Image: Golli.

Changing Lanes, Part 3: The Future of Urban Planning in Reykjavík

 In Interview, Magazine, Magazine Intro, Politics, Society

Reykjavík is a city still finding its feet. At the beginning of the 20th century, only 8,221 called the northernmost capital city in the world its home. That number now stands at 217,711 people, as Reykjavík’s population has grown by 37% since 1998. Unlike many of its European counterparts, you’d be hard pressed to find rows of houses built earlier than the 19th century. The next decades are crucial in the city’s development, as we have the chance to mould the city’s future. What will the future hold for Reykjavík?

In this three-part series, Iceland Review asks an architect, a transport engineer, and a city planner how they envision the city’s future.

Read Part One and Part Two of the series.

The city planner

Gísli Marteinn Baldursson is a city man to the core. A former Reykjavík city councillor turned radio and television programmer, his vision for the city is clear. “We will make the neighbourhoods come alive by stopping the spread of the city,” he proclaims. “What surprised me most when I started working on the city council was that everybody spoke as if Reykjavík was about to become a city of a million people. There were plans for endless suburbs. Politicians felt like they had failed if they didn’t plan a new suburb each term. I believe it was some sort of patriarchal superiority complex. They wanted to have a model of a neighbourhood in front of them, and to be photographed pointing towards their creation from the sky like they were a god.”

Gísli says we have the chance now to decide what the future of the capital will look like. “We’re effectively putting the last puzzle pieces into Reykjavík. If we continue to make the puzzle bigger, there will be large gaps in the middle. We have to look at it as though we’ve finished the frame. Our goal now is to put pieces into the huge empty spaces. This is why we still have this great chance to make Reykjavík better.” Gísli looks towards the enormous expanse of the Reykjavík Airport, which is situated right in the heart of the city. “The space where the airport is now presents great opportunities for densifying. The people living in the suburb Úlfarsfell are forced to drive right now, but if you move them to the airport area that would change. That’s why we need to build in the airport area, and right away. In fact, Reykjavík’s population increase for the next 20 years could be accommodated there,” Gísli enthuses.

The city needs to stop creeping further eastwards and inland. “There’s too few people in too large an area. It’s imperative that we draw a circle, an urban growth boundary. London has done it and Portland did it ages ago. It’s often done to protect green spaces outside the city. In Portland, the farmers asked the city to stop the expanse. Here, it’s the urbanists asking for it. Of course, both sides have a case. The areas east of the city, such as Hafravatn and Reynisvatn, are beautiful. Why should we build there when we have swathes of spaces inside the city?”

Gísli sees city planning as a possibility to foster democracy in everyday life. “Public spaces, public services, and public transport are democratic. This is vital as everybody is equal, and a certain interaction takes place. Even if it’s only on sidewalks, where we meet each other by coincidence. We have to navigate and negotiate with each other, maybe only with our eyes. People are forced to communicate with other people. This takes place in the bus and in the public parks. This takes place in our swimming pools, in the hot tubs. Everybody’s wearing swimming gear, and it’s completely democratic. The president sits next to a labourer. There are no VIP places. It’s imperative for democracy that we meet each other, and that we’re actually forced to meet each other.”

Gísli wants to replace the car-dominated society with a city where you have to face others. “There’s a group in every society which wants to isolate itself. It’s often called a capsular society. You go to your large SUV, preferably with tinted windows. You drive into a car basement and take the elevator up to your office. What kind of society is this? We stop understanding each other. Cities have a responsibility to plan so this isn’t possible. If you’re going to live in this society, you have to face other people.”

Gísli played a key role in creating the main zoning plan for Reykjavík between 2010 and 2030. “I am completely certain we’re heading in the right direction.” The plan was hotly contested at the time, but he feels the tide turning. “Everybody who is an activist is asking for the same thing – a city more open for humans where the tyranny of the car lessens. Even in our wildest dreams, which were reflected in the zoning plan, Reykjavík will still be one of the greatest car cities of the world in 2030. We’re not changing the city into Copenhagen or Paris overnight. We’re simply trying to make sure we don’t go in the opposite direction and give future generations the opportunity to turn Reykjavík into an urban environment that can compete with the best.”

This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.

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