From Iceland — How Reykjavík Got To Be What It Is

How Reykjavík Got To Be What It Is

Published October 13, 2011

How Reykjavík Got To Be What It Is

The fabled area of 101 Reykjavík is a fun place, but there is certainly more to the city. Reykjavík is actually divided into ten districts, with the 101 area (101 is the postal code for the downtown area of Reykjavík) only encompassing five percent of the city. Driving through Reykjavík may feel like being on a ride in a historical amusement park installed by construction workers on acid. However, examining the history of Reykjavík and its urban planning can tell us a lot about the history of the Icelandic nation itself, the impact of World War II and even the unquestionable Icelandic belief in elves and trolls.
Each of Reykjavík’s ten districts can be divided into smaller quarters that all have unique and interesting his-tories—not only in terms of city planning, but also looking at the land before it was populated with garages and light posts. Reykjavík now numbers 118.898 residents (according to Statistics Iceland, 1 January 2011), which means that 37% of the Icelandic population lives in the capital. However, Reykjavík has not always been the is-land’s centre; in fact, coincidence ensured Reykjavík its current status as Iceland’s capital.
Our historical sources tell us that Iceland’s first permanent settler, Ingólfur Arnarson, made his home in Reyk-javík (which literally translates as “Smoky bay”). It is assumed that Reykjavík derives its name from the hot-springs that were prevalent in the area at the time, and the steam they generated.
The time from Ingólfur’s settlement to the year 1400 remains a gap in Reykjavík’s historical records. However, tax contracts between a landowner and the church got historians back on track. Reykjavík’s first major decisive point towards becoming a city was in the year 1752, when a couple of Icelanders established the first Icelandic corporation, ‘Innréttingarnar’ (“The Decorations”), with headquarters located in the area (the location was a coincidence—the country comptroller resided on Viðey island, and the Reykjavík farm was located between Viðey and Bessastaðir, the then-residence of the most powerful representative of the Danish monarchy in Iceland). The corporation started a factory in Aðalstræti (working mostly with wool for weaving and hemp for ropes), which is thought to be the same area Ingólfur Arnarson settled in Reykjavík around 900 years earlier.
The next pivotal step was when the main public administration entities began relocating to Reykjavík. Between 1783 and 1785 Iceland was hit by a big natural disaster, the Laki Eruption where one-fifth of Iceland’s popula-tion (approx. 10.000 people) died, as well as 80% of farmers’ livestock. The situation called for new ideas and development, including new ways of labour and specialisation, which was easier to implement where people lived together in towns. With the abolition of the Danish merchant monopoly in 1786, Reykjavík was chosen to be the main business centre in the southwest part of the country. At the time, a total of 176 persons occupied Reyk-javík. The year 1786 was later determined to be as the year the City of Reykjavík was founded (25 years ago, in 1986, we celebrated the city’s 200 year birthday by consuming the ‘longest cake’—200 metres—that has ever been baked in Iceland).
The national movement for independence from Denmark (which gained real momentum in the 19th century) also helped Reykjavík to grow, since the independence activists figured that the country needed a capital for public administration (though many of the activists thought Reykjavík too influenced by Danish culture to become the headquarters for an independent Iceland).
There was no turning back after Iceland’s main educational centre moved to Reykjavík in 1846 and the construc-tion of the parliament building in 1881: Reykjavík was to become the Capital of the country. The city’s first mayor was elected in 1908, and the University of Iceland was established in Reykjavík in 1911, which meant that fewer students needed to travel to Denmark to seek an education.

Constructive discourse on Reykjavík’s urban planning was first established in 1915. That year, the city centre caught fire and ten houses in Hafnarstræti and Austurstræti burned down. Bad planning was blamed for how things turned out, and regulations on timber buildings were created, and wooden structures were prohibited from the centre. After the dramatic fire, the age of concrete dawned and new houses were built to replace the old ones. Today, these houses make an important part of downtown Reykjavík a part of what it is today (these buildings currently host restaurants Café Paris, Austur and Esja, for instance).
A year after the fire, in 1916 the first book on planning was published in Iceland. The author was a professor of medicine, Guðmundur Hannesson, who was influenced by recent theories in urban planning, such as the English Garden City movement, which is characterised by a desire to bring nature back into the cities. In his book, Guðmundur placed great emphasis on making the urban area as healthy as possible for its inhabitants.
One of Guðmundur’s ideas was a rule stating that houses should be built in alignment to sunlight exposure. This rule had a big influence on how streets in Reykjavík were built up until the mid-20th century.
A year after the book was published, an official urban plan for Reykjavík was composed, although however, it wasn’t made law until 1921. Six years later, Reykjavík’s first urban plan was finalised. The plan made no real distinction between streets and avenues, which explains why the old streets in downtown Reykjavík also serve as traffic lanes. Another characteristic of the plan were the 2-3 story apartment buildings constructed in parallel (as in Njarðargata) and an avenue, Hringbraut, which at the time circled the city. Hringbraut (“Circle Avenue”), was meant to define the city and…circle it. However, the city has long since spread past its confines.
This first urban plan was created to serve Reykjavík’s development for the next decades. Seven years after its release, architects were hired to make new districts outside Hringbraut; the plan was already proving too small for the increasing population and the planners had neglected to account for the growing number of cars in the city. The first area to be planned outside Hringbraut was Norðurmýri; Melahverfi and Hlíðar came subsequently.

A radical shift took place in Reykjavík when the British Armed Forces occupied the country in May of 1940. Not only did the army pave large streets, like Suðurlandsbraut, it also constructed the Reykjavík airport and erected thousands of barracks. The military also brought work to the people of Reykjavík, which meant that the city got a new status as THE PLACE to go for jobs and money. Thus, from 1940 to 1960, Reykjavík’s population grew by 60%, from 43.841 to 72.407.
However, the number of available apartments or housing spaces remained stagnant, and the city soon faced a real problem. The almost exponential population increase in Reykjavík had much impact on how Reykjavík developed from that point. Before World War II, the city had developed continuously from the city centre. With the afore-mentioned effects from the war, however, the city expanded at a tremendous speed, with no time taken to formu-late a comprehensive future plan for the city.
A city plan was made in 1948. It was not officially approved, but was used as some kind of basis for Reyk-javík’s development. The new airport prevented the city from growing south, and the city mainly spread in direc-tions where roads and sewerage systems could already be found and where the land was good enough to make shallow housing foundations (no houses were built in the numerous moors and swamps, which also partly explains why Reyk-javík developed as it did).

In 1960, Danish specialists were hired to make a general plan of Reykjavík, which they submitted in 1965. It was by then obvious that Reykjavík needed more apartments and houses for the growing number of inhabitants. What characterised that plan was zoning; people were to live in one place and work in another. The ideology of that time was rife with the idea that ownership of an automobile was the future. All families should have a car, and the freedom to drive as they pleased. It was in this plan that Reykjavík’s first real suburbs were born: Árbær (1965–1970) and Breiðholt (1967–1982).
In 1982, Grafarvogur was selected to become the new building land for the citizens of Reykjavík, after a ge-ologist discovered that the predetermined building area, near Rauðavatn, was full of cracks in the bedrock and therefore not the easiest land to build an entire neighbourhood on.
The newest neighbourhoods in Reykjavík are Grafarholt and Úlfarsárdalur. Grafarholt (2000) is the first neigh-bourhood in Reykjavík which is built following an open competition for its planning. The youngest neighbourhood in Reykjavík is Úlfarsárdalur (2001), still a work in process. Kjalarnes, one of the ten districts of Reykjavík, was combined to the city in 1997. Kjalarnes has both the smallest in population (834) and the largest (covers 22.6% of Reykjavík’s land). Kjalarnes’ first urban plan is from the year 1977, but the history of Kjalarnes can be traced back to the first settlers, and serves as backdrop for one of the Sagas, ‘Kjalnesingasaga.’ 
Today, The City of Reykjavík is working on a new general plan, which will be in effect until 2030. The work is in process so there is still a time to have an influence on Reykjavík’s development by sending your ideas to the City of Reykjavík (

The ten districts in Reykjavík 2011
Árbær    10.192
Breiðholt    20.646
Grafarholt og Úlfarsárdalur    5.416
Grafarvogur    18.030  
Háaleiti og Bústaðir    13.755  
Hlíðar    9.612  
Kjalarnes    834
Laugardalur    15.239
Miðborg    8.618
Vesturbær    15.703
Residents in Reykjavík
1786    127
1870    2.024
1890    3.706
1900    5.802

1910    11.600
1920    17.679
1930    28.304
1940    38.196
1950    56.251
1960    72.407
1970    81.693
1980    83.766
1990    97.569
2000    111.345
2010    118.326

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