From Iceland — Planning Reykjavík

Planning Reykjavík

Published June 15, 2007

Planning Reykjavík

Maybe you could start by telling me a bit about the Iceland studio and how that came about?
Orri Gunnarsson did a Masters degree in urban planning at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He proposed to me that we host an international studio, which is something our university does any way. We have studios this year in Japan, in India, in Switzerland, in Argentina and a few other countries. It is something that is a regular occurrence in our college during our May-June half semester. Orri came to me and suggested: “Why not an Iceland studio?” And I immediately said “wonderful, if we can get enough students, let’s do it. I will nominally be the professor of the course but you will be the one teaching the course since we need someone who knows Iceland”
“We got just enough students to enlist, and the students are having a wonderful experience here. It is a very intimate engagement with the place. They are here for six weeks and they are learning every day, meeting different people and learning about planning issues and architecture here in Iceland. They are working on two projects, one is the site where the building burned, [on the corner of Austurstræti and Lækjargata] and the other project is a mountain residence.”
Well, let’s turn to your lecture. Let me first briefly summarise to see if I understood you correctly. Your main argument is that centralised planning institutions, or decentralised power even, discourages densifying redevelopment because of the closeness of the citizens to the people in power. Is that an accurate restatement?
Absolutely. That is exactly my point. And I should note that in a lot of debate, the closeness of the citizens to the people in power is thought to be a good thing. We want governmental responsiveness to our interests. We don’t want remote government or indifferent government. But what I was trying to expose is what I think is the flipside. I think there is a problem inherent to very decentralised planning authorities.
Here in Reykjavík, there has been a very conscious effort to increase public participation on all levels of local government, not least regarding planning issues, is there a solution to these differences?
First of, let me say that I am very pro-public participation. I think public participation is overall a good thing. But there are times, in the United States at least, where public participation amounts to little more than a mob mentality. Where the mob is determined to keep out the outsiders. I don’t value that kind of public participation. I think that kind of public participation is a problem. So, I think that what we need is professional planners who will guide the public participation towards creative outlets. And that the creative outlets are using the public participation to ensure the change that is inevitable – because change always happens – is better than it otherwise would have been. The problem is in the United States, in planning circles, public participation is treated as good. Period. But, when it turns into this mob mentality, bent on the exclusion of the outsider, I’m sorry, but I can’t treat it as good.
But is it necessarily wise to put the planning power into the hands of the politicians by centralising the planning institutions?
But really, they are always in the hands of the politicians. Whether local politicians, regional politicians, provincial politicians or national politicians. Ultimately, planning decisions become political decisions. We would like to be able to inject a lot of professional knowledge, technical and even scientific knowledge into the political process at any particular level. Maybe the question is: do we really want national politicians, or the national government, meddling in very, very local affair? I know that in your system here, you already have that in a way. I was surprised to learn that every local planning decision needs to be authorised by he national planning authorities.
That would be inconceivable in the US, first of all because of the sheer size. Could you imagine a country of 300 million and every planning decision goes up to Washington for approval? We could probably wait for ten years before we got an answer back. But you already have that here. You already have some level of involvement, but I would like to the involvement to be driven by pure planning consideration by injecting a national view of planning into local decision-making. In my opinion, if I had to design the system, the local decision wouldn’t need to buckle up to the national level, they would only buckle up if there were objections on either side, where they would become levels of appeal. So, plans would need to be consistent from national to regional to local, but the decision could end at the local if everybody agrees.
Here in Iceland at least, it often seems as if the authorities mostly base their decisions on the bottom line, and that goes for developers also, who perhaps understandably want to turn a profit. So often, it seems like authorities prefer to go with the most efficient solution, rather than what most improves the environment. Is this a problem?
I understand how that can be a problem, but let me portrait the opposite, because I think there are two sides to that coin. The opposite problem is when the citizens are too successful in keeping out development. They force development to the periphery and they force a sprawling auto-dependent pattern. The fact that developers are interested in developing close-in – and there seems to be a lot of interest in developing close-in – the fact that they are interested in developing densely, both of those two are potential allies in the fight against metropolitan sprawl and the fight to revive and keep vital, central urban areas. In my opinion, those two things are good things for urban life. The question is how to channel these good things to ensure they remain good and that becomes a question of design and issues of height and sun-angles, issues of open space, issues of connectivity, contiguity and transport. That is where the public sector needs to pay a close intention to ensure that these things happen. I don’t think the developers should get what they want, but I think their impulse to build close in and to build densely is what cities needs.
So when the market is driving up real estate prices in the city centre, that is a good thing that needs to be regulated?
It needs to be channeled, yes. Like a lot of good things, it needs to be channeled. I think that if the rules are clear, developers are ready to play by the rules. So if the planning authorities are willing to give them guidelines on what is the desired density and that they want to increase density; that single family houses does not need to be replaced by a single family houses and can instead be replaced with a higher density house, but because of neighbourhood consideration they can’t exceed a certain height, etc.; when the rules are clear, in a sense the developers like it. First of all, there is added security for them. They know how they are supposed to build, and they have some insurance that other people in their area will do the same. So, they don’t necessarily need to reach up to huge height to try to grab some sun and some air, because they understand that everyone else will be kept at the same level as well.
So what you are suggesting is that there be a national planning authority that can act sort of as the guilty party in the sense that local politicians can point towards it and say: ‘well it is out of our hand’ when the locals start to complain?
Sometimes that is good, yes. I would prefer the term to give it the term backbone to a guilty party, but yes, I think that it could provide that role.
When you speak of density, what do you see as sort of the ideal density for a city like Reykjavík?
As an outsider, I would be hard pressed to make a prescription. My knowledge of Reykjavík is very thin, and I have only been here for a few days. In general terms, I am quite sure that when the older single family units deteriorate and need to be replaced, I am quite sure that they could be replaced with, lets say, four-stories, with two units in each story. That is a quadrupling of the density and it is only four stories and doesn’t shape the streets too much. I know you have the issue here with the very low sun so buildings tend to cast a long shadow here. I think it that kind of levels are done consistently throughout the city, there would be opportunities for the city to absorb much of the growth of the metropolitan area. There is huge potential for the city to grow, even at that relatively modest increase in height level.
You have been around the city and you have seen how it has sprawled in every direction. Obviously, the area where the domestic airport is has been a subject of much debate in the last years, and many feel it is an obvious location to expand the city. Have you given that matter any thought?
I think the airport would be marvelous for urban expansion. I am not sure the huge value of that land would not be put to better use with urban uses. I would like to point out something else as well. We have been talking about places and buildings and I want to talk about people for a second. When you have a system that restricts severely densities in closein areas, and as a consequence, people move to outlying areas, what you get is a systematic gap between people’s preferences and what they are actually able to choose. What I found in my own research is that if you survey people in suburban areas in the United States, you might imagine that everybody who lives in a suburban area is happy with their lifestyle, the suburban lifestyle, but in fact, you will find that about 20 or 30% of them, which is a very large share, they actually prefer to live in a walkable neighbourhood. They prefer to use public transport and they prefer to be able to walk to the store or to friends. That is really the problem, people can’t get what they want and the skyrocketing prices in downtown Reykjavík are telling you exactly that. Logically, I would deduce that there are many of people living in more suburban areas of the metropolitan area who would be very, very happy to live a different lifestyle. And ultimately, with global environmental problems, serving their needs and their preferences can have a very significant environmental benefits as well.

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