An Ordinary Small City. An examination on Reykjavík's current and realizable urbanism

Master's Thesis, 2011

45 Pages, Grade: Distinction




05_Literature Review
05_Ordinary Cities
07_Ordinary Small Cities
11_Ordinary Diverse Cities


22_Planning in Iceland
24_Planning in the Municipality
27_Reykjavík Master Plan 2030
32_Meanwhile Projects


42_Policy Documents

43_Appendix, Interview Protocols


“Mistakes were certainly made. The private banks failed, the supervisory system failed, the politics failed, the administration failed, the media failed, and the ideology of an unregulated free market utterly failed. This has called for a fundamental review of many elements of our society. In that respect, democracy, the rule of law and close international cooperation has been and will continue to be our strongest weapons.”

Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir reflecting on the Icelandic economic collapse, 12 April 2010

The neoliberal experiment which was undertaken in Iceland, from the 90’s up to the financial collapse of 2008, envisioned the country as a global financial centre and Reykjavík as a world city. This policy did not just generate unprecedented inequality in the country’s income distribution (Olafsson & Kristjansdóttir, 2010) but also a transformation in its urban environment (Sveinsson, 2009). The city that was consequently built prioritised big-fix projects such as shopping malls, office towers, large speculative residential developments and an extensive highway system, which ultimately made the capital less diverse and inclusive (Sveinsson, 2009). The Icelandic economic meltdown of 2008, the biggest, relative to the size of an economy that any country has ever suffered, (The Economist) caused people’s disdain and protest. Out of this a movement led by the poet Hörður Torfa called “The Voice of the People” emerged from the streets of Reykjavík demanding a fairer system. It was the beginning of a cultural revolution (Helgason, 2009) which brought, in the following months, the resignation of the government; new national elections won for the first time by a coalition of Social Democrats and the Left-Green Party led by Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir the first openly lesbian Prime Minister in the world; the victory of a new party led by comedian Jón Gnarr in the 2010 Reykjavík’s municipal elections, and the ultimate act of rewriting the constitution. These are extraordinary events, which take place in an urban landscape where thousands of constructions stand empty and unfinished (Karlsdóttir and Bitsch, 2011). At the same time the city is buzzing with events and grassroots initiatives reclaiming empty areas and under-used public spaces.

Within this context the city of Reykjavík is reconsidering its planning instruments. A new initiative called Meanwhile Projects has been launched in order to stimulate a series of small-scale urban interventions; a new master plan will become operative in the beginning of 2012 together with the Neighbourhood Plan, a new planning instrument which will focus on the urban fabric at the neighbourhood scale.

Are these instruments effective to address the current uncertain socio-economical conditions of the city of Reykjavík?

The framework for answering this question is based on two main bodies of literature: the ordinary city and the small city along with case studies which constitute relevant lessons from similar realities. Consequently the planning system in Reykjavík is analysed through its direct observation, urban policy documents, articles, and an extensive series of interviews with key city-makers: planners, academics, architects, grassroots exponents, and politicians.

The results show that Reykjavík’s future urban strategy lacks an integrated vision for the metropolitan region, being in fact too focused and fixed on its own municipal boundaries. It also lacks an integrated governance body capable of addressing the current fluid condition. The goal of this research is to add to the understanding of Reykjavík’s urban planning and suggests a more flexible use of the planning instruments able to accommodate change and incorporate feedback from people’s initiative into a more adaptive planning system.

Literature Review

Reykjavík is a small city but also the capital of Iceland. In order to understand its nature different sources of literatures have been accessed. The ordinary city concept constructs an alternative to the world city model and reaffirms that each city is unique, complex, and dynamic. The small cities literature provides important lessons and considerations from which Reykjavík can learn. By overlapping these sources a paradigm is built to review and analyse Reykjavík’s planning instruments.

Ordinary Cities

“Nothing is more dangerous than an idea – if it is the only idea”

Émile-Auguste Chartier

In her book Ordinary Cities Jennifer Robinson argues a vision of the world constituted by cities which are all dynamic, complex, and diverse. “In a world of ordinary cities, ways of being urban and ways of making new kinds of urban futures are diverse and are the product of the inventiveness of people in cities everywhere” (2006: 1). Liberating cities from models, ranking and labelling and consequently understanding them as ordinary opens up “new opportunities for creatively imagining the distinctive futures of all cities” (ibid: 1) this is the basis of the appreciation of the identity and importance of each city in the world. It is important to imagine alternatives to the world city approach based on city marketing, competition and on the “focus on small range of economic and political activities” (ibid: 109). An economic model that doesn’t provide “niches for people’s differing skills, interests and imaginations is not efficient” (Jacobs, 1984: 71), a model that replicates one-size-fits-all policy regardless of the context is a limiting one (Pike, et al: 2006). It is therefore vital to cultivate a plurality of ideas: “the globalisation of everything cannot possibly succeed” (Smith, 2004: xxiii). The Local Government Commission which is a local government association in the United States declares: “One of the biggest myths is that in order to foster economic development, a community must accept growth. The truth is that growth must be distinguished from development: growth means to get bigger, development means to get better – an increase in quality and diversity” (Pike, et al, 2006: 23). Several economists support this position from Schumpeter to Schumacher. They all manifest the importance of measuring successful development in a qualitative form; this leads to the formulation of new metrics capable of more broadly explaining the concept of quality of life. The 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics Amartya Sen opens up alternatives to a quantitative model talking about development as the removal of the various types of unfreedoms (gender inequality, poverty, illiteracy). “Development is therefore the expansion of human capability to lead more worthwhile and freer lives” (1999: 295), within this definition the state has the important role to promote public policy initiatives able to create social opportunities (ibid, 1999). This is the foundation of any ordinary city’s political agenda: the improvement of the quality of life of its citizens.

The current global economic crisis does not just expose the limits of the one-big-idea the neoliberal one based on economic expansion through free trade and deregulation (Harvey, 2005; Coyle, 2011; George, 2010) it also reveals the responsibility that architecture and planning have had in placing themselves too much at the service of economic and political interests with very little regard for social considerations (Lepik, 2011). However, it is not just architecture that has become “a primary vessel of financial interest” as the architect Teddy Cruz states (Lepik, 2011: 17), it is the entire city. In 1989 David Harvey highlighted the shift that was taking place in city governments which focused more on creating a “good business climate" (1989: 11) and transforming the city “as an innovative, exciting, creative, and safe place to live or visit, to play and consume in” (ibid: 9) than on creating a more socially equal environment (Amin and Graham: 1997).

The consequences of this entrepreneurial vision and the “over-reliance of government on the property industry as the vehicle for growth policy” (Fainstein, 1994: 245) produced a city space defined by “speculative construction markets which mainly relies on: luxury houses, hotels, large-footprint office towers and shopping mall” (Fainstein, 2009: 783). These “bulky buildings do not encourage urbanity” (ibid: 783), nor consider the specificity of each city (Ren, 2008; Moreno, 2008) and once located in a small city context their impacts can be detrimental for its sense of place (Knox and Mayer, 2009). According to Wu and Zhang this way of planning the city has a “narrow social foundation” (2007: 741) as priority is not given to the place amelioration but economic growth (Harvey, 1989). It is vital to open up the city to a broader social foundation and “different set of policies initiatives" (Robinson, 2006: 173), against the "tendency to replicate standardised policies in different areas of the world, regardless of the local economic, social, political and institutional conditions" (Pike, et al: 2006: 15). This means celebrating the specificity of the place as Canzanelli states, the "territory and its potential endogenous resources is the main 'resource' for development, not solely a mere space" (ibid: 35). Understanding its resources and investing in its people are the first step towards a sustainable (small) city.

Ordinary Small Cities

“Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful”

(Schumacher, 1973: 131)

Humanity has entered the urban age. For the first time in history more people live in cities than rural areas, and by 2050 seventy-five percent of the world’s population will be living in cities. Cities with fewer than 100,000 inhabitants welcome a third of the 1.2 billion urban inhabitants, whilst another 0.6 billion live in cities with a population ranging between 100,000 and 500,000 inhabitants. In total, fifty-two percent of the urban population lives in small cities with fewer than half a million inhabitants, and they are expected to see their population increase by 0.5 billion between 2010 and 2015, absorbing therefore forty-five percent of the projected increase in the world urban population (World Urbanization Prospects).

Despite their importance small cities are chronically neglected in urban studies literature: “we don’t yet have to hand wholly appropriate ways to understand what small cities are, what smallness and bigness mean, how small cities fit or don’t fit into the ‘new urban order’, or what their fortunes and fates might be” (Bell and Jayne, 2006:2). But it is not just small cities that are neglected from urban studies as “there are large number of cities around the world which do not register on intellectual maps that chart the rise and fall of global and world cities. They don’t fall into either of these categories, and they probably never will – but many managers of these cities would like them to” (Robinson, 2002: 531). Many city managers of these off-the-map cities may in fact initiate a race for positioning them as world destination. This desire for upward mobility can be very challenging especially for small cities. Beauregard and Pierre report that, “Smaller cities may be continually outbid by the pervasive and enduring images of the leading cities. Resources may be hard to find: new institutions have to be created, experts hired, and democracy bypassed if economic development strategies are to be successful” (Newman and Thornley, 2005: 47). City competition can also trigger in small cities what Gray and Markusen define “would-be cities” syndrome a kind of emulation of the bigger cities’ policies sometimes mixed with extreme parochialism (Bell and Jayne, 2006: 1). It can therefore be difficult for a small city to strike a balance between local and global without falling into excesses.

Robertson’s extensive study on North American small cities emphasises their “strong sense of place and the ‘human scale’ as their unique selling points” (ibid: 8) and underlines that “’big-fix’ solutions rarely work ... in smaller cities. Rather, a continuous series of small-scale organizational, aesthetic/design, and economic improvements that make downtown distinctive from other settings – a strong sense of place – is the foundation for successful downtown development in small cities” (ibid: 9). The studies done on the Canadian small city of Kamloops confirm Robertson’s findings “If smaller urban centres are to prosper and maintain their identities in the face of mass cultural influences and big-box retailing, they need to think critically about notions of scale, space, and place” (Garrett-Petts, 2005: 1). Garrett-Petts’s findings on Kamloops highlight the importance for a small city to celebrate its history, invest in a diverse vital and culturally rich downtown area, and strengthen its connections with the surrounding areas. Planning plays an important role and must generate a strong sense of place, and take advantage of small cities’ size to promote community involvement, “these are the key areas where small cities and their metropolitan counterparts differ in terms of the need for special emphasis, planning, and cultural participation” (ibid: 2). In the small city of Portland, Maine the physical regeneration of the city started with a gradual transformation of the centre, by creating a “pedestrian activity district” animated with unique shops and gradual public space beautification through public art and restoration of the historical heritage (Bell and Jayne, 2006). Portland and Kamloops show that economic development and cultural development cannot be separated in a small city setting. These are important findings as more and more small cities embark on iconic cultural mega-projects such as concert-halls with the intention of creating a boost for the city image and economy without considering their operational costs (Mayer and Knox, 2009). The British journalist Anna Minton states that “smaller interventions, on a more human scale, which are based on a wider set of values than the single-minded ideology of increasing property prices, are more likely to bring with them a more diverse and public spirited culture, which is in tune with local people and create more successful places as a result” (2009: 198). Mayer and Knox’s findings confirm these results and show that small cities benefit more when cultural and creative tools are implemented with greater attention to the community’s needs and become fully integrated within the fabric of the city, so instead of a mega-project it is more effective to create a series of small-scale intervention disseminated within the city, capable to foster a higher street life dynamism (Mayer and Knox, 2009). Small-scale interventions can also have the advantage of being more dynamic and responsive to citizens’ needs and more adaptable to different circumstances.

The biological sciences writer Janine M. Benyus in her book called Biomimicry explains that: “Since scale is one of the main things that separate our technologies from nature’s, it is important to consider what is appropriate, that is, what is receptive to and acceptive of our habitat. [...] A properly scaled human economy or technology allows a diversity of other creatures to thrive” (1997: 292). This is essential for a balanced approach to city making. The economist Schumacher already claimed in 1973: “For his different purposes man needs many different structures, both small ones and large ones, some exclusive and some comprehensive. For constructive work, the principal task is always the restoration of some kind of balance. Today, we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of giantism. It is therefore necessary to insist on the virtues of smallness –where this applies (If there were a prevailing idolatry of smallness, irrespective of subject or purpose, one would have to try and exercise influence in the opposite direction) (1973: 49). The scale of intervention in a small city is a delicate matter that requires aesthetic sensibility, and understanding of the place. But it is also relevant to underline that buildings are not static artefacts; they can adapt and evolve when they are designed to do so and if urban policies allow it. In this regard the sociologist Richard Sennett accuses the current planning of “over-determination” (2007: 290) by “segregating functions, homogenising populations, pre-empting through zoning and regulation of the meaning of the place” (ibid: 292). The city is therefore produced by negation, by impairment of mixing diverse activities, by impeding connections among different city parts, by discouraging buildings’ adaptations for new uses, and by not envisioning flexibility as part of the planning process. This was already clear to Jane Jacobs in 1961 when she advocated for a much more flexible planning system that could enhance density and foster diversity, encourage the coexistence of different activities, and enable small gradual urban evolutions. Jacobs had in mind Manhattan, but these processes are valid for all cities independently of their size and location. The architect Nabeel Hamdi winner of the UN-Habitat Scroll of Honour for his work on Community Action Planning in 1997 confirms Jacob’s findings even though he operated in the context of Developing Countries. He states that good planning enhances connections, “it builds on what we’ve got and with it goes to scale” (2006: xviii), it creates opportunities for change, it facilitates emergence: “the ability to organise and become sophisticated, to move from one kind of order to another higher level of order” (2006: xvii). It means allowing the beginning of lots of small autonomous projects, but also their coordination into a vision a “common sense of shared purpose” (Layard, 2005: 234) which is at the foundation of each society.

For Haque the lack of vision common to many small cities constitutes their biggest risk for successful survival; she states: “Although small cities and towns typically possess a significant amount of determination, energy, and spirit, studies suggest that small cities lack the proper understanding of their strengths and weaknesses and how to undertake economic redevelopment planning” (Bell and Jayne, 2006:9). The conclusion of her research is that “uniqueness is the key and that visioning, again, can produce revitalisation by trading up the small city’s unique selling points” (ibid: 9). It means working with the endogenous resources in formulating an efficient economic strategic plan.

Globalisation promotes the power of one-big-idea but still global forces need to negotiate with national interests, adjust to regional flavours, and then “land” in the space of the city. “The decisions made by politicians at the urban level have the potential to shape the future of the city” (Newman and Thornley, 2005: 1): planning matters (ibid, 2005) and at its base there must be the notion of public interest as the foundation for “equal protection, equal opportunity, public space, and as sense of civic community and social responsibility” (Campbell and Fainstein 2003:13). Small cities must be aware that their sense of place and human scale are the assets in which any good planning needs to invest. This must be directed by a vision capable of creating opportunities for change and emergence with the right scale of intervention.

Ordinary Diverse Cities

“By letting the diversity of life on Earth erode; we smother the well spring of good ideas”

(Benyus, 1997: 292)

Cities can be described in hundreds of different ways: as “dynamical systems operating far from equilibrium” (De Landa, 1997: 28), as “political institutions” (Hirst, 2005: 9), as “facilitators of innovation, production and trade” (O’Sullivan, 2009: 1), as “the most complex products of shared human creativity” (Girardet, 1999: 23). Aristotle, in The Politics says: “a city is composed of different kinds of men; similar people cannot bring a city into existence”. Diversity is the basis of man’s survival, as the philosopher, physicist and environmental activist Vandana Shiva defines it “diversity is our strongest weapon” (2007: 91).

Diversity in small cities must be discovered and acknowledged by investing in its sense of place, its human scale, the human capabilities, the strong social connections, and its relationship with the wider region and with nature. Only when these entities are recognised and connections fostered can a successful economic development take place (Bell and Jayne, 2006; Knox and Mayer, 2009; Garrett-Petts; 2005; Braungart and McDonough, 2009).

Diversity is also at the core of Jacobs’ studies on cities. Natural ecosystems and city ecosystems have fundamental principles in common; they both require diversity and multiple connections to sustain themselves: the more niches for diversity of life and livelihoods in either kind of ecosystem, the greater its carrying capacity for life (1961). Architectural critic Irénée Scalbert defines the world of ecology as consisting of the many “small worlds” (2010: 11). Within a city context these small worlds of ecology are the many different parts, entities which make a city: people, houses, schools, offices, parks, and the city’s vital organs the public space (Jacobs, 1961). The relations of these entities are vital. Urban studies therefore need “to develop creative ways of thinking about connections across the diversity and complexity of city economies and city life” (Robinson, 2006: 126). It means supporting people’s capabilities, allowing space for social and economic “emergence” and cooperation with the entire region, it means creating the right social policies and public space that is conducive to communication and sharing of ideas. “When people freely meet and talk to each other as equals, reveal their differences, display their distinctions, and develop a capacity to act together, they create power” (Goldfarb, 2006: 4). This is the power of ideas, of innovation which is the basis of socio-cultural-economic development (Pike, et all, 2006; Jacobs, 1961). However in order to support innovation people need to participate in the life of society, they need to cooperate and this requires trust (Hirst, 1997; Hamdi, 2009; Amin and Graham, 1997; George, 2010). Trust is a process that takes time to be forged. It requires appropriate policies as The World Development Report states “Greater equity implies more efficient economic functioning, reduced conflict, greater trust, and better institutions, with dynamic benefits for investment and growth” (2005: 3), but also spatial policies capable of protecting public interests over private ones (Peñalosa, 2007). Reinforcing social participation and community can make the difference “between disaster and triumph in the face of economic collapse” (Jackson, 2009: 182). Small cities can have the advantage of having well developed social connections but these ought to be protected and reinforced. Urbanism matters; it is a political act and a form of governance with very long term implications. The way the city is built determines, to a large degree, the quality of life for a very long period in the future (Peñalosa, 2007).

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An Ordinary Small City. An examination on Reykjavík's current and realizable urbanism
London School of Economics
Urban and Regional Planning
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ordinary, small, city, reykjavík
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Massimo Santanicchia (Author), 2011, An Ordinary Small City. An examination on Reykjavík's current and realizable urbanism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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