Akureyri has around 17,000 inhabitants. It feels somewhat larger however, because as the “Capital of the North” it serves as a base for much of northern Iceland, as well as travelers. The owner of my guesthouse in Reykjalið later told me that people who live up to 150 kilometers away will commute there for supplies and other amenities. From Reykjalið (about an hour and a quarter away), he travels to Akureryi atleast once per week. This status as a regional base is reflected in the amount of shops, restaurants and amenities found in town.
After my brief weekend in Reykjavik, coming to Akureryi revealed several trends in Icelandic town planning. In both towns, there are successful, clearly defined main streets. Although the architecture along these streets may not be as picturesque as in many other towns, various strategies make them highly utilized. Sidewalks are wider than automobile lanes. Car access is allowed, but controlled. The street has gentle turns, which naturally keeps driving speed slower. Car access is not continuous but broken after several blocks by plantings. I can imagine this allows for things such as localized deliveries to businesses, but dissuades through traffic from choosing this street. Programmatically the street is very varied, and outdoor furniture and seating is common.
Another similar element in both cities is the underutilization of the waterfront as a public space. Many Icelandic harbors are functioning as a fishing port, but adjacent areas are underdeveloped. In both locations the main pedestrian street runs parallel to the waterfront only a few blocks away, but no continuity is created. In Reykjavik, for example, large towers have started to be built that cut off the rest of the city from the harbor. A pleasant although windy path runs right by the water, but along the adjacent road car rental places, fast food restaurants and gas stations are predominant. In Akureyri, the pier and waterfront area is very industrial and inaccessible, despite it being the main access point for large cruise ships and the location of various craft and art stores/centers. Both areas have amazing views and have a great deal of untapped potential. New, but now largely stalled plans for the waterfront in Reykjavik start to address this, but more on that in a later post.
Akureyri is located at the head of a fjord and along the foothills of large mountains. The topography here is much more extreme that in Reykjavik. The Akureyri church, one of Sameulsson’s basalt inspired creations located near the main street, capitalizes on the topography and creates a dramatic outlook. I quite enjoyed seeing this spatial configuration become a social space as it was appropriated in a funny way. One day while I was there, a group of young Icelandic teens (dressed all in fluorescent spandex) had set up a large “FINISH” sign at the top of the large church stairs. They were playing the Rocky theme song, cheering on people as they came up the stairs and had a water table set up at the top.
The main social space is the public pool. Families, elderly people and young people all share the space. The sizable complex includes multiples pools, hot tubs (all heated by geothermal water) and water slides. On a 50 degree day, people sit in the pools for long whiles talking, before going right back into the locker room. Adjacent to the pool area there is a gym, a large play area featuring picnic tables, swings, a bounce house, and scaled down versions of Akureyri buildings.