The Dominion Post
Oslo: green and beautiful
Richard Madden isona mission to discover the essence of sustainable living on the green streets of the Norwegian capital.
I’m standing on the summit of a giant iceberg, gazing out over a Norwegian fjord. My mouth is wide open and my eyes are staring wildly as I clutch the sides of my face with my cupped hands. For a mad moment I wonder whether to let rip with a piercing scream. But good sense prevails, and I decide against it. Perhaps my pantomime mimicry of The Scream, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s 1893 masterpiece with this same fjord in the background, is not in the best taste.
This is my first visit to Norway’s capital. The ‘‘iceberg’’ under my feet is, in fact, the Italian marble of Oslo’s spectacular opera house, opened in 2008. Its cubist geometric exterior and roof have added a massive public space to the newly redeveloped waterfront looking out over the fjord itself, and the sparkling glass and aluminium of the adjacent Munch museum, which opens next year.
Despite the dazzling white under my feet and the cloudless electric blue of the sky, I’m thinking green.
Oslo is the holder of the European Green Capital Award 2019 and I’m wondering what precisely this means in practical terms. After all, what makes a ‘‘green’’ city? Is it about air quality, CO2 emissions, sustainable food production, pedestrianisation, enlightened public transport policies, electric cars?
The city’s waterfront has been transformed over the past decade particularly around Bjorvika, east of the centre, where I am now. The city feels like it has been reconnected with its soul after decades of shipyard construction, industry and traffic had created a barrier between the city and the waterfront where Viking settlers established the first agricultural communities in the seventh century.
Traffic density has been significantly reduced by a road tunnel under the harbour. Soon there will be an uninterrupted, pedestrianised promenade dotted with expansive green spaces – and even a beach – stretching for more than nine kilometres around the headlands adjacent to the water. The inner fjord, once so polluted, has been dredged and lobster-friendly artificial reefs added so the water quality is classified as clean. The Sorenga Seawater Pool, in an area once blighted by freight containers, is a popular summer hang-out. In high summer, it is visited by 30,000 people a day.
From where I am standing, I can clearly see the forested escarpments that surround the city and the Holmenkollbakken ski jump, which featured in
the 1952 Winter Olympics and numerous World Ski Championships since. It’s a reminder that two thirds of Oslo is made up of forest or green spaces.
Exploring the city centre later in the day, I am immediately struck by how relaxing it feels. The retro, unhurried atmosphere is enhanced by the yesteryear electric trams as I stroll up the famous boulevard of Karl Johans gate towards the Royal Palace and past the Grand Cafe, where the playwright Henrik Ibsen used to eat lunch and where his friend, Munch, is said to have offered to swap his painting The Sick Girl for 100 steak dinners. His offer was turned down.
I also take a relaxing 20-minute ferry ride from the city centre to the Bygdoy peninsula and the Viking Boat museum, where my view of the Vikings shifted up a gear from mild repulsion at their infamous ‘‘Beserker’’ orgies of rape and pillage to an admiration for their incredible craftsmanship, a view reinforced when I visited the Historical Museum and its new exhibition Vikingr – New Viking Age, with its exquisite artefacts of gold- and silverwork, chain mail and helmets, and weapons and woodwork.
I had also enjoyed another side of Oslo’s green lifestyle earlier that morning, when I joined a group of office workers on the harbourside at 7.30am. Clambering down the iron steps of the harbour wall, we were greeted by a bearded young Norwegian called Paal as we boarded the floating log cabin moored alongside. Quickly changing into my swim gear and handing Paal my phone for video purposes (proof of macho credentials), I gritted my teeth and dived in.
The shock was intense, but we were all soon grinning from ear to ear and whooping loudly in delight. It was then that our real objective was realised as we squeezed together into the welcoming warmth of the on-board sauna. Breaking the ice at a party had never been easier and we were soon chatting like old friends as our strange craft puttered out into the fjord for a journey around the bay.
Finding myself waxing lyrical about Oslo’s green credentials, I was surprised to discover my
newfound friends a little more sceptical. First I told them about my encounter with Tron, a taxi driver I had flagged down the previous day. Tron had told me how the city’s pollution problem had improved dramatically over the past few years.
‘‘There are now 38,000 electric cars in Oslo, including this taxi, and 50 per cent of car sales last year were electric cars,’’ he said. ‘‘The objective is to make the city centre free of private cars, and this is happening because of the reduction in tax for electric cars. The servicing is cheap and the brakes are better. Ruter, the Norwegian bus company, has ordered 100 buses this year.’’
My companions were not entirely convinced. ‘‘It’s all very well having all these electric cars, but the materials – the batteries, for example – are very unecological,’’ one said. ‘‘There’s a shortage of charging points, parking is expensive and we need to think more about the underwater environment when we develop the waterfront.’’
‘‘Those huge cruise ships shouldn’t be allowed anywhere along the waterfront,’’ another said.
Our conversation reminded me of an entry in my Oslo guidebook. ‘‘Many Norwegians moan about their country. But criticism is only accepted when it’s Norwegians doing the complaining.’’
Bearing this in mind, I threw back a few statistics about water quality, the fact that the Breeam certification (the world’s leading sustainability assessment method for environmental building standards) is used for all new-builds in Oslo and that the last of the harbour cruise liners is changing from bio-gas to electric later this year. My companions greeted this with a few sceptical raised eyebrows, but overall they seemed happy to accept my arguments.
Back on dry land, I tried one of the new electric kickscooters that can be rented from the roadside using a simple app, and which, alongside bicycles, are part of Oslo’s revolution in city transportation methods. After a few initial wobbles, I began to get the hang of it and later saw everyone from construction workers to pinstripe-suiters and even a policeman using them.
I’d also learnt of another green innovation, an urban farm called Losaeter on reclaimed land, which was once an ancient grain field near the waterfront. Made up of co-operatives, including the Flatbread Society and the Future of Food collective, Losaeter is not only about vegetables, it teaches about sustainable meat, home baking, and is a revolution in communal living.
‘‘We are reviving the communal aspect of food, lost craft skills, and helping people realise the importance of looking after the soil and how important it is to reduce waste,’’ one farmer said.
‘‘Losaeter is also an information hub on sustainable growing and the importance of insects, bees and biodiversity.’’
Even my hotel, the recently opened Clarion Hub in downtown Oslo, an 800-room, hi-tech business, conference and tourist hotel opposite the central station, is part of the food revolution. The infectiously cheerful Andreas Capjon, who runs Losaeter took me up on to the roof, with its panoramic views over the Sentrum.
‘‘Roofs are a scandalously underutilised space,’’ he told me as I gazed out over the future of urban farming.
‘‘Soon we will be growing all the hotel’s green produce on site. There will also be beehives up here.’’
If Munch were alive today, he would be contemplating painting The Smile rather than The Scream. – Sunday Telegraph