Lessons from Iceland: What the tiny country teaches us about building better places

From its practical building materials to its magical nighttime skies, Iceland honors natural and built environments, and celebrates the challenges of place.
From its practical building materials to its magical nighttime skies, Iceland honors natural and built environments, and celebrates the challenges of place.

For those following this series over the last few weeks, it should be no surprise that I believe in the value of visiting contrasting places — divorced from the familiar — in order to read aspects of the landscape: shelters, wheels, weather, landforms and light. These qualitative observations provide the basis for our urban dialogues, and to my mind, give them sustenance.

I like to travel with purpose: First, for visual inspiration, and second, to inform my professional practice regarding settlements and cities. I found fodder for both information and inspiration on a recent trip to Iceland — amid the lava fields and the contemporary accounts of renewable energy and the epic stories of settlement dating back little more than 1,000 years.

In the landscapes and small towns, and in the resurgent capital of Reykjavik, Seattle's sister city, Icelandic scenes and stories transcend nature, culture and the built environment. In the imagery of these places, we see scaled expressions of urban settlement and transport, both past and present, including dramatic examples of humans engaging the raw elements of nature.

Others have described how the legendary sagas that help define the country’s national identity rarely focus on the visual surroundings, centering instead on the saga of human survival. As a modern supplement, here is my more place-oriented summary of lessons learned from Iceland’s interplay of the natural and built environments, including the human capacity to adapt to the opportunities and constraints of geography.

(To supplement the limited introduction to Iceland's sense of place that follows, I urge readers to consult a wealth of available information about other, equally relevant aspects of the country, such as an atmosphere nearly free of pollutants and the successes of sustainablegeothermal energy — not to mention the long, dramatic history of colonization, postwar independence, emergence from poverty and contemporary reinvention after the 2008 financial crisis. This reinvention was embodied by the remarkable success of Reykjavik’s unique Mayor, Jón Gnarr.)

1. Measure urban sustainability by the clarity of the sky at night.

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The legendary Northern Lights dominate the Icelandic evening. Why not use clarity of the night sky as a new measure of a city's sustainability?

2. Encourage minimalism that blends with the natural landscape.

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A small church and outbuilding on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula honor natural surroundings by their simplicity and scale.

3. Invite fusion businesses and food trucks into the urban setting.

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A branch of Copenhagen’s cutting edge Laundromat Cafe and a contemporary food truck show that Reykjavik embraces these popular worldwide urbanist trends.

4. Integrate retail and sidewalk life.

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Streetside shopping animates this sidewalk in Reykjavik.

5. Use building color to make a statement in all seasons.

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In Stykkishólmur, this iconic, cheerful red offsets the grey and chill of winter.

6. Champion practical building materials that remain consistent with tradition.

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Where native trees are scarce and light is variable (short in winter, long in summer), colorful corrugated iron cladding has replaced turf, stone and concrete as the dominant building material in Reykjavik.

7. Make monuments from simple materials that blend with the surroundings.

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In Borgarnes, this rock sculpture, a symbol of human significance, echoes the surrounding nature.

8. Use nature (in this case an iconic city pond) as part of the urban fabric.

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In Reykjavik, the historic town and a modern city hall frame Tjörnin, the best-known pond in Iceland.

9. Don't forget to the power of clouds.

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Iceland's unrivaled cloud formations are an ethereal backdrop everywhere you go, softening this man-made hardscape.

To fully understand cites, we should return to places where human settlement still stands in awe of larger forces, and view the nascent built environment with discernment and care. My short, yet fundamental journey to Iceland — largely beyond the echo chambers of placemaking and policy — was a primer on the very underpinnings of human movement, settlement and consequent urbanization.

This post first appeared in similar form on The Atlantic Cities.

Thanks particularly to Mark Johnson of Civitas, whose proud Icelandic heritage gave me a crash course in Iceland that fostered a much keener eye. Images composed by the author in Iceland.

Click on each image for more detail. © 2009-2013 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chuck Wolfe

Chuck Wolfe

Chuck Wolfe provides a unique perspective about cities as a London-based urbanist writer, photographer, land use consultant and former Seattle land use and environmental attorney.