar Sveinsson, current member and former chairman of the Environmental and Planning Council of the City of Reykjavík, with whom I met to discuss my fascination with the neighbourhood.

New life

As part of the Reykjavík Master Zoning Plan of 2010-2040, Skeifan is taking on a new role. With the ongoing development of the bus rapid transit system Borgarlínan, Skeifan will be a hub that connects the east and west of Reykjavík. Currently, about 200 apartments are under construction at Grensásvegur 1. 

These developments are relatively recent, Hjálmar explains. In 2014, a fire broke out and engulfed a building in the middle of Skeifan. “With the fire, there was a newfound interest. Architects surveying the area established that Skeifan could accommodate up to 750 new apartments,” Hjálmar says. Although that sounds like a radical transformation, Hjálmar assures me this will be done steadily. “There is no intent to drive out current businesses. I am convinced that there is room for both auto shops and residents. It will be a mixed-use zone after all,” he says. 

“Due to the fact that most of Skeifan‘s streets are parking lots, neither human nor natural laws apply.”

Since its inception, Skeifan has been a pit of despair. Why are we seeing change now? Hjálmar replies: “The financial crisis in 2008 opened up some breathing room to do things differently. Because of the recession, there wasn’t much activity taking place: construction halted and architecture firms had nothing to do. From that anti-space, the Master Zoning Plan of 2010-2040 was made. People had big ideas, emphasising a more people-centred environment with increased density and the elimination of sprawl, better use of land, and decreasing car dependency.”

It’s certain to say that Skeifan’s industrial days will soon be over. Whether space will remain for that wiener-gurgling raven remains to be seen. 



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