Oslo's Sørenga district
Takes time to get things started
“Many people have spoken out strongly in favor of the building of a brand new urban district here on the Sørenga peninsula, but you have to rely on your gut instinct,” says Elisabeth Toth, founder and owner of the coffeehouse chain Evita. She opened her third location on the outskirts of Sørenga in 2012. At that time, the area was just a building site.
“I got in early,” she says. “Perhaps a little too early. There had been a lot of talk about developing the area for many years, but when I heard about what was actually going on, I felt what could only be described as a chill go up my spine. It was a conviction I have maintained, even on those gray, quiet days, which we have experienced a lot of. I am convinced that this will be Oslo’s new Aker Brygge district, but it’s all about timing and patience.”
What has she been waiting for? “For everything to be in place,” Toth says. “Residential blocks and outdoor spaces. And for the people of Oslo to wake up one morning and see just how beautiful it is.”
She has reason to smile. The starting gun was fired last June when the city’s politicians opened the Havnepromenaden walkway, which is the “glue” in the Fjord City project. Then the doors were opened to a new seaside resort with a beach and bathing piers, and people began flocking in. Social media is awash with updates: #Sørenga #Oslove.
A fast growing capital creates opportunities
The Sørenga peninsula stretches a good way out into the fjord in the Bjørvika area, and it is part of Oslo’s urban fjord development initiative. The Norwegian capital is one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe, a fact that has not escaped the attention of planners and property developers, resulting in several new urban districts being built along the seafront and in other locations.
“It’s been a massive undertaking to develop such a unique area,” says Espen Pay. “The transformation is historic.” Pay has been involved in the project since 2004, first as an adviser to Oslo Port Authority subsidiary HAV Eiendom, and then as manager of Sørenga Utvikling. Sørenga bought the latter from Oslo Havn KF for NKr940 million, a record price at the time.
Sørenga’s principal aim has been to create a good and secure residential area with 90% given over to the building of homes and 10% to the construction of business, recreational, and public spaces. The idea was to make Sørenga, given its location away from the center of Oslo, a more attractive and enjoyable proposition than other developmental areas in Bjørvika.
“We spent a lot of time deliberating over what concept we should go for,” Pay says. “We had to identify where would be the best place to live, at the same time as creating an attraction and a destination.”
A result of a competition and four architectural firms
An architectural competition was announced in which participants were asked to sketch out a community that would be both good to live in and good to visit. Around 50 proposals were submitted.
Total investments: Approx. NKr5 billion (€500 million)
No. of apartments: 746
No. of workplaces: Approx. 200
Complete: By the end of 2016
Prizes: Nominated for City prize, awarded by Norsk Eiendom, a tradeassociation for Norways’s leading real estate companies
“The solution we chose featured a block structure with a central park. Four firms were selected and were tasked with developing two blocks each: LPO, Jarmund/Vigsnæs architects, the Kari Nissen Brodtkorb architecture partnership, and MAD architects. Each firm was afforded considerable flexibility in their designs, but they were required to bear two specific aspects in mind: the Havnepromenaden walkway and the requirement to use the same type of brick for all frontages.
“This created harmony and uniformity,” Pay says. But not everyone agrees. Some say the architecture is uninspiring and monotonous, the brickwork is too light, or on the contrary, too dark. It has also been said that Sørenga could be any old town in the world and that it lacks any particular character. Some feel that blocks and town spaces have been sited incorrectly in relation to light and wind conditions and that Sørenga will be a “ghost town” during the winter as 750 apartments are inadequate to guarantee sufficient liveliness.
Despite such objections, the development has been hailed a success. Public disputes about heights, volumes, and designs have fallen by the wayside. Progress has been good. A school is being planned, two kindergartens have been completed, and the project has been given a helping hand in the form of some successful short-term investments. All this has taken place in the space of 10 years, a mere nanosecond in terms of urban development.
A new city within a city
“In the plan, we were clear and unambiguous about the elements and qualities that are important to the community,” says Ellen S de Vibe, Urban Development Manager and Director of the Planning and Building Department of Oslo Municipality. “Magnificent public spaces, the Havnepromenade walkway, bathing areas, and the parks on Kongsbakken and the area around Operaen, which shall be developed in the future. The development formula, with a single developer in charge, has been successful. It’s important that the participants in processes show mutual respect for each other’s roles. And this is something I think we’ve managed to achieve, backed up by good support from City Hall.”
Bård Folke Fredriksen, a councillor with responsibility for urban development, points to how the Fjord City vision is becoming a reality. “By combining housing, restaurants, and cafés with culture and experiences, it has become a new city within a city,” he says. “The record-breaking visitor numbers to the resort show that the Norwegian people put great value on the beach space available to them.”
He does not believe that the area is in danger of becoming a ghost town. “When new urban districts are developed, it’s important that squares and social meeting points are also developed,” Fredriksen says. “The initial stages must feature public-centric elements such as retail services, cultural opportunities, and food outlets in order to ensure a good quality of life and living environments. In Bjørvika and Sørenga, the municipality has designated the quayside as a public area in order to guarantee public access,” he says.
De Vibe always cycles through Sørenga on her way back home from work and delights in what she sees in the resort. “I hear Polish, English, North Norwegian, and Swedish,” she says. “I see families with children, young people, and lots of adults like myself. I’m delighted that we’ve developed such a large area into a water park.”
Although the place pulsates and sizzles with the sound of many tongues, the words that best sums up Sørenga is exclusive. Prospective buyers can expect to pay NKr100,000 per square meter for an apartment with a view of the fjord. At the same time, Oslo is also experiencing rapid growth. However, researchers are expressing a note of caution about the challenges associated with living conditions and income disparities. Is fjord development for the rich and well-heeled a defensible policy?
“Oslo Municipality is doing everything in its power to ensure that a wide selection of housing is available in all parts of the city,” Fredriksen says. “The Havnepromenaden walkway and the resort are magnificent public areas that the whole city can enjoy.” Fredriksen goes on to mention that other places in the city are also being developed, including Hovin, where business areas are set to be transformed into housing and upwards of 30,000 new apartments built.
Erling Dokk Holm, an associate professor at the Oslo School of Management, says we are running the risk of producing a divided city. He talks about property developers and real estate agents who know what house buyers with deep pockets want, and says developers build accordingly to meet those requirements. The choice of gray tile frontages for Sørenga was no accident. The inspiration came from places such as Ullevål Hageby, one of the most sought-after residential areas in Norway.
“In retrospect, we could say that projects such as these, the ones we see at home here in Norway and ones we know well from other places, seem homogeneous and characterless,” Holm says. “They have been earmarked for a particular segment of buyers. But this type of residential area is in demand. Sørenga is what we want.”
Summer and winter here are like day and night
“There is a lot of good architecture that isn’t necessarily very surprising or varied,” Holm says. “I think that the idea of variety can, at times, go a little awry. Look at areas such as Torshov, Frogner, and Grünerløkka. These have apartment buildings and blocks that are comparatively identical.” What happens to these fjord-side towns during the winter when no one wants to windsurf or go canoeing? “Not much,” he says. “There isn’t much life in Sørenga once the summer has come to an end. Life in the town is very much dependent on the weather, and I’m OK with that.”
Out on the edge of the Sørenga peninsula, Elisabeth Toth serves more coffee to her customers. Not only does she run an espresso bar in this new urban area, she lives there as well. She first bought an apartment that she has just recently sold and will soon be moving into a larger home.
“There are two seasons here, summer and winter, and the two are like day and night,” she says. “You have to think strategically and build up a buffer during the good times. For me, it’s about much more than just coffee. I want to be involved in creating new places, and I like the idea of being one of the pioneers at Sørenga.”
By Helle Benedicte Berg
Published: August 16, 2017