Image: Golli.

Changing Lanes, Part 2: The Future of Urban Planning in Reykjavík

 In Interview, Magazine, Magazine Intro, 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 Three of the series.

The transportation engineer

Lilja Guðríður Karlsdóttir lives and breathes transportation. Currently CEO at transport planning company Viaplan, she is working on transforming Reykjavík’s transport system, one battle at a time. “You get what you plan for,” she states right away. “My vision is that the infrastructure should be a little more fun.” The way Lilja sees it, the city has been bogged down by the motor vehicle for too long. “The car has been king. It’s a bit of a cultural issue, coupled with the timing of when Reykjavík became a city. The city’s population starts to grow when the car is stomping over everything, just like in many American cities. A whole lot of people believed that the car would solve everything. We built suburb after suburb and little by little people hit a wall. All of a sudden, there were traffic jams, and the commute took an enormous length of time. There’s still quite a large group stuck in this train of thought, that it is still the way forward to design cities like we did in the 60s and 70s.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. “We can still lead change. It’s a total myth that we are just a car city and that can’t be changed. Because that’s just something we created. Planning is just the work of humans and it’s possible to overturn it. Maybe not a 100% U-turn. There’s always going to be people in Mosfellsbær who need to use cars. And there are always going to be cars. But we can fix the surroundings so that we also have the possibility to walk or cycle. That way, more people can travel shorter distances to the store, doctor, or to school,” Lilja claims.

Reykjavík city authorities recently approved the implementation of a bus rapid transit system known as Borgarlína, intended to transform public transport in the capital area. Lilja is currently working with the city to realise the project. “This is the first attempt to bind the whole of the capital area together. Up until now, it’s been a little bit too much of each municipality working on their own. If Borgarlína becomes a reality, it makes it possible to have more strategic densification around the stations. This gives people the chance to minimize travel and use other transport modes than the car. We’re not going to construct another apartment block neighbourhood far out in the suburbs. That’s just going to result in more traffic and queues. We’re opening up a possibility for a more diverse city, for more diverse folks than the standard Icelander,” she says enthusiastically.

When asked of her ideal Reykjavík of the future, Lilja’s vision is clear. “I want a denser city along the Borgarlína line. I want to see a city where it’s not easy to drive around downtown Reykjavík in a pickup truck. It just shouldn’t be an option. If you need to get to downtown Reykjavík you either take a taxi, or a small car, or park next to a Borgarlína station and take public transport to your destination. You want the centre to be a place full of life.”

“People need to realise that we’re quite fragile beings. It’s easy to kill us with a car. We need more understanding that nice surroundings, where we feel good, result in an improvement for society as a whole. It’s not just about getting from A to B, to and from work. We need something more, nourishment from culture and art, and just to see each other. The vision of the detached house with a car in the garage, driving to a basement parking lot at your office job is not the ideal anymore. The problem is that you don’t see or interact with anyone on your way there – and we’re social beings. I envision a future where the main focus, whether building roads or structures, is on people feeling good.”

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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