Nature Conceptions in the Urban and Landscape Planning of Reykjavík





Green Deserts.pdf


The relations between people and the physical environment they live in have radically been changed in the 19th and 20th centuries by industrialisation and urbanisation, together forming a process referred to as modernisation. Generalizing it could be said that modernisation has created distance where there used to be immediacy. In other words, in the process of modernisation peoples’ social and spatial conceptions and experiences change. As a result of the distance created between materials, persons and places a differentiation takes place. New concepts, or at least new meanings to old concepts, appear. Nature is one such concept. Planning could be claimed to be another. Through differentiation from the immediacy of using the natural resources around one, the concept of nature as something separate of human existence appears ).

As the immediacy of small communities changes into larger societies the practice of planning is needed to scour off chaos ). As cities grow and urban culture takes shape, new ways of understanding one’s environment emerge: nature in the meaning of land as a source of livelihood (countryside) becomes replaced for the urban dweller by parks and gardens providing other kinds of ‘ health and happiness’ than direct ‘livelihood’. These replacements of countryside represent the closest contact to ‘nature’ for a ‘urbanised’ person besides the use of natural resources that are engineered to reach each and every house. Nature and culture intertwine into a new kind of whole.

Iceland became a nearly treeless country very quickly after the Settlement in the 9th century, and the following millennia created a culture of appreciation for wide, open spaces. During the 20th century, however, a turn in ideals as well as practices has at least partly swept the country and Iceland currently has large-scale re-forestration plans and abounds in city and nature parks. Iceland became industrialised and urbanised rather late, more or less as an aftermath of the Second World War. Prior to this private gardens and some public parks had emerged in Reykjavík and the other major towns, but nature parks and outdoor recreation ideals only emerged from the 1950s onward. In the 1960s great amounts of people moved from the countryside into the city and large suburban areas were created to house them.

From many varying sources the idea of the view – a landscape viewed through a window of an apartment or of a car – surfaces as a central contemporary Icelandic/ Reyjavíkian relation to nature. This is seen to be in relation with the traditional Icelandic open (treeless) landscape. Against this most of the green planning policies goes out to plant trees on roadsides, park edges etc in order to provide shelter from the strong winds. The shelter from wind is particularly needed in order to make such ‘nature’ practices as gardening and barbequing possible. As a result a very special type of urban landscape – rather monotonous grass lawns surrounded by thick ‘scarves’ of fir-trees – have been created all over Reykjavík. The grass lawns can be seen as the product of there not having been enough interest in the early days of Reykjavík’s planning to address such ‘superficial’ issues as landscaping. On the other hand these lawns can be seen as having a relation to the open ‘traditional’ Icelandic landscapes outside of the city as well as having become an urban tradition in their own right by decennia of Reyjavíkians experiencing their urban nature as such. Thus I would like to claim that besides the idea of the view another typical Reykjavíkian nature type is the ‘green desert’ of the grass lawns.

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