The Oslo experience

The Oslo experience

During the time spent in the Norwegian capital we were able to get in contact with the reality of this port city and to notice how it has been handling the transition process from a Port-city to a Fjord-City, as they themselves describe it.

Radhuset area with Aker Brygge and Tjuvholmen in the back

For the purpose of this research we got in contact with some of the stakeholders in the port-city relation and in the waterfront regeneration operation. More specifically we were able to meet with Mr. Stein Kolsto (SK), from the city urban planning department, who was in charge for the development of the Fjordcity plan. We also met with Landscape architect Ms. Anne trine Hoel and urban planner Mr. Vidar Aa. Fiskum from the Port Authority (PA), both of them work in the urban development department run by Ms. Kathrin Pedersen. The meetings gave us a balanced perspective over the struggles that have happened during the long process and complex negotiations that has implied the ongoing transformation in Oslo waterfront.

The stay in Oslo also allowed a photographic survey of the implied areas of the aforementioned process and the new port terminal in Sydhavna. The view behind the camera gave a new perspective and enhanced some details that we could have missed. Several moments have been captured where we can see the essence of the transition, the risks and the possibilities that lie ahead. This work shows the sensibility it has been developed towards the water and the transitional areas between port and city.

New Sydhavna terminal
New Sydhavna terminal

Following the same process like in Lisbon, we visited the cultural institutions that could contain information about the harbor, its history and the role that plays in city. The visited institutions were the Oslo Museum where the history of the city is explained, and the Maritime Museum where one can better understand the intense relation that this country holds with the sea.

The relation between the port and the city

Institutional level

When we spoke with the stakeholder they all agree that the relation between the port and the city in terms of the different planning agencies is relatively tense. They both comply that there is lack of understanding between them and that every change implies a very intense negotiation. The PA mentioned there is the misconception that the port has considerable financial resources due to the revenues of sold land in recent years. This common belief does not consider the large expenses that implies building the new terminal. On the other hand the urban planning agency regrets the lack of flexibility from the PA and absence of sensibility to some urban issues. This conflict is common in cases where different authorities with territorial management capabilities have to work together. It is always difficult to understand the problems of the other side, but is necessary to reach an agreement in order to proceed with the urban and port improvements.

The relation has evolved and went through different stages. It was explained by SK that between 1982 and 2008 were the most difficult years, since it was when the main negotiation regarding the Fjordcity plan and reorganization of the waterfront took place.

Bjørvika before the Fjordcity plan
Bjørvika before the Fjordcity plan Source:

In the particular context of Oslo we must understand what degree of independence and influence the PA has. As indicated by SK, until 1984 the PA was directly dependent from the central government, after this year they moved under the “municipal umbrella”, but with certain particularities. The PA is the owner of the land which occupies and the economic benefits from the port activities remain in the port economy, therefore the economic resources generated should be used for port development. Regarding its government, the port has a board where representatives from the different levels of power are present, including from the municipality. The issues there discussed would be later taken to the municipal parliament, although, as mentioned by SK, once the initiative is approved in the port board is usually approved by the parliament.

Emotional level

We could conclude that the inhabitants from Oslo do not feel the port as an important symbol for the urban identity. When in the year 2000 the parliament choose the Fjord-city strategy over the Port-city it was clear which element played a greater role in the citizens mindset. There are several explanation to this characteristic. The Norwegian people love the contact with the nature and the landscape, therefore is more or less logic that they would rather be related with natural concept like the Fjord, rather than with the human-made landscape that the port implies. Also, as pointed out by SK, during several decades the port community in Oslo was not so socially active as in other Norwegian cities, where they would voluntarily cooperate with the town in order to provide necessary facilities for the inhabitants. The PA also indicated that the people do not acknowledge the importance of the port in every-day life. The citizens ignore how the goods they consume get to the shops or their houses, so they do not see the meaning of the port or why the city needs one.

Legal frame aspects of the Fjordcity plan

In order to fully understand how the Fjordcity plan works we asked the interviewees about the contracts, with its conditions, and the companies that develop the process.

Daughter companies

The technicians from the PA explained us that the port had different strategies regarding the land selling and management process. This strategy depends of several factors: the dimensions of the area, how many landlords are there, the complexity of the zoning and the presence of port activities. For example in Bjørvika, they created a daughter company in order to manage the process and reduced the risk for the PA, in this case the company is name HAV Eiendom.  They operated in this mode because it was a large complex part of the waterfront, with several landlords and there would not be any more port activities.

In Tjuvholmen we could see a different scenario. The land to sell was not that large, with relatively simple zoning, the PA as single landowner, and there would be no port activities in the future. In this case they sold the land directly to the developer, who granted the construction of the new area according to the municipality concept.

In the areas of Filipstad and Vippetangen is not yet clear which strategy will be followed. The main concern here is the fact there will be port activities in the future. We will know better once the plans are defined and approved by municipal council.

Types of contract

In the Fjordcity plan the municipal authorities have two different roles pending of what type of contract is made. If a “development contract” is made with future developers the municipality will appear as urban planning authority and is allowed by law to negotiate certain demands to allow the rezoning. The infrastructures are fully done by the developers and later transferred to the municipality. These demands increase the price per square meter and are decided based on the built surface in order to ensure a reasonable investment in the public facilities for the new areas, as are roads, schools, green areas, etc. This type of contract is used in the larger developments like Bjørvika.

Other possible option is the “sales contract”. This sort of contract is used in the smaller development. In it the municipality appears as land owner. Since it is a stronger position it allows them to make more demands in the negotiations. The infrastructures are built by the landowner and also managed after they are concluded. In this point it is crucial the negotiation for granting public access to open areas. We could see this type of contract in the Tjuvholmen development.

Tjuvhomen urban development
Tjuvhomen urban development

Fjordcity –  the Havnepromenade

One of the most remarkable features of the Fjordcity project is the Havnepromenade. The idea of considering the waterfront as one single entity comes all the way back from the Aker Brygge architectural competition. This concept has been translated to reality through the creation of a promenade along the entire waterfront, giving a certain unity to the path that extends almost 10 km, crossing areas with very different identities, from marinas, to silos and cranes, to the new Opera. The change in the way how citizens can now enjoy the waterfront is significant. The fact that several of the roads that used to form a barrier between the water and the city are now longer there meant an change. Nowadays we can find new activities in the Oslo fjord, like for example, the new urban beach areas.

Urban beach in Bjørvika
Urban beach in Bjørvika

The path along the waterfront is identifiable thanks to the intervention by the architects MMW, that developed an urban design strategy, with signs, benches and a set of 14 “infopoints”. In these special points we can find information about the place we are visiting and what part of port used to be there, what activities and how it evolved. The “infopoints” was a project developed jointly by the municipal and road authorities, with a collaboration of the PA for the location and the texts explaining the history of the port. An interesting characteristic is the illustrations from the comic book “Krüger & Krogh” from the authors Bjarte Agdestein, Ronald Kabicek og Endre Skandfer, a story that takes place in the port of Oslo in the 1960s. In the illustration we can see the different areas of the port when the shipyards were still working.

Havnepromenade infopoints
Havnepromenade infopoints

Fjordcity yet to come


The area of Filipstad is placed in western part of the waterfront, where we can still find today some industries and warehouses. This is the largest area in the Fjordcity plan and one of the latest to be developed. For this part the intention is to continue the development of Tjuvholmen and Aker Brygge, therefore a mixed-use program with commerce, offices and housing for 5000 persons. It will also include important infrastructure like the new ferry terminal, replacing the existing one.

Although the concept seems clear this area still has no approved masterplan. There have been several points discussed for a long period, like the creation of tunnel for the highway, similar to the one in Bjørvika, that would allow a more fluid relation with the water, but implies an important investment and so far, as pointed out by the PA, is not clear who should be responsible for it. Another conflict point could be the railway areas north of the highway, which are included in the general masterplan as one part to be included in this development. The discussion between all the concerned authorities has been going on since mid-2005, and as indicated by SK, the final version of the Masterplan might have been achieved but it must be approved by the municipal council. Just this weekend were the municipal elections, with a change in the government, therefore we will have to wait until the new government has studied the plan proposal and is able to give the definitive approval.

Filipstad nowadays
Filipstad nowadays


This part of the city is right in the center of the waterfront, between Bjørvika and Aker Brygge, in a very special location, in front of the Akerhus fortress, around which the city was rebuild. Nowadays we find in this area some of the remaining port atmosphere the waterfront once had. There is one functioning silo that could remain as landmark for the future, the Cruise terminal, the port Authority headquarters, the fish market and the Ferry terminal. As said before this is a central part of the waterfront, therefore also of the Fjordcity plan. For this reason it should suffer several changes in the near future, although the planning strategies are still open.

The intention of the municipality is to develop another public attraction, probably a cultural facility like an aquarium. As pointed out this is a very particular area, since is one of the few port working places where we can still see some port activity. For this reason the port is particularly concern about what could happen here.

One of the main discussions is the cruise terminal, as it happens in many other cities. The municipal planning and the heritage authorities are not satisfied with the current location of this infrastructure and would like to have it placed somewhere else. The visual impact of large ships next to the Akerhus fortress is obvious although their presence is temporary. On the other hand it is a very convenient location for the cruise companies since is placed near the main tourist attraction and issue we should not forget the economic impact this industry has for the city. The considered alternative for the cruise terminal would be placing it in Filipstad. The PA explained that in 2010 a survey was made to help the discussion regarding the best place for this facility. So far the decision has not been made yet, and probably with a new municipal government it could take more time than expected.

The ferry terminals are another “hot topic” for this area, as it is for the entire waterfront. It has been decided that there will be two different terminals, following the intentions of the port of having two terminals for the two main destinations (Germany and Denmark). On the other hand is not so clear the financing of the new facilities. The PA insists on finding a self-financing solution, following the general concept of the Fjordcity plan. This solution would imply that the company responsible for the construction and operation of the terminal should have another parallel business related with the terminal, for example a hotel. The municipality, as it was told by the PA, believes that the port has enough resources for developing the terminal by themselves, without tying the project with another private investment that could limit the public use of the area. This is a complex issue since through these infrastructures a significant percentage of the port cargo arrives to Oslo, therefore is not just a matter of passenger but also a logistic planning issue.

When we visited Vippetangen we could see that the feeling is very different from other parts of the waterfront. This particular area is crucial for the waterfront since it brings a certain diversity to the plan and allows a different kind of activities, like fishing. The PA has insisted in keeping this area with the original identity to show the people the port milieu. In order to reach these goals they have improved the urban design with especial attention to details.

This complex place is one of the most interesting areas in the future of Fjordcity and its solution will require further negotiation and a special sensibility towards the existing Genius Loci. Recently, an architectural competition for this area was made. As far as we know there is still no outcome, but it reveals that there is an ongoing debate about it. There are key decisions to be made that will determine the future of the area, like the cruise terminal and the ferry terminal. For all these reasons is worth paying attention to what could happen since it could be another good example of waterfront intervention.

Image of the port

The port in Oslo, as said before, is not seen as a key identity element for the city. Over the past years the PA has been developing a public relation strategy that could help the people to relate with the port. Once a year the port hosts an open doors day when the people can go to the port and get to know better how it works. This is one of the main strategies pointed out in the “ESPO code of Practice on societal Integration of Ports”. Is an event that we see in many other ports and helps to trigger the curiosity of the local inhabitants on how a port in the XXIst century works.

In the city we have seen other elements that also help to explain the port. The aforementioned MMV project explains the history of the port in a friendly way, particularly for youngsters. In other level, in the Maritime Museum we also find a part of the exhibition dedicated to explain the port with several interactive tools.

Another event that we could witness during the time spent in Oslo was the city´s marathon. For this sport venue the port was also participant and allowed the race to cross a small container area placed south from Bjørvika, where in the future the Fjordcity plan will conclude and the boarder with the port Area will be placed.

Oslo Marathon between containers
Oslo Marathon between containers

The PA has developed different studies and guidelines worth mentioning. Particularly important are the ones related with the port industrial heritage and the aesthetic guidelines. Regarding the heritage issue the port did an important study of the existing old cranes and their characteristics. Unfortunately this study did not persuaded the PA to keep the cranes and use them as identity elements that could potentiate the image of the port among the citizens.

The new aesthetic guidelines for the port terminals is an important initiative to ensure a better coexistence between the port and the city. It is very relevant since it could help to improve how the port terminals are seen from the outside, but also for the working environment for the staff. These guidelines should develop a cooperation with professionals from different fields that until now were not the usual collaborators from the PA´s. For example there could be cooperation with artists, in order to improve the image by using certain color combinations or lighting schemes. During the meeting with the PA it was mentioned that there was the intention to recover the aesthetic quality of industrial buildings and areas, as we could see in infrastructures from the XIXth and early XXth centuries. In order to reach this goal they had started to collaborate more often with architects instead of leaving the responsibility to industrial engineers who could lack the aesthetic sensibility to make the wanted improvements.

Finally, the PA is collaborating with the daughter companies and municipalities to develop the buffer areas that will constitute a transition between urban and port areas. This is probably one of the last points to be developed from the Fjordcity plan, but is crucial in order to allow coexistence. For this issue they have been working with different alternatives, modifying the initial masterplan building densities and programs to deal with acoustic pollution issues that might come once the project is finished.

Personal opinion

The time spent in Oslo was very useful to get in contact with the Scandinavian reality. In southern countries we have very often an idealized vision from northern cities and as we have seen the port-city relation is always complex, independently from the context. What we could observe is that in the case of Oslo the authorities were able to go beyond the particular interests of each institution and, through an intense negotiation, they were able to find a win-win solution. The Fjordcity plan implies a complex urban transformation with several powerful stakeholders. The process allowed them to improve the urban quality, giving a waterfront for the city and at the same time improve the port facilities and make them more efficient. One of the most remarkable features of the whole process was that the port and the city were able to do it using a self-financing scheme without major public investment, except from the initial expenditure in the Bjørvika highway tunnel paid by the central authorities.

This case is a good example in terms of efficient application of the private investment to get a general benefit for the city. Although it is a slow process due to its complexity, and that for some politicians it should have been done already, we could see that it was possible to get very positive results.

When we see the whole process is obvious that since is fully market led there might be a risk of a real estate bubble. Also is very exposed to the evolution of the private investment flow, which is also connected to the national and international economy. This fact can be determinant if we consider that Norway is relatively exposed to the evolution of the oil prices. In case the oil prices diminishes it could lead to a decrease in the private investment, hence slowing down the waterfront regeneration process. It is important to notice that the plan has a certain flexibility since the port areas to regenerate also have working industries, with contracts that will end in the next years and/or with new short-term contract that could also be extended if necessary. This flexibility ensures a constant activity in the waterfront and prevents the creation of urban voids without value for the city or the port, that later could degrade, damaging the image of the city and the port.

Sørenga  urban development with the Barcode project in the back
Sørenga urban development with the Barcode project in the back

In the argument regarding the ferry terminals, we would think that for the city could be a major advantage to have one infrastructure since, as mention by SK in the interview, the impact in the traffic and the environment could be reduced and better managed in one single facility. We understand that in terms of maritime management it might be easier if we can divide the traffic in two terminals, especially if we already have the majority of the infrastructure built. Since the discussion was already settled, the city will have to find the better solution for coping with this issue.

The cruise ship industry is one of the main challenges for port cities worldwide. It is very difficult to manage the arrival of thousands of passengers to the city in a very short time and also the visual impact of the cruise ships. However, the economic gains that this industry brings to the city is important and the location of the terminal is crucial for the success as cruise destination. Also if Oslo is a maritime city the presence of ships is inevitable. The visual impact they produce is difficult to palliate, in best case scenario, an agreement regarding the ship berth calendar could be achieved as so an specific monument impact tax could be developed to make the industry itself responsible for the maintenance of the monument that they might be affecting.

In general terms, as we have seen, is a very positive intervention. We could find few aspects to criticize, but for example, the fact that from almost 50 cranes we only see 3 nowadays it could be interpreted as a missed opportunity for a better identification between the citizens and its port. The remaining cranes could have been kept as port industrial heritage elements in order to establish them as a memory of the port in the waterfront. This could later on be developed as a “port heritage enhancing plan” in order to provide the right context for these cultural elements, including specific landscape architecture and urban design interventions.

The three remaining cranes in Filipstad
The three remaining cranes in Filipstad

The social integration of the project could perhaps be also criticized, if we consider that one of the main triggering factors was a study where it was explained that the people with the worst living conditions lived in the center of Oslo. If we analyze this issue in detail one could say that the living conditions for these people, since the study was made in the 1980´s, have improved significantly. However the general feeling when walk around Oslo’s new waterfront is that is strongly gentrified. On the other hand, when we see the process as a whole, we understand that this is a “necessary evil”. Building in the waterfront in general terms is expensive when compared with solid ground. Besides this issue, we must not forget that the sold land and built neighborhoods carry in the price the investment made in the new port terminals and public facilities. When we look at the overall process we could say that the main social gain is the fact that now all the city´s inhabitants can access the waterfront and get a better contact and view with the Fjord.

We could learn many things from the Fjordcity plan and the Oslo experience, among them the constant negotiation process with positive outcomes, the ability to balance the public and private interests, the urban strategies from the port, or the fact that the stakeholders and architecture offices were able to give the waterfront a certain unity and coherence allowing at the same time a diversity that enriches the whole waterfront promenade experience.

Oslo is an important case for the investigation and a positive example for Lisbon. The participant stakeholders were able to answer to the challenges posed by the process and improve the port and the city. Oslo does not have the same intensity in the port-city relation, since most of the heavy port activities are outside the main urban core, but they have accomplished a positive transition process and are in the way for a balanced coexistence model.