The new Norwegians


Like other Norwegians of his generation, Oslo architect Geir Haaversen has watched his country’s demographic makeup change profoundly during his adult life. “In the late eighties and nineties, when I went to college, there was one Pakistani guy and that was it. Where I lived, outside Oslo, that was the only family. Now it’s very multicultural. Change for Norway has come quite quickly.”

As the city’s non-native population continues to grow both in size and proportion—by 2030, immigrants and their descendants are projected to account for 50 percent of all residents—it remains to be seen how Oslo will evolve. In spatial terms, it has fared better than a number of its European counterparts, avoiding the poor conditions and isolation that blight many of the continent’s immigrant neighborhoods. As government officials and designers such as Haaversen try to build a healthy foundation for the future, however, the pressing need for more housing, and the increasing tendency for ethnic divisions to echo traditional tensions between the city’s east and west sides, pose significant challenges.

The rise of immigration

Immigration is a major issue throughout Europe, but 
it is playing out very differently across the continent.
 In Oslo, the larger-than-life events of last summer,
 when seventy-seven people were massacred by a right-wing Norwegian angry about his nation’s immigration policies, contrast starkly with the day-to-day
 reality of a city that is generally tolerant of newcomers.

Norway, which has been an independent nation only since 1905, was once a land of net emigration. For decades, it lost a significant portion of its population
to better economic opportunities in North America and elsewhere. Because very few people moved from other parts of the world to replace them, as recently as 1950 only a tiny fraction of the population was non-native Norwegian (with the exception of 
the Sami, an indigenous reindeer-herding population in the north).

Today, the situation looks dramatically different. With its healthy economy (the 1969 discovery of North Sea oil made the country one of the world’s richest), generous welfare state, and reputation for progressiveness and tolerance, Norway has attracted a steady stream of newcomers since the 1970s. By early 2011, immigrants and second-generation Norwegians accounted for 12.2 percent of the country’s total population. By 2060, the government estimates that immigrants and first-generation Norwegians will number between 1 and 2 million, or approximately a quarter of all residents.

Reasons for immigration vary. Approximately 40 percent of those admitted between 1990 and 2009 came for purposes of family reunification; many in this category are foreigners who have married ethnic Norwegians. A quarter consisted of refugees or
asylum-seekers—Norway has one of the highest levels of asylum-seekers per capita among high-income 
countries—with approximately the same number coming for work. (The relative resilience of the nation’s economy throughout the global economic downturn has made it particularly attractive.) Just over 10 percent were admitted for education and other purposes.

Those who come tend to stay. Approximately three-fourths of immigrants who have arrived in
 Norway since 1990 still live there today. Generally speaking, they adapt well to their new home, 
although income, employment, and educational attainment vary greatly according to country of
 origin. In 2009, the employment rate for immigrants was 61.7 percent, compared to 69.7 percent for the general population. First-generation Norwegians tend to be more successful than their parents, with a university enrollment rate higher than the national average.

Native Norwegians’ reactions to immigration have been mixed. A 2009 government survey showed that a clear majority believes that newcomers make
 positive contributions to the country’s cultural life 
and labor market, and that they should have the
 same job opportunities as everyone else. However, 
approximately half also believe that the country should not admit more people, and that integration has worked poorly.

Other signs also point to a conflicted outlook. Stories about migrants and migration appear in the 
national media with disproportionate frequency. Policies have become stricter over the past few years; for example, the passage of new legislation in 2008 led to a dramatic rise in the number of would-be 
immigrants forcibly ejected from the country. The conservative Progress Party has become a powerful force in the country over the past few decades partially because of its strong anti-immigration rhetoric. (The party fared poorly in the fall 2011 elections,
 however, after Anders Behring Breivik’s attacks on 
liberal government workers and on a progressive 
youth camp soured the nation on politics smacking of
 right-wing extremism.)

As in the rest of Europe, much of the debate surrounding immigration centers on issues of race and religion. The increasing numbers of immigrants from countries such as Sweden, Germany, and Poland receive far less attention than those from farther afield. “This is not something that’s spoken much about 
in the Norwegian public sphere,” said Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a professor of anthropology at the
University of Oslo, “but there is a latent racism here which raises its head now and then.” In 2001, the
 murder of a fifteen-year-old Norwegian-Ghanaian 
boy by neo-Nazis shocked the country and led to 
anti-racism policy initiatives. Progress Party officials have made headlines with statements about the dangers of Islam. And the 1,500-page manifesto which Breivik sent to over one thousand e-mail addresses just before carrying out his long-planned attacks is filled with rants against Islam and multiculturalism. In it, he wrote: “I explained to God that unless he wanted the Marxist-Islamic alliance and the certain Islamic takeover of Europe to completely annihilate European Christendom within the next hundred years, he must ensure that the warriors fighting for the preservation of European Christendom prevail.”

Ethnicity, class, and place

With a third of the country’s non-native population, Oslo is the epicenter of immigration in Norway.
 According to government agency Statistics Norway, 64 percent of the immigrants and first-generation Norwegians in Oslo are from Asia, Africa, South and Central America, and Turkey. Almost 20 percent have origins in Western Europe, North America, and Oceania, while 17 percent are from Eastern Europe.

Immigrants from Europe and North America tend to settle in western Oslo, the traditional home of the city’s upper classes, or in recently gentrified areas in the inner east. Other groups have gravitated toward cheaper rents farther out on the eastern fringes of the city. “In the west side of the city,” said Eriksen, “which is middle class—everybody has a little garden with an apple tree and so on—there are very few dark faces, whereas in the more recent eastern suburbs, where you have high-rise apartment blocks and few public facilities, in some areas the proportion of non-whites can be up to 70 percent.” Immigrants and their children from the east side who do well economically rarely move to higher-status neighborhoods on the west side, as would their native Norwegian counterparts.

Popular neighborhood in gentrifying inner east Oslo

Popular neighborhood in gentrifying inner east Oslo

Despite this clear division, however, the city has not experienced the kinds of extreme separation and ethnic segregation that have plagued other
 European immigrant districts, most famously the Parisian suburbs where rioting broke out in 2005 and 2007. One reason for this is that immigrant groups themselves tend to mix rather than moving into separate ethnic or national enclaves. “They’re not that concentrated,” said Siri Sandbu of Husbanken, a 
government agency that deals with housing. “In 
Furuset [a neighborhood on the east side], they have 
the highest number of immigrant populations—almost 50 percent. But you have 160 different nationalities. So even though there’s a high number of 
Pakistani people in Furuset, there are also a lot of 
other nationalities. It’s not like you probably will find in most European cities. For example, in Sweden you can find suburbs full of only Somali people.”

Furuset. Credit: a-lab

Furuset. Credit: a-lab

Studies indicate that Norway’s unique residential market may be partly responsible. Home ownership rates are very high, and the rental market is difficult to break into. What little public housing is available
 (almost exclusively on the east side of the city) tends to be given only to the very poor. This structure can make it difficult for immigrants in Norway to find
adequate housing. As Eriksen puts it, “In the rental 
market it’s very hard for Mohammed Mustafa to rent a room in a house owned by a little old lady.”

As a result, many immigrants buy property as soon as they are financially able. While this leads to overcrowding—Oslo is one of the world’s most expensive 
cities, and immigrants often can’t afford a space big enough to meet their needs—it tends to result in immigrant neighborhoods that are healthier and better-maintained than those in many other European countries. “For those who can match the housing
 market, I think this ownership structure is good,” said Susanne Soholt, a senior researcher at the
Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research who studies immigration and housing, “but for the others it’s not, because there’s not really a
 good alternative.”

Despite the relative health of immigrant areas, however, white flight has become a reality. In recent years, a great deal of media attention has been focused on schools on the east side populated
 almost entirely by non-Nordic children. Although
 some of the exodus can be explained by parents seeking native Norwegian friends for their 
children, Soholt believes that the out-migration in
 these areas is partly natural, as parents of grown
children move closer to the city center. More problematic, however, is the fact that few white Norwegians are moving in to replace them, raising the threat of a segregated city.

“Because I often appear on TV and in newspapers talking about migration,” said Eriksen, “I sometimes get the reaction, why don’t you move to the east side yourself?” In his view, the solution to preventing ethnic division lies in making the east side more 
attractive to all Norwegians, newcomers and natives alike. “We’re going to need a lot of new housing in the city because it’s growing so fast. My view
is, build some sort of nice little bungalows and semi-detached houses on the east side in order to
 attract more affluent people to move there. Get better infrastructure. There are very few attractive
 facilities nearby unless you’re into ice hockey or soccer; if you have other interests you have to take 
the subway to the city center. They don’t have a single movie theater in this valley in the eastern suburbs 
of Oslo where there’s a population of 150,000. Move
 part of the university; build a new campus on the east side. More museums, more prestige—give them a sense of local pride.”

Typical street on the traditionally upper-class inner west side

Typical street on the traditionally upper-class inner west side

Designing for change

One current municipal planning initiative provides a glimpse into how these issues are playing out as the city prepares for the coming decades. The Grorud Valley Action Plan, a joint effort between a number of national and local government organizations, is an ambitious, multifaceted effort to transform Eriksen’s large valley in the east, which is home to
approximately one-fifth of the capital’s population. (If separated from Oslo, it would be the fourth-largest city in Norway.) Here, property values, educational attainment, and income levels are among the lowest in the city, and the major transportation corridors running through have led to problems with pollution and noise. In recent years, low housing prices have lured large numbers of immigrants.

Furuset. Credit: a-lab

Furuset. Credit: a-lab

The government sees the valley as a natural target for absorbing some of the massive population growth expected for Oslo in the coming decades, due to both immigration and an increasing flow of Norwegians moving from other parts of the nation. Because of its high percentage of open space and low-density industrial construction relative to the rest of the city, the government has targeted Grorud
 Valley to help absorb new growth. However, its environmental issues and negative reputation (albeit one that many valley residents claim is exaggerated) need to be addressed first.

As part of the Action Plan, in 2011 a design competition was held to develop a planning program for Furuset, a ’70s-era development in Grorud Valley where the city hopes to add between 1,000 and 2,000 new homes and create thousands of new jobs in the coming years. The goal of the project was to develop a big-picture framework to focus future planning and design efforts. “We’re working with the
 winners to develop different alternatives: for example, if a school should be here or there; different traffic schemes; if there should be so-and-so many houses,” said Erling Ekerholt Saveraas of the Agency for Planning and Building Services, the project
manager for the Furuset area planning effort. Sustainability and public participation have also been major areas of focus.

Although Furuset’s population of 9,000 is 53 percent non-western (among residents under twenty, the figure is 90 percent), Saveraas said that ethnicity was not a significant project driver. I asked him 
if attracting a mix of ethnic Norwegians and immigrants to the area had been an aim of 
the effort. “It may be a goal for the politicians, I don’t know,” he said. “But in the planning project, it’s not a goal we’re working for. I think it’s quite drastic
 to have it as a city planning target. Our goal is building houses and workplaces and making good 
public spaces. It is very important that the new houses and workplaces are attractive and create good local communities, and this may attract different kinds of people. We can’t choose which people will go there.”

From Saveraas’ on-the-ground perspective, the challenges and opportunities facing the valley are more nuanced than media reports and statistics suggest. He sees a great deal of variation among immigrants 
in Grorud Valley—Swedish students, Polish construction workers, war refugees from farther afield, and
 more—and a wide variety of existing conditions within 
the area. “Different parts of the valley have different 
challenges, socially, economically, and environmentally. 
In some areas there are few challenges; in others there are more. So it’s very complex.”

Maximizing interaction

For the design team that won the Furuset competition, careful consideration of demographics, culture,
and history were central to the project. A-lab, the
 Oslo-based architectural practice that led the team 
(in collaboration with firms COWI AS and Architectopia), consciously staffed the project with a number of immigrants. “We are one of the most international offices in Norway,” said Geir Haaversen, a partner at a-lab. “So we said ok, to try to solve this [design challenge], we’ll take a mix of people from all over the world to make a competition team.”

a-lab proposal

a-lab proposal

According to Haaversen, having team members from Bosnia, Portugal, Brazil, Sweden, and other countries proved valuable on a number of fronts. The foreign-born designers had fewer prejudices about Furuset than lifelong Oslo residents, and were able to provide a broader spectrum of ideas about creating much-needed community nodes around institutions such as the local mosque. Finally, it was easier to discuss the project with area residents when the team wasn’t perceived as just “these white Norwegian architects.”

These factors were particularly important due to the team’s determination to base its designs firmly in 
local realities. They spent the early stages of the project
 exploring Furuset and speaking with inhabitants to 
understand the community. “We figured out it’s a lot 
of young new immigrants. They are quite positive. They
 have the biggest mosque in Oslo, and they are very 
open-minded about change,” said Haaversen. “They
 actually want to live at Furuset and be part of the development, and for this to be a nice place to live.”

From the outset, it was clear that public space needed to be a central focus of the design. The existing town, Haaversen said, was characterized by a “lack of good meeting places, no good place to be—like suburbia from the 60s.” His team saw this as
 particularly problematic in an immigrant-dominated 
area. “We see that all the new people that have come, immigrants, they are quite active in building a society. Like the Somalis: they find their cafés and they define places. Norwegians just move to a place and don’t want the same interaction; they just go downtown or elsewhere. But [immigrants] are more, like, stuck up there. It’s a lot of energy that can end up in rootless youth that don’t know where to go. But if we talk to them and try to make good places—that’s what we’re trying to do now.”

a-lab proposal

a-lab proposal

The team’s final proposal is currently undergoing a standard review and consultation process, and will be presented to politicians at the end of the year.
 The plan calls for a large public plaza surrounded by a highly varied, fine-grained mix of residential, commercial, and civic uses. By sprinkling a variety of 
spaces together around a central public area, it aims
 to bring different kinds of people together organically throughout the day as they go about their normal business. Instead of following a conventional planning approach with ground-level retail beneath multistory dwellings, the team followed a “spaghetti”
model, mixing schools, libraries, and other civic functions closely together to maximize interaction.

a-lab proposal

a-lab proposal

Toward an intercultural city

For Andreas vaa Bermann, head of the public architecture and design foundation Norsk Form, the government’s current approach to immigration doesn’t go far enough. He believes that the notion
 of interculturalism could be a helpful starting point for assessing Oslo’s strategies for immigration. “We’re not a multicultural society yet—or rather we’re not an intercultural society. And there is a difference between the two. The multicultural is where we acknowledge the different social and cultural groups, and these different social and cultural groups live by themselves. The intercultural society is where these groups interact to establish a new kind of society. What we have today in Oslo is a kind of multicultural society, but there are borders between different groups.”

Vaa Bermann believes that Oslo needs to develop more creative ways to integrate newcomers from around the world, rather than simply coping with their presence. “I think we have to face the fact of the multicultural city and explore it and handle it in a much more professional way than we do today. Today in a way we ignore it. We see that it happens, but we close our eyes. We don’t plan for it enough as a positive factor for urban development. It’s more of just a handling of immigration.”

Published in Satellite in 2012.