How One Nordic City Tackles Sustainability

By Rebecca Leigh Rutt
Stephanie Loveless

The SOW in Reykjavík was held at the Nordic House. Opened in 1968, the House was designed by legendary Finnish architect Alvar Alto. The house is meant as a place for those working in Nordic countries to convene and exchange ideas- and that we did!

Urbanization in Iceland has only taken off since the World Wars

The Mayor of Reykjavík, Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson, opened the SOW. He pointed out that Reykjavík has been undergoing rapid urbanization since the two World Wars, similar to other Nordic countries and a message communicated at the other SOW events as well. Since the 1960s, Reykjavík has developed into a particularly car-dependent city. Yet now, in the wake of the Paris Agreements and the new wave of urban sustainable development, municipal authorities are striving to retain their expectation for a high standard of living while simultaneously moving away from the ongoing urban sprawl and doing this by utilizing the country’s wealth of renewable energy to generate the resources necessary for providing more sustainable transport.

Competitions Push Innovative Urban Sustainability Solutions

Next, we heard from Peter Vangsbo from Climate-Kic Nordic the EU program Climate-Kic, which is working to facilitate a rapid transition to sustainable urban development in 25 European cities in nine countries. Climate-Kic has an entire unit dedicated to Nordic regional development. Peter spoke of the way in which cities are re-municipalizing, wherein governance and city services are being reclaimed at the city level, a theme also prominent in the SOW2016 book. As one way to facilitate local solutions, Peter described their Open Innovation Challenge, which aims to stimulate citizen- and private sector -driven solutions to sustainable urban development. The Challenge is ongoing, so take a look at a Climate-Kic office near you or request your city to take part.

Árni Geirsson, an Advisor at Alta, a consultancy group focused on sustainable planning, spoke about the Nordic Built Challenge. ‘Nordic Built’ is an open multidisciplinary design contest launched in 2012. The objective was to encourage innovation and sustainable, viable and scalable refurbishment concepts for some of the most common building types in the Nordic region. Árni described a number of exciting plans submitted for Kársnes peninsula, not far from Reykjavík. Kársnes has been slated for refurbishment. One thing is clear – it is important to consider access and create connectivity with Reykjavík, while still maintaining an individual character for the area.

Iceland and the Attack on the Private Car!

Ólöf Örvarsdóttir, Head of Department of Environment and Planning, City of Reykjavík, spoke next about some of the city’s urban challenges and plans for tackling them. Ólöf also described the city’s deeply entrenched car dependency. To change transportation habits, the city is waging an “attack on the private car!”, with new public transportation and ‘occupy’ street events. Her department is also seeking to change street-scapes with investments in, for instance, new lighting and bike lanes. These investments are not only expected to improve the city’s carbon footprint, but also contribute to citizen health, by getting citizens to “use their own energy to move”, and to attract new businesses. For areas in progress, they have ‘meanwhile projects’, where they try out different interventions such as temporary parks or activities to see what works and what doesn’t, before permanently committing to implement the projects. Citizen feedback is essential to move forward with the ‘meanwhile projects’.

Ólöf’s team is actively working on densifying the city to increase the effectiveness of transportation and create mixed-use areas. They are also aiming for 25% of housing in the city to be accessible to low-income households. The city has both a sustainable development plan and several inclusively-planned sustainable neighborhood plans. Ólöf described how at the start of the neighborhood planning process, miscommunications amongst planners, the media and citizens produced negative reactions. To redress this, her team spent time engaging with diverse citizen groups such as immigrants, youth, elderly, doctors, and others. Their efforts are paying off as she explained that, “Now we have people knocking on our doors asking, when will you come? We want our neighborhood plan!”.

We also heard from Þorsteinn R. Hermannsson, Director of Transportation, City of Reykjavík. Thorsteinn noted that approximately 80% of emissions in Reykjaviki come from traffic, and understanding the link between health problems and emissions is part of the drive for new forms of transportation. While the city’s use of cars was touched upon at several points already, Thorsteinn went more in-depth into how the city plans to rethink transportation. The city is using a ‘transit-oriented approach to development (TOD)’, including bus rapid transit (BRT), linking housing with work, and careful planning of housing to create more compact design and do away with suburbs. Reykjavík wants to create satellite cities and focus efforts on a regional development corridor. As new technologies have been an over-arching theme during the SOW events, it was especially interesting when Thorsteinn stated, “Technological solutions are not going to save us any time soon. There is a lot of potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without technology.” He called for behavior change through strategic actions by the city, such as reducing the number of public parking spaces, and a re-thinking of streets as public spaces to accommodate people, not cars. The city also wants transportation to be understood as a flow of people using diverse modes of transport: feet, bikes, and public transport.

Iceland's Own Climate Action Plan and CSR

Ketill Magnússon, the Managing Director of Festa, the Icelandic Center for CSR, described the challenging reality of co-developing long-term sustainability and CSR targets in the private sector. Festa has worked with over 100 businesses in Reykjavík to develop and sign its own climate change action plan. In establishing emissions commitments, Festa “works backwards” with companies to reach targets they can accept. He noted, “Asking companies how they will impact the environment in 50 years is almost impossible, even ten years. But, they can do two years.” Setting agreements may even be the easier part; planning to meet them is the crux of his work and finding practical, step-wise means is essential. He encourages CSR in companies, which entails a consideration of environmental impacts on society, transparency, ethics and taking a holistic approach.

Ketill also spoke about the challenges of “responsible tourism” in Iceland. One of the ways Festa is contributing to sustainable tourism is through the food industry, and telling the story “from the hook to the dish, the story of the fish”, in order to create awareness amongst tourists and businesses on the value-chain of fishing in the country. Iceland is branding fish and other seafood as “wild game of the North Atlantic”, to increase the willingness to pay prices that encourage sustainable practices. Festa encourages more holistic accounting of emissions, from e.g. fishing boats and exporting, as well as expanding the local use of previously considered byproducts, such as fish skin.

Viva La Resistance?

The two panels were led by Auður H. Ingólfsdóttir, Assistant Professor at Bifröst University and Kristín Linda Árnadóttir, Head of the Environment Agency of Iceland. A panel discussion raised the question of how to work through resistance to change. Stephanie Loveless of World Watch Institute Europe referred back to the SOW event in Helsinki and the presentation by Anne Raudaskoski on circular urban planning. Stephanie reminded us that knowing the local culture will go a long way to prevent local resistance, as will setting goals that are understandable and that make lives easier. Ketill suggested that planners engage with “classical knowledge from change management”, wherein every step has to answer a question of ‘why?’ and, ‘to what benefit?’. Keeping in mind the bigger vision and desired future, change processes must go through difficult questions and maintain inclusive processes to get there. He also acknowledged the difficulty in his own work when asking CEOs to change their ideas on sustainability, he is constantly confronted with a reply: “‘my goal is to make a profit for the owner’”. Ketill ended with a difficult question: Can change be organic, or must it be imposed?

To overcome resistance to change, Peter encouraged planners to “come down to earth” with concrete goals and common tools to understand them. He called for the attribution of monetary value to environmental and social benefits, to “bring sustainability down to earth”, as he believes that what decision-makers want to know is, “how much does an action benefit our own wallet – what can we gain?” Ólöf spoke of her own experience: “For us in Reykjavík, it is important we have a vision that is clear. We know where we are going… We have faced misunderstandings, we took steps back, down to the bottom, [to a] bottom-up approach.” She also pointed out that her team has learned that it takes a lot of time and energy to understand resistance and change the discussion – but it is possible and worthwhile.

Although it can be argued that Reykjavík's small population and abundant natural resources make it easy to transition into a sustainable city, it is also struggling with heavy car dependency and other unsustainable practices. Yet, it's clear that the city's bold moves toward creating a sustainable city are proving to be a wonderful resource that urban areas, large or small, from around the world can draw on for inspiration.