Reykjavik, 2010-2013


Urban Design Research Workshop on Reykjavík Capital Area

August 22nd – September 2nd, 2011

April Arkitekter + Iceland Academy of the Arts

Borgarrannsókn Workshop Tutor: Sigrún Birgisdóttir
Guest Tutors Borgarrannsókn Part 1: Arna Mathiesen, Giambattista Zaccariotto


Resilient Urban Strategies

Contemporary global socio-economic conditions and climate change pose an uncertainty regarding future development of the built environment. It is urgent to shift towards more resilient strategies for the urban development where an investigation into retrofitting the existing inhabited landscape is central. New spatial connections and programs at the level of the building, the block, the neighbourhood and on the level of the city can be identified, and alternative approaches can challenge the unfruitful processes of the past decade.

Reykjavík Capital Area
The case of the Reykjavik Capital Area (RCA), illustrates how the global economic climate in a boom can produce severe challenges for mobility, resource flows and habitation on the local level in a developed western society. The deadlock of rapid transformation (2000-2008), with the emergence of partly fragmented urban landscapes represents a burden for the environment and the people. From 2002-2008 a series of new settlements have been under development on the fringe of the city representing ca. 25% augmentation of the total build-up of the area. The ideology legitimizing the planning principle behind the new development needs to be re-evaluated as one has realized that its execution was dependant on flow of capital and building materials from distant territories which has decreased drastically, rendering these areas devaluated and frowned upon as failures.

Ecology and Resources in the Urban Context
It is crucial to understand the diverse local ecological potentials to help reducing the dependence of RCA from external (from abroad or far away) resource supply. Climate, soil and water represent different potentials and limitations for agriculture, build up, sea harvesting and forestry. More knowledge about their application in the built environment can give insights into opportunities for closing the cycles of resource flows as near as possible to the bottom level. It is also important figure out the potentials in the half-developed environment one has created with plenty of resources in the years of abundance (many of which are badly or not used at all) before making plans for brand new residential developments, putting pressure on open spaces inside the city.

The Project
Suburbia and Scenarios
The designer can produce new knowledge and understandings of the environment with the rigorous application of analysis and design. The aim of this project is for students to propose alternative models of living in chosen areas currently under development on the fringe of RCA. Through a creative process of learning, combining the analytical as well as visionary skills of the critical thinker and designer, students will test a given scenario for urban living within a given local environment, testing the design process and given principles for producing new spatial guidelines for future development.

Four areas or neighbourhoods have been chosen as the site of exploration and focus for the workshop. All these chosen areas are found on the periphery or edge of the capital area and are currently only half-developed. Each area has vastly different geological conditions and history: 1) Vellirnir on a lava field, 2) A coastal development in Hafnarfjörður, 3) Úlfarsfell in the windy tundra and 4) Helgafell, a prime agricultural land. We attempt bringing into the foreground local resources (in contrast to flows of resources from foreign territories) bringing new meanings and visions regarding the life and livelihood they can offer their inhabitants and other people in the city.
The objective is to develop new guiding models for design grounded in global challenges as well as ecological rationality; challenges and potentials in the specific local situations. We want to trigger a new kind of discussion among stakeholders in order to cultivate win-win combinations for the different actors (cooperation-cultural values), flows (resource conservation, energy and water saving and pollution prevention) and the spatial features. We start our work with considering four different scenarios entailing basic needs: Water, food, dwelling and mobility. A given scenario will guide are search for alternative guiding models for urban living.
Students will work in four groups, each group will focus on a particular scenario for a given site.


Analytical tools: description models (mapping, photography, diagrams, data, ) are used to identify problems/opportunities in the situation.

Design tools: Guiding models (visual solution in principle or rule, diagrams…) and scenario techniques (“what if ...?”) are the perfect tools to start new discussions with projecting and testing new understandings, - and to contribute to ongoing discussions amongst stakeholders. These tools can be viewed as the means for bridging the gap between the overall vision and general aims of sustainable development and the more concrete plans and interpretation of the aims.

The design process is steered by the guiding models.

Some common general principles have emerged in planning situations and discussions about integrated and participative sustainable development, here are some examples:

- focus on reuse, reduction and recycling
- address the basic ecological conditions in the local landscape for guiding the planning process
- multifunctional planning is based on specialization and synergism
- strengthen bottom up approaches to planning and design processes

Guiding models (Tjallingii) are indeed the graphic representations of these kinds of principles: some general models at different scales have been developed in projects in different parts of the world by academics, practitioners and agencies. The design process (the scenario in real context) investigates how principles can be adjusted and complemented. The result can contribute to a toolkit for concrete design projects, which are more appropriate and robust for Reykjavik in the long run.

Project Deliverables:
Week one:
- An analytical drawing/model illustrating the problems and opportunities related with the scenarios.. This can e.g. show a policy or interaction between area, flows (traffic, water, energy) and people or i.e. programmatic mix maps, time based maps, etc).
- A selection of guiding models/practise which could work as base for any future development.
- A written statement of not more than 400 words which explains the relation between the analytical material and a future vision (scenario).
Week two:
Proposal for the gien site and real context based on findings from the previous week.
Each group have to prepare the following material for the final presentation:
Powerpoint presentation
Two standing A3 panels for each member of the group = e.g. 6 panels for a group students.
The final digital drawings, collected in a folder.
Final abstract of max. 400 words (what, why, how)

Assessment Criteria:
Following criteria informs the assessment procedure:
Participation in studio and group projects; innovation in developing appropriated methodology and analysis; ingenuity and prowess in realising tasks; visual and oral presentation of project.

Scenario 1
EATING - GROW YOUR OWN FOOD - On the level of the plot, the neighbourhood, the district – collectively or individually
You are what you eat.

Local and global problems/ opportunities:
Historically Reykjavík was intertwined with agricultural practises right within its urban fabric. After the war centralisation in bigger farms and import of food has contributed to pushing agriculture far from the city. After the economic meltdown, the interest for growing herbs, vegetables and fruit trees has exploded, and organic farming has increased drastically in the last years. Farmers markets have emerged.

The last three springs around 2500 people (ca. 2500 households affected) have been to courses to learn about growing food (there was no market for this kind of teaching during times of apparent abundance). The horticultural society and other agencies have become involved in projects with inhabitants. The City of Reykjavik has supported an initiative aiming at building greenhouses for food growing in the public parks of Reykjavik. Across the RCA citizens can rent out land for allotment gardens, mostly on the fringe of the capital area (green house management in Iceland is relatively cheap due to hot springs and green energy for providing extra light during the darkest months). These types of activities address the use of the natural urban environment at different scales (from household self-consumption to organic local farming for inland consumption vs. food import) and from the individual to collective. There is harvesting in kitchen windows, in winter gardens, on balconies, on roofs, in private gardens and on land hired from the municipalities. There is great interest for growing on the premises of apartment blocks although this has been difficult to realise, as the numerous owners would have to agree on the changing of the rule of use within a collective apartment block.

Local harvesting decreases the distance between the products and the consumer and makes people less dependent on the mall and dependence on imported foods (which have become much more expensive after the crisis). This satisfies consumers who want to know about the origin of their food while supporting local producers. Additionally it stimulates social cohesion and educates children about the making of food. These practises can be enforced with planning and architectural intervention. New hedgerow-sheltered growing spaces and shelter woods might become building blocks of the multifunctional forest that is under construction in the territory of the Reykjavík capital area; The Green Scarf. Multi-functionality includes reducing the carbon footprint, recreation, production of wood for the building industry, erosion prevention, shelter for wind on the heaths that have been taken for development; all while reinforcing the on-going green structure of the city.

The new suburban residential areas have abundant open spaces in between the buildings, not least in areas where not all the planned buildings are in place. This decentralized urban structure represents a potential for better integration of dwelling, workplaces, actors which work with nature and agriculture than would be possible in the city center which is a more compact city. Climate change also represents an opportunity in Iceland when it comes to growing food, since warmer weather makes it easier to grow more species.

On the city edges there are several individual actors who have experimented with practises that involve local resources for decades: the farmer that started experimenting with bees, the carpenter and his own wood house workshop, the scholar and his horticultural experiments and soil improvement, the artist and her fish farming and the architect who built his house inside a greenhouse. They are pioneers that are a great resource of knowledge and inspiration.

• WHAT IF: the urban landscape on the fringe of the capital had dwellings and workplaces integrated with nature, agriculture and horticulture?

• What incentives could support such a scenario and what sort of processes would be suitable to develop them?

• How does the intervention contribute to the economy as well as the comfort of the inhabitants?

Resources: Soil, water, geothermal water brought to the site by ready infrastructure, renewable electro power, horse manure, road network, more spare time, labour

Scenario 2
DWELLING - CO-LIVING - On the level of the plot, the neighbourhood, the district
Flexible spaces, alternative forms of living together and hybrid uses make dwelling more robust.

Local and global problems/ opportunities: In times of abundance the amount of housing units produced on the outskirts of the RCA did not correspond with the population growth. Even if many people are emigrating and moving to other less expensive towns because of the recession there is demand for particular kinds of housing in Reykjavik: affordable rental space for dwelling and tourist accommodation. The need for affordable rental space and new income possibilities is due to unemployment and accumulation of household debt. Homeownership has been the general rule in the country, but financial problems make it impossible for many people to pay the mortgages. Social housing is scarce and rent is expensive.

There is need for more flexible household space for catering for entirely new and different needs and practises. Currently young people postpone starting their own households and stay with their parents. Some small businesses economise by moving from rented space to a working space at home. People are at home more, due to slowed down economy, lost jobs and mobility issues. Children spend more time with their parents. More time gives an opportunity for new practices for inhabitation and living.

Many buildings are empty. This is especially present on the outskirts where property, which could not be paid for by the inhabitants, has been taken over by loan institutions (owned by a large degree by foreign creditors). Demand of housing before the crisis triggered large developments of single family houses, 300-400m2 which many remain unfinished because of high prices. The other dominating (and contrasting) typology is freestanding apartment blocks.

The outskirts developments overlap spaces of leisure, traditionally located on the fringe, such as the horse stalls and riding paths. These functions remain largely unexplored with regards to the increasing tourism in the country, even if the Icelandic horse is an internationally renowned breed attracting numerous tourists to the country.The horse stalls under development during the economic boom (many of which are not completed) have large living spaces integrated within their complexes; something which under present financial circumstances can be considered a superfluous luxury, but for this scenario, a resource to be further explored and possibly retrofitted.

• WHAT IF: the urban landscape on the fringe of the capital showed the way for a new vision of CO-LIVING exploring new combinations of collective and individual spaces, including accommodating the alternative tourist associated with slow practices: (

• What incentives could support such a scenario and what sort of processes would be suitable to develop them?

• How does the intervention contribute to the economy as well as the comfort of the inhabitants?  
Resources: Too big homes, empty buildings, unfinished buildings, the Icelandic horse, riding paths, horse stalls, exotic nature, unused buildings, new social practises, eccentric tourists

Scenario 3
DRINKING - EVERY DROP COUNTS - On the level of the plot, the neighbourhood, the district – collectively or individually

Water is essential to all life, and the quality of water is a pressing health issue. Water sustains the human population and is vital for all ecosystems.

Local and global problems/ opportunities:
Beside the focus on scarcity in the current debate, Iceland has its own treasure: the highest renewable freshwater availability per person in Europe. The freshwater resources are estimated to be around 170 000 million m3 and the reserves are the most secure ones in the world due to an average of 2 000 mm rainfall per year, scarce population and low water stress, (European Environmental Agency 2010; Icenews 2010). Activities related with water are e.g. swimming pools, salmon breading, fishing, spectacular recreational water courses and lakes and greenhouses.

Water can be scarce even in some areas in Iceland where water may though appear to be in great abundance (i.e. Reykholt and Bláfjöll). Water is a sensitive resource. Droughts, flooding and pollution represent threats to the ecological, social and economic foundations for any region.

The new housing areas on the fringe of the capital area negotiate the conservation space of the natural water resources, ie Gvendarbrunnar. Furthermore the urban development of Reykjavik considers moving the local airstrip from the central location downtown to Hólmsheiði, upstream from the water resource.

Recent global changes are exacerbating the pressure on water resources around the world: With climate change there has been shifts in precipitation and evaporation patterns. The global land use intensification with the growing population increases water supply demand and discharge pollution (nutrients concentration and pesticides in agriculture, industrial pollutants). These trends make fresh water an increasingly valuable and contested good. A rising number of conflicts for the control of water clearly demonstrate this, triggering global migration in search of better water. The abundance of water resources in Iceland makes it highly attractive worldwide for water demanding activities: (Metal smelters) for steady and low energy prices (hydroelectric power and geothermal power versus fossil-fuel price fluctuation) offered by renewable energy, and regions (i.e. China) for export of drinking water.
• WHAT IF: Reykjavík became the city of health, shifting towards more resilient water management where storage is a key concept; reducing, reusing and recycling, at all scales and starting bottom up?

• What incentives could support such a scenario and what sort of processes would be suitable to develop them?

• How does the intervention contribute to the economy and comfort of the inhabitants?

Resources: infrastructure, housing, land, water, energy,

Scenario 4
MOBILITY - SLOW NETWORK SCENARIO - On the level of the plot, the neighbourhood, the district – collectively or individually

The traffic network links human activities and exchange of goods.

Local and global problems/ opportunities:
In the last decades the planning of transport infrastructure has been guided by the principle of concentrating transport into large road corridors for high dynamic traffic: A fast network. Urban highways have connected high dynamic uses, such as businesses, offices, mass recreation. The corridors have become bigger and more difficult to cross. The new residential areas were supposed to be equipped with local services many of which have not been realized making it necessary for residents to seek services elsewhere. Therefore different land uses are in many cases relatively separated and there is little connectivity between neighbourhoods. There is a local discussion about the opportunity to increase the diversity of transport corridors with even higher connectivity, such as trains, underground or trams which might have a fair chance of competing with motorized traffic, which integrates into the existing bus network. This has been driven by a debate on reduction of co2 and today its urgency has increased due to high cost of imported fossil fuel, and very little alternatives to individual car transport.

This however is not likely to happen in any near future with the present economic situation. Therefore there is a call for distributing individual transport in all sorts of low dynamic transport corridors: A slow network such as bicycle paths, pedestrian tracks, children tracks, riding paths, small boat facilities, ski-lifts like infrastructures and solutions for transporting the bikes up the hills, like bike lifts. These infrastructures are cheap to implement and use and the motion makes people healthier.

The slow network could go along with fine grain and healthy land uses such as for example the protected areas, the green corridors, collective ecological gardens, streams and gentler sloping and sheltered areas.

• WHAT IF: the slow network of high connectivity could take over as a main source of transport in the Reykjavík Capital Area?

• What incentives could support such a scenario and what sort of processes would be suitable to develop them?

• How does the intervention contribute to the economy and comfort of the inhabitants?

Resources: Existing mobility network, the water network, the energy network, open areas.