Organization of Norwegian Suburbs
How are Norwegian suburbs zoned and organized differently from American suburbs?
The way you structure the physical reality of your society can profoundly affect the lives of people who live in it. I want to give some hints here at what helps keep Norwegians healthy, encourage interaction and socializing between people of different classes and background.
People naively think that the difference between a Nordic country and the US is simply down to:
- Higher taxes.
- Free health care and college.
Please don’t read this as somehow being about stating America is terrible and Nordics rules. Rather, I want to show that society is about a lot more than just your tax level and what services are available for free. There are a lot of choices you can make at the physical level. For example: how you structure a city.
Creating Space for Interaction and Play
In Norway, children are highly valued and this is taken into account in how we design neighborhoods and schools. Norwegians love nature and think access to nature is very important for people starting at a young age. This is reflected in how neighborhoods are built.
I have lived in a lot of different areas. Currently I live in an area which is low income and where immigrants are the majority. It is the kind of place that FOX News would probably label a scary Muslim no-go zone. I want to show that even low income areas in Oslo are quite nice.
If you look at the picture above, you will see there are numerous road. But what may not be readily apparent is that only one of these roads, the one marked with (8), is actually a road for cars. Every single other road you see here is a footpath. They are for walking or biking. Cars don’t drive there. In fact, these paths form a vast network extending far beyond what you can see here.
It means children living in various apartments can go to the playground safely from something like age 3 and upwards. For example, at (1) there is a sandbox for small children to play in. A tall fence separates it from the parking space right below. At (2) there is a small playground with swings for slightly older children. And my kids and other neighborhood kids love going into the small forest (4) and play hide and seek or other games. It has rocks to climb on. There are hills to slide down in the winter time with your sled or skis.
If this gets boring, the kids can walk up to (3) where there is a soccer field where they can play various ball games. Actually, there are even more playgrounds there that are not shown in the picture. Playgrounds are everywhere. At (5) you see another playground.
How is it possible to make this large area car-free? Because unlike a lot of other countries, especially a typical American suburb, parking is not placed next to every building. Cars enter at (6). Here you can see guest parking. Residents have parking garages underneath the larger buildings.
Kids can roam all over this area safely and meet friends that they know from school. Parents don’t have to be involved and set up play dates. You just learn where people live and you can go to whatever house you want and ring the doorbell.
Another important aspect of these neighborhoods is, I believe, the diversity in the building mass. If you look at a classic American suburb, they are very homogenous. What do I mean by that? The size of the plot of land and the size and quality of the houses are within a very narrow range. That means people of a very similar social class are going to live there.
Mortensrud, where I live, does in contrast have quite some variation in the type of housing. The area you see below which is about 3–5 minutes walk away from the previous area, which was dominated by apartment complexes.
In the center of this picture, you see modern single-family houses. The square black boxes. There are some more classical Norwegian single family houses with pointy roofs and with traditional Norwegian colors such as red and white.
Behind the square “funkis” houses, you see taller modern apartment complexes. In the “funkis” houses (what we call modern houses in Norway) you have primarily families with small children living. In the apartment complexes, there are more single couples and seniors.
Further behind, you have these red houses with gray roofs. These are row houses. So every house has 2–3 floors along with a front and back yard. A lot of families with children live there as well. Even further behind those, you can find single houses again.
This means people of very different professional background and income live in the same area. At Mortensrud, you will find tech workers, university professors, as well as cab drivers and cleaners. Their kids go to the same schools. There are people at Mortensrud from over 20 different nationalities.
How to Avoid Car Roads in the Neighborhood
We can take a closer look at those single houses in the back. If you are American, you may object that this avoidance of car roads and use of foot paths is only possible where one has European-style apartment complexes but it would never work with American style single houses with yards. Except, as I will show you below, the areas of Mortensrud with single-family houses with yards more resembling American suburbs also avoid car traffic.
All the red bubbles marked
W are walkable footpaths. There are no cars going on these roads. Unlike an American house, garages are not integrated with the houses. Instead if you look at the red bubbles with the letter
P, that is where you find the car parking.
Yes, occasionally you need a car close to the house, perhaps because you are moving or there is an emergency. Foot paths usually have a sort of gate that you can open and let a car in. But these are narrow and can only fit one car at a time. Driving through for convenience would be both illegal and impractical. You cannot drive fast as it is narrow. If you met another car, one of you would have to back up, as there is not enough space to drive in both directions.
Even if this is an area with single houses where everybody has their own private front yard and backyard you see that there are still significant amount of shared public space. The
G letters mark shared playgrounds with swings, slides, sandboxes, climbing walls, etc.
There is a soccer field at the centre. Kids from all the houses around can run down to this field and play soccer together in their spare time. There are no car roads to pass. Sometimes parents will have get together and the neighbors put up benches on the soccer field and put out a grill and everybody brings food. I have had meetings here with other parents. We eat and talk while the kids roam around in the vicinity playing on the field go on the slides, swings or whatever.
Facilitating Walking and Biking to School
Another key difference you will find with Norwegian neighborhoods is that that they are full of schools, daycare, preschools, etc. Children can easily walk or bike to school themselves. How is that made possible?
Again a couple of city planning choices:
- Norwegian schools are small. That means you need more of them. But more schools means that every neighborhood can have a school close by which is easily accessible. It also makes having multiple school choices possible. For example, we are about 3–7 minutes walk away from two different schools.
- Extensive use of footpaths and direct traffic outside. Again, bubbles marked
Access to Nature for School Children
Another important value for Norwegians is to give children access to nature. As you can see, the school (1) has two smaller forests marked (2) and (3) that they can explore in their breaks. School days in Norway are fairly short, ending about 1 pm or 2 pm. There are two breaks of 15 minutes and 30 minutes during the day to go out and play. Either go down the slides, play soccer, climb the trees, or play hide and seek.
School frequently go on nature trips, and living in Oslo with subway access to downtown, they also often take the children downtown to museums.
Dense Urban Neighborhoods
To show some variation, I thought I’d show an area of Oslo which is far more urban called Nydalen. This is an area with lots of office buildings, shopping centers, and various businesses. It used to be an industrial area of Oslo. Oslo grew up along an river called Akerselva. Waterwheels on this river drove the first factories in the city. Hence industry grew up along the river.
Of course, heavy industry is long gone in Norway and these old factory buildings have since been converted to housing, shops, offices and all sorts of other stuff. The old polluted river has been cleaned up over many decades.
Now this area is a bit of a hipster area, where younger well-paid urban couples live.
I thought it was an interesting place to show as an alternative in how public spaces are used. You can see common areas such as parks (3) between each apartment complex and even some kind of soccer field on the far right.
They even modified the area around the river to allow swimming at red bubble marked 1. There is a barrier you cannot see that easily which prevents you from being pulled into the rushing river. I don’t have a car but we could easily take the kids here. We just take the subway to Nydalen. They have made the water shallow so you can take kids that don’t swim into it.
All along the river you got paths (2) to walk your dog or go running.
I hope this was an interesting look at how city planning is done in Norway. This is, of course, just a small subsection and focused on particular neighborhoods in Oslo. You can find quite some different solutions in other towns and areas of Oslo. The key thing I wanted to show here was how to make neighborhoods which are child-friendly as well as how you gear a neighborhood towards walking and biking.
Secondly, I wanted to show the use of public space. This is something I often missed when I traveled around the US. Yes, there are enormous public areas such as Central Park in New York. But where are all the small spots right outside your house where your kids can meet their friends? That is something I missed living in the US. At the same time, I don’t want to make this sound like some kind of insurmountable problem. American houses have big backyards where friends can meet and play.
Thirdly, I don’t want to give the impression that all Norwegian neighborhoods are like this. Older neighborhoods have less shared space. Designing these more child-friendly neighborhoods was something that really got started in Norway around the 1970s. I grew up in such an area that was built in the late 1970s.
Anyway, next time I want to look at how denser urban areas such as the downtown or Oslo has been zoned and planned so that people and enjoy urban life and even live there. Downtown Oslo is not dead after office hours. In fact, lots of people actually live there. You can find schools, daycares, etc. But more on that next time.