Iceland’s Urbanity: Embracing its Environment

In addition to visiting Singapore this summer I had the opportunity to holiday in Iceland. With a population of roughly 323,000 people and an overall population density of 3 people per square km across the entire country, also known as Europe’s least dense country, Iceland hardly comes to mind as an example of model urbanism. After spending a few weeks in urban Singapore I also couldn’t help but note all the differences between the two island countries: Asian vs. European; hot vs. cold; the Equator vs. the Arctic Circle; 12 hours of sun year round vs. nearly 24 hours of sunlight in the summer; multi-cultural vs. 93% Icelandic; density vs. space. Even so, with its modest sized capital region of Reykjavik with 209,000 people, and its second city of Akureyri with 18,000 people, Iceland’s unique natural environment combined with its resilient and creative population has provided excellent examples urbanism from a people which whole heartily embraced their drastic climate and built better cities.

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A mural in Husavik against the backdrop of a day too stormy for whale watching and Reykjavik from above

Upon my first view of Reykjavik from the tower of its Hallgrimskija Church, I was stuck by the array of colorful buildings that so beautifully contrasted against the backdrop of gray skies. Even though we visited in the height of summer, I could see how these shades must bring life to the city in the darkness of winter. While other urban writers have also noted this use of color as one of Iceland’s “lessons for building better communities,” I couldn’t help but think of so many other places where colorful buildings are common place. In particular in tropical climates that commonly use lighter colors also for reflective purposes along side various bright almost neon colors came to mind. The difference in Iceland to me was that these cities almost purposefully interspersed bits of colors into their urban form, colors that compliment it’s often gray skies, such as mustard, dark red, blue, turquoise, and orange.

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Hallgrímskirkja, Akureyrarkirkja and Blönduóskirkja

At the other end of the building spectrum, but equally important in defining Iceland’s urban fabric, I noticed monumental, mostly gray cement, modern churches across the country defining small and large urban areas.  My three favorite churches pictured above include Hallgrímskirkja in Reyjkavik, designed by State Architect Guðjón Samúelsson in 1937, but not completed until 1986.  Its design is said to resemble basalt lava flows common in Iceland’s landscape. Akureyrarkirkja in Akureyri was also designed by Samúelsson, and carries on the basalt theme with sharper lines. It was completed in 1940. Blönduóskirkja in the small town of Blönduós is less famous than the previous churches, but its dramatic curves and cut outs were designed by Dr. Maggi Jónsson and consecrated in 1993.  It also makes reference to Iceland’s geography as it is said to resemble an erupting volcano.

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Pedestrian plazas in Reykjavik

Beyond the buildings in Iceland’s cities,  the country’s urban streets also embraced the environment by inviting people outside to stroll, sit, or eat year round. In both Reykjavik and Akureyri I noticed pedestrian plazas and streets that were filled with people on sunny days.  To make the spaces more inviting one plaza near a popular coffee shop had large communal benches or platforms inviting people to share the space.  Another pedestrian and biking street had a temporary display of children’s artwork.

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A table at a hot dog stand and donuts from a food truck, both in Reykjavik

The street food scene in Iceland uses many topologies for food vendors, including typical European sidewalk cafes, food trucks and stationary stalls with tables and chairs, all drawing people outside.  My favorite was a hot dog stand with special high-top tables, designed to hold your hotdogs. Although it was an inviting Icelandic summer day of 60 degrees fahrenheit during our outdoor eating adventures, these same vendors remained open year round. The year round popularity of these vendors was evident when we watched a travel show on Iceland in winter, that featured the same hot dog stand with a line in the middle of the night.

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Arctic Thyme and an array of flowers at the Akureyri Botanical Gardens

Finally one of my unexpectedly favorite parts of Iceland’s cities were their botanical gardens.  Given the extreme lack of light in Iceland’s winter and almost constant daylight in summer, in addition to its stormy and windy conditions I was quite curious about exactly what types of plants could thrive in such a place. After driving through the rural parts of the island we noticed almost a complete absence of trees and that the only crop harvested seemed to be hay for livestock. However upon a closer look there were actually a wide variety of plants growing across Iceland’s volcanic soil, many of which we saw up close at the Reykjavik and Akureyri Botanical Gardens. Akureyri Botanical Garden is also one of the northern most botanical garden. From its impeccable care, originally tended to by women of the city in 1910, it is evident that the city takes much pride in sharing their unique arctic landscape.

Despite my preconceived ideas of Iceland as a sparsely populated nation with a harsh climate, I left with a great admiration for how the urban fabric of Iceland’s cities and towns embraced its Arctic environment through a celebration of native flora in their gardens, geographic formations in architecture, gray weather and sunshine through their colorful buildings, and pedestrian friendly streets.  It made for a delightful vacation to visit a place which faces such a harsh climate and geography with such creativity and appreciation for their surroundings.

All photos were taken by the author.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Iceland’s Urban Art and Design Details | Encountering Urbanization

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