From Iceland — Turning the City into the Suburbs

Turning the City into the Suburbs

Published August 5, 2005

Turning the City into the Suburbs

Reykjavík is a car city, for better or worse. According to Statistics Iceland, as of 2003 there are 69,727 private cars in the city alone – one car for every 1.6 people. As Dagur B. Eggertsson, chairman of the Reykjavík Planning Council, pointed out to the Grapevine, “Homes with two or even three cars are all the more common. There are now actually more cars than there are driver’s licences.” Former city engineer of Copenhagen Dr. Jens Roerbech addressed the problem in the latest issue of aVs magazine, where, in discussing Reykjavík he said in part, “I cannot remember having been in a city where 96% of all trips take place by the private car.”

One of the big reasons why Reykjavík is such a car city has a lot to do with the building of the Kringlan mall in 1987, when Davíð Oddsson was mayor and the conservatives controlled City Council, which shifted the residents’ focus away from shops downtown that they could walk to, to a mall that they could drive to. As Chief Planning Official of the Reykjavík Planning Office Helga Bragadóttir explained to the Grapevine, the city had begun building multi-family units in Skuggahverfi in 1985, with the hope that one result would be more people using mass transit (which in Iceland’s case means the bus) or travelling on foot, but then, “Kringlan opened in August 1987, which of course had an impact on the city centre. Here you had bigger shops contained indoors, free parking, big lots – the concept was that among other means, you come by car. The private car has had a big impact on the cityscape and how people move to and from work.”

A car city has more to worry about than just traffic jams: apart from concerns regarding air pollution and fuel consumption, there’s also the problem of “traffic islands” – neighbourhoods boxed in by heavy car traffic – especially true in Reykjavík, where nearly 50% of the available land is used for roads, parking spaces, and other traffic- related structures.

“The city’s neighbourhoods have been split up,” says Eggertsson, “into neighbourhoods where parents are afraid to let their children outside to play. It’s a quality of life issue.”

To deal with this problem, Dr. Roerbech proposed in the same issue of aVs that Reykjavík increase parking restrictions and provide better facilities for bicycle traffic, stating that the city, “should build bicycle paths and special bicycle roads.” While there are those who’ve been reluctant to bicycle traffic in Reykjavík for climate reasons, Roerbech is on the same page as the Planning Council in one regard: emphasizing mass transit.

The Planning Council wants to put greater emphasis on buses and walking.

“The fact is,” said Bragadóttir, “we have to better utilize land for development and link homes to work sensibly, where we can bring transportation down to a human scale, such as walking on foot.”

Eggertsson agrees, adding that he would like to see the city adopt a “think train and drive bus” policy, wherein the city would be able to “guarantee to city residents in high population areas a constant stream of transport with a train-like bus system, that is, one with speed and efficiency.”

Others, such as Einar Örn Stefánsson, managing director of the Downtown Development Society, have proposed a new bus line for the city centre.
In an article he wrote in the July 2005 issue of the downtown magazine Miðborgin, Stefánsson put forward the idea of a bus route downtown that would run on a continuous loop, travelling down Laugavegur from Hlemmur to Lækjartorg, and then travelling back up to Hlemmur on Hverfisgata – an idea that he believes would greatly reduce downtown traffic, adding, “There is no walking street in Reykjavík, which is strange, as I think every major city in the world has a walking street. I think the best solutions to reducing traffic downtown would be to encourage further use of parking garages, have a walking street, and to have bus service form a loop” between Hlemmur and Lækjartorg.

Already changes to the mass transit system have begun, with 10% of bus stops removed from some of the city’s denser areas in the hopes of increasing travel time in those areas. Ilene Solomon, a designer for the Institute Without Boundaries – who recently returned from a trip to Iceland – agreed with the changes to the bus system, telling the Grapevine that, “I understand the logic behind it, in that it does increase efficiency. Fewer stops also mean the buses use less fuel, expending less exhaust.”

Not everyone is thrilled with the idea of the changes to the bus system – there have been some public grumblings, including television personality Gísli Marteinn criticizing the changes on the news-discussion television show Kastljósið on the grounds that the new system will “take a long time to learn.” Vilhjálmur Þ. Vilhjálmsson, leader of Independence Party representation on City Council, takes that argument further. He would in fact like Reykjavík to be even more of a car city than it already is.

“Icelanders have decided themselves to use personal vehicles,” he told the Grapevine, “and this is something that we have to accept. The weather here is always changing from rain, to cold, to wind and snow, all very quickly. People just don’t want to walk 500 to 700 metres to a bus stop and wait 10 or 15 minutes in bad weather for a bus to come. This is our Icelandic reality. We don’t see people driving fewer cars.”

To further accommodate cars in Reykjavík, Vilhjálmsson and the Independence Party have proposed removing a number of traffic lights from the Miklabraut-Hringbraut roads, which currently run down the middle of the Reykjavík peninsula, effectively creating an expressway through the middle of the city. Such an expressway would cut off the Vatnsmýri area – which has been slated by most involved for multi-family units – from the downtown area.

Looking for some perspective, the Grapevine consulted Kevin Firchow, of the urban planning consulting firm Schreiber Anderson Associates in Madison, Wisconsin. Madison has repeatedly earned the best small city in the US award, all while coping with population booms and geographic limitations – the Northern city faces much harsher weather overall, including much colder winters, than Reykjavík, and is located entirely on a narrow isthmus. Firchow pointed out that an expressway running through the middle of a city like Reykjavík would actually run counter to the goal of reducing traffic.

“Anytime you run freeways through the middle of a city,” he told the Grapevine, “you’re effectively forcing them to use car travel by cutting them off from other parts of the city. This increases car use, which creates more congestion. Eventually, you have to widen the freeway further, and the land for that expansion displaces buildings and cuts people off further. A better approach is to integrate uses and provide more options for travel.”

In other words, splitting Reykjavík in two with an expressway could turn the Vatnsmýri area into a slum – a dense residential area cut off from basic goods and services. Even if the people who would live in Vatnsmýri bought cars to access the expressway, this would only snarl traffic more; the community would remain shut off from downtown.

Solomon found the proposal slightly difficult to believe, stating that, “I think an expressway would make the city more like the suburbs. I wouldn’t push the city in that direction, in terms of dealing with traffic density.”

Yet making the city more like the suburbs is precisely what Vilhjálmsson and the Independence Party have in mind for Reykjavík. One of the more radical planning ideas being suggested by Vilhjálmsson and the Independence Party concerns the islands surrounding Reykjavík: Geldinganes, Akurey, Engey, and to some extent even Viðey have been slated as possible sites for predominantly single-family homes. This would create the ultimate “gated communities,” using water instead of high walls, and would be accessible only by a two-lane or four-lane road. Bridges would connect Geldinganes, Engey and Viðey to the mainland, but the gap of water between Öfirisey and Akurey would be filled in with earth. While many have expressed concerns about the idea of landfilling as a means of expanding the city geographically, it’s not exactly a new technique to the city. As Vilhjálmsson told the Grapevine, “Landfilling has been ongoing in Reykjavík for the past decades. In the past 15 to 20 years, some 240 hectares have been added, 125 of which are around Örfirisey.”

The idea of developing these islands isn’t without controversy. Viðey in particular has attracted the affections of many people in the city as a historical setting worth preserving.

“I can certainly understand this point of view,” said Vilhjálmsson, when questioned about making celebrated public land private. “But visitors to Viðey have been on the decline.”

The islands would be built up with mostly single-family homes. While this seems like a straightforward, albeit temporary, solution to the problem of Reykjavík’s population boom, the underlying reason for Vilhjálmsson’s method of expanding Reykjavík doesn’t seem to be to find room for the city’s new residents, but rather, to hang on to the better-off of the current ones.

As Vilhjálmsson explained to Grapevine, “In Reykjavík last year, there were 343 new residents. Compare that to 900 new residents in Kópavogur and 1000 new residents in Hafnarfjörður. In the suburbs, you have more choice of sites for families and mostly families in single-family homes, while in Reykjavík there are mostly multiple-family homes. Most people want to live in single-family homes, and that’s why there’s been this flight into the suburbs. There are now people moving as far afield as Hveragerði and Selfoss. We want to keep families in Reykjavík.”

If the majority of the 39,000 possible new residents expected over the next 30 years live in single-family homes, this will mean thousands of new cars in Reykjavík, a city that by that time would only have expanded geographically by a few hundred hectares. The wear-and-tear of roads, air pollution and traffic injuries and fatalities associated with private car usage in Reykjavík would increase dramatically. Not to mention the fact that low density areas like single-family home neighbourhoods require more sewer lines, more power lines, and greater lengths of piping for water and heating than high-density multi-family areas. They are, in other words, less efficient and more costly to maintain.

At the same time, the Planning Council doesn’t exactly warmly embrace the idea of developing the islands and having an inordinate proportion of single-family homes in Reykjavík.

Bragadóttir cut to the heart of the argument, taking the pragmatic approach: “Before we build on land fillings and the islands,” she told the Grapevine, “we should first build on the land we already have on the peninsula. We should wait a while before using land fillings. It’s just common sense. It’s true that people did live on Víðey, but that changed, and we should now first consider where it’s already more practical to build, on the peninsula.”

Others, such as Stefánsson, don’t even consider the plan realistic. As he told the Grapevine, “I find the idea of developing the islands around Reykjavík to be a kind of utopia that’s fun to think about, but I don’t think it would be a reality.”

In order to maintain high density and a high quality of life, the Planning Council has proposed a development “mix” of apartments and single-family homes. That proposal, called the “Five Flowers,” focuses on five areas of the city: the Mýrargata-Slippasvæði of the west harbour area, the east harbour area, the neighbourhood around the bus terminal Hlemmur, the largely industrial area of Elliðaárvogur, and the crucial Vatnsmýri, where the city airport currently resides. All of these areas will be predominantly apartments, thereby keeping density high, but Bragadóttir doesn’t believe that necessarily means building upwards.

“I don’t think building up is the only answer,” she told the Grapevine. “We can build denser by building lower, maybe five to seven stories high. An important thing to be aware of is urban spaces on a human scale and an easy access to daily needs and the nature around us. It’s a question of quality of life.”

When asked how taller buildings would affect the quality of life of the city’s residents, Bragadóttir cited aesthetics, saying, “You get the view, but the building can be out of touch with the space. Regarding the importance of quality of the urban space, you have to have in mind, for example, at this altitude tall buildings cast very long shadows and can in fact generate a windy micro-climate.”

Eggertsson is particularly passionate about what he’d like to see happen in the Five Flowers.

In addition to building apartments in the west harbour area, he told the Grapevine that he’d also like to “build up the harbour atmosphere with fish markets, squares, and ports for small boats. The Maritime Museum just opened there, which is a good start, but we want to see more, with a link to the city centre.” In the east harbour, the Planning Council has designs on building a concert hall, hotels, retail outlets, restaurants and even a new headquarters for Landsbanki.

Hlemmur seems to be what Eggertsson would like to be the new hub of Reykjavík youth culture.

“We’d like to see at least a thousand new apartments in that area,” he told the Grapevine, “maybe with a focus on young people and students, who use the bus more than other demographics, and to build fewer car parks. Right now the area is too much like a slum. What we want is a dynamic mix of youth, culture and city functions.”

The largely industrial area of Elliðaárvogur is trickier, as the question arises, how do you convince people to move into an industrial area? On this point, Eggertsson says, “[The area] could be one of the most beautiful places to live and work. We’ve proposed moving the heaviest industries to the outskirts of town or having them refreshed. Instead, we want to see a dense residential area by the sea.”

But the real crown jewel of the bunch is Vatnsmýri. If the city airport is moved to Skerafjörður as many have proposed, this will free up an enormous swath of land within city limits. Bragadóttir herself sees the area as having the potential to contain “thousands of flats,” while Eggertsson adds that he’d like to see the area be the new science and technology district of Reykjavík.

“The area could be home of the knowledge industry in its closeness to the University of Iceland, the hospital and the University of Reykjavík,” he told the Grapevine. “We want knowledge-based industries to find a home there.”

When told of the Five Flowers proposal, Firchow was very positive.

“That sounds like the right approach,” he told the Grapevine. “In the 1950s in America, you had these ‘bubbles,’ where there were single-family homes in one bubble, apartments in another, and services in yet another. This segregation of services puts a lot of pressure on a city’s infrastructure. Integration of use [like the Five Flowers plan] is a much more appropriate use of space.”

These housing ideas and others are still up for debate, and will undoubtedly be debated fiercely in the planning meetings to come. More often than not, these discussions become politicized. One undercurrent as to why city planning in Reykjavík is often very politicized is illustrated in University of Iceland Professor of Urban Planning Trausti Valsson’s book Planning in Iceland from the Settlement to Present Times. Valsson contends that politics often get in the way of effective development.

Created in 1972, the Development Office has seen different ruling parties come and go – the Leftists who came to power in the late 70s rejected many of the conservatives’ earlier planning proposals, and when the conservatives regained power in 1982, they, in turn, rejected many of the development proposals the Leftists had begun, such as further development of Reykjavík’s far eastern, mainland section. Politicizing development naturally slows down the process.

Knowing that any plan set forth during your watch will immediately be cancelled if another political party is elected makes for rash decisions. Many cite as an example the current Miklabraut-Hringbraut construction project that connects these two four-lane roads with a six-lane road that bows over 50 metres away from the hospital. Apart from the fact that placing a six-lane road as a connection between two four-lane roads is an invitation to severe bottlenecking of traffic in either direction, there were also complaints that the plan was pushed through and approved quickly, with little chance for discussion among planners or the public. The plan’s lack of popularity – yet its ultimate passage – can be taken as a warning of things to come: Vilhjálmsson’s expressway and island communities might not be very popular ideas, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be approved.

On the other hand, as of now, the Independence Party does not control City Council. They hold six of the council’s fifteen seats, with opposition alliance R-list controlling eight seats (the fifteenth seat is held by the sole Liberal Party member on the council, Ólafur Friðrík Magnússon). In addition, Mayor Steinunn Valdís Óskarsdóttir hails from the Alliance Party. R-list holds the majority – albeit a slim one – so the planning ideas put forth by the Independence Party could be defeated by the opposition. Or, if the next elections go the other way, Independence Party proposals could roll through with relative ease – latest Gallup Poll results indicate that 47% would vote R-list and 48% would vote Independence Party if City Council elections were held today. Whether it goes one way or another has a lot to do with public involvement from the very start – planning meetings are regularly advertised and are open to the public. With City Council elections coming up next spring, Reykjavík’s residents can also choose through their votes what they want their city to be: an unsustainable suburb that ultimately serves no one, or a thriving city that maintains a high quality of life for all and could even set an example for capital cities the world over.

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