How Does It Feel?
Politicians in Oslo started planning the urban-renewal project known as “Fjord City” in the year 2000, and a zoning plan for the port district of Bjørvika was ratified by the city council in 2003. The idea was to build a new urban area by gathering the city’s most prominent cultural institutions, including the Opera, the Munch Museum, the Deichman Library, and the National Gallery of Art, into this neighborhood along the waterfront. The plan includes thirteen sub-areas, now finished, and some still under construction.
I wanted to write about this project, to understand the implications of 20 years of demolition and rebuilding. Visions and discussions, promises and regrets. Glass, concrete, traffic plans, luxury zoning plans, “revitalizing,” “mobilizing,” a “growth zone.” I had my preconceptions. I couldn’t imagine how this forced transformation would give the people of Oslo a cultural home. The Opera was the first building to appear in 2008, and I already knew that it has been a success. It quickly attracted people from across the whole city and became more than a place for listening to music. There is a park on the roof for everyone to enjoy; I have been there myself many times and loved it. But this was almost fifteen years ago, and since then it is as if the area has become a mini city within the city, enclosed and separated economically as well as physically. It requires a certain amount of money to be able to fully take part in what Fjord City offers.
So, after two decades, I was afraid that this artificially created cultural district could not function as a landmark for everyone in Oslo. Maybe I had simply gotten older, more aware of what Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey discuss as “the right to the city”; civil engagement and city-dwellers’ freedom to shape their environment detached from growing effects of commodification and capitalism.1David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” New Left Review 53 (September-October, 2008). Or had my initial appreciation of the area vanished after corporate firms moved in with flashy luxury apartments and high-end restaurants? My greatest fear, which had grown into aversion to the project, was that the developers’ promise of this being “a place for everyone” was a sham. To me, it was a constructed place for the wealthy. The only benefit, as far as I could tell, were the many square meters along the docks set aside for swimming and sunbathing.
One day last summer, a friend asked if we could meet at a café in the district, at a spot with a view towards the docks and the sea. He thought it would be nice to have a coffee, then go for a swim. I didn’t want to pay five dollars for a coffee. I didn’t want to see flashy cars and white tablecloths, next to a low-income family sitting on a bench with their packed lunch. I didn’t want to observe how the area segregated people. But I wanted to see my friend. So I went.
The main street that has always separated Bjørvika from the harbor has now been planted with trees — though I saw, as I arrived, that they were serving only as furniture in the cityscape, supported by four stakes each; they looked as if they needed ten years to grown into proper trees. The street is now flanked, also, by two bicycle lanes, and that day the whole area was full of activity and purpose. It surprised me to see how established people’s routines were, given that the more-or-less finished project was still so young. I stood at the crosswalk, waiting for the light to change and “the walking man” to appear. A gust of wind flew into my face and a speck of dust made its way into my eye. My attention shifted from the street to the sting. It was hot, probably one of the summer’s warmest evenings. Maybe the sting would pass if I stood completely still with my eyes shut for a minute?
Passing cars filled the street with a soft buzz, as though they were whispering their way through the urban landscape; as I stood with my eyes closed, I thought of the traffic’s slow pace as a considerate gesture. I could hear another form of humming from far above, and felt a soft continuity of moving air somewhere behind my right shoulder. It was too subtle recognize at first, and I put my finger in my ear to listen more closely. Air-conditioner. An electrical invention that separates warm particles from cold and releases them into the air outside; that makes humans turn their heaters up to regulate room temperature, wasting more electricity. The sound accompanies a process of generation and transmission that hurts our climate, that represents exactly the kind of excess that I had anticipated. But it was gentle, and it kept me listening.
I could hear people. My eyes were still closed, but the voices of strangers made me suddenly feel included. In what? Even though I wasn’t looking at them, they saw me, and we became connected, tenuously, by this distance. Some of the voices were sharp, others soft. They talked to each other and across each other’s conversations. I didn’t feel the urge to participate. I was already included as a listener, part of the life of the street.
This was nice. But still I felt judgmental. I opened my eyes. My preconceptions of Fjord City as a triumph of gentrification and mass consumption, separating the rich from the poor, creating a homogeneous, enclosed society, made me reluctant to look at the buildings. They stood out as physical manifestations of an urban-planning policy based on differentiating rather than gathering. They house the country’s largest companies, the most expensive restaurants, luxury hotels and garages filled with extravagant cars. I could never work, eat, sleep, or park in this area of the city. Which isn’t a new phenomenon in any great city or capital. What makes it particular in Oslo is, again, the developers’ assurances that this would be a space for every resident to take part in equally. Maybe I would be rejected, unwanted; maybe I had already been excluded? My most troubling thought was the persistent image in my head of the dense row of skyscrapers; a palpable barrier between a state-of-the-art design and the old town. Nevertheless, I stopped and questioned myself. With my skepticism, was I helping to obstruct this area’s chance to develop into a space “for all”? So I walked on, past the new buildings, trees, signs, shops, benches, roads, bike lanes, and balconies, to the dock.
Around the restaurants, people walked, sat, talked, ate, laughed. The café where we were supposed to meet had placed its chairs in the square between the buildings. My friend was late. I ordered a coffee and sat at one of just three available tables. It struck me how peaceful and at the same time lively the atmosphere here had become. One side of the square was part of the dock, and along it people were jumping into the sea, climbing back up, taking their towels, sitting down to have a coffee, just like me. The coffee didn’t cost five dollars. There were no white tablecloths. And the only car belonged to the pizza shop on the corner. Old people, young people, couples of every gender, race, and background crossed the square in free formations and directions.
I saw my friend crossing the square, walking his bike. We waved and smiled at each other, just like everybody else.
- David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” New Left Review 53 (September-October, 2008).