NORTANA seminar brings distinguished guests from Oslo
America’s Norwegian teachers gather in North Dakota for annual conference
The Norwegian American
Each fall, members the Norwegian Researchers and Teachers Association of North America (NORTANA) meet up for Norgesseminaret (the Norway Seminar). It is the national gathering for those of us teaching Norwegian language, literature, and culture in the United States, where we share ideas, insights, and tools, to keep up on current practices in language teaching, research methods, and current issues in Norway.
Traditionally, the conference is conducted almost entirely in Norwegian. With support from the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C., membership fees, and various foundations, distinguished guests from Norway are invited to offer lectures or presentations.
With a nod to The Norwegian American’s John Erik Stacy, who was unable to attend, I was fortunate to wear two hats at this year’s conference, as both a Norwegian language teacher and a correspondent for The Norwegian American. It was held at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, N.D., and hosted by Dr. Melissa Gjellstad, professor of Norwegian, and Steve Finney, lecturer of Norwegian (and jazz musician).
This year’s theme was “Oslo: Democratic Development of Public Spaces,” and the keynote speakers were Ellen de Vibe, Oslo’s recently retired chief city planner of 22 years, and Ingar Brattbakk, an urban researcher and social geographer at Oslo Metropolitan University, who has been very involved in many of the city’s social development efforts.
On the first evening of the conference, de Vibe offered an impressive plenary lecture open to the public (in English) about the work she and the city planning department have done over the past two decades, which resulted in Oslo being named the European Green Capital for 2019—a high honor from the European Commission.
Over the following two days, participants engaged in curriculum development workshops and heard presentations from both de Vibe and Brattbakk on their work in Oslo, and from St. Olaf professors Dr. Kari Lie Dorer and Dr. Jenna Coughlin, who offered teaching tools and resources. Attendees also heard from UND faculty, including a presentation on the UND library’s extensive collection of bygdebøker. These sessions were conducted mostly in Norwegian.
Before the official start of the conference, hosts Gjellstad and Finney, along with Grand Forks Community/Government Relations Officer Pete Haga took the Norwegian guests on a tour of Grand Forks and the surrounding area.
On the second day, I sat down over lunch with Ellen de Vibe, the city planner largely responsible for Oslo’s designation as European Green Capital. I asked what struck her most about Grand Forks, relative to the much larger Norwegian capital. One thing she noticed is that when humans “have a lot of space, they use a lot of space,” referring to the city’s broad streets and expansive yards, characteristic of many Midwestern and Western towns, where the typical mode of travel is the single-occupancy car (and here sat one of the most influential minds in Oslo’s effort to make its entire downtown a car-free zone).
Still, de Vibe was impressed by the maintenance of so many buildings from the city’s early days in the 1890s through the post-war era as well as the numerous trees that populate the city. “Those historic buildings and those great trees are worth protecting,” she said.
Of particular interest to her was the city’s recent acquisition of the Herald Building downtown, which was built anew in 1998, after the former headquarters of the Grand Forks Herald was destroyed by the flood and fire of 1997. Today, the building is a symbol of regrowth, and while it still houses the newspaper’s offices, the city has also converted its great central meeting room into a shared workspace and community room for numerous interests, right across the street from City Hall.
This sort of investment in downtown and its multiple interests is the kind of commitment from the city de Vibe thinks is valuable, providing access to both people and government, while setting up the city as a mediator between its various residents, stakeholders, and industries.
I asked de Vibe what, to her, is the most important principle in urban development. “Å bygge byen innefra,” she said, followed by, “Fortett!” That is, “To build the city from the inside,” and “Condense!” In other words, fill in the city.
Indeed, in urban development today, density—often controversial to the American mind—is fundamental to making cities livable, equitable, and environmentally sound. When done thoughtfully and with care, as in Oslo, density allows walkable neighborhoods, usable transportation, opportunities for healthy activity, and access to services and valuable places, like parks and waterfronts.
What struck me about de Vibe’s perspectives, however, was her equal interest in the aesthetics of urban development. She was trained as an architect at the Welsh School of Architecture at the Cardiff University, with an additional education in urban planning. She brings to urban design an eye not only for functional structures but for beautiful ones that respond to their environment. As someone who has walked the entirety of Oslo’s new 9-kilometer Harbor Promenade (Havnepromenade), I can testify to her influence. The promenade brings you through a striking mix of contemporary Scandinavian architecture and well-preserved remnants of Oslo’s early days, all while keeping you close to the water, arguably Norway’s most definitive natural resource.
I asked de Vibe how she came to architecture, and she mentioned a relative who was an architect—and a woman—that made her realize at a younger age that she had opportunities her foremothers didn’t. As her interest deepened, she became inspired by Italian architect Aldo Rossi’s book Architecture of the City, perhaps a title to look up, if you’d like a glimpse into the mind of Oslo’s most influential planner in recent times.
The perspectives that de Vibe brought to NORTANA and Grand Forks were complemented by those of Brattbakk, who studies social inequality, primarily between the more affluent western side of Oslo and the traditionally working-class and immigrant eastern side.
His research has contributed to various efforts by the city and other actors to provide opportunity and belonging in communities that are often left out of urban growth and development in the interest of commerce or favored ethnic identities.
He is particularly interested in what he terms the “nabolageffekt,” or “neighborhood effect”—the measurable difference that growing up in a particular neighborhood makes in one’s future opportunities. He has learned that when someone grows up in a neighborhood with access to resources and community-building opportunities for everybody, young people’s chances for opportunity in the future are greater.
There are numerous factors that affect those chances—and the perception of them—and much of his work, especially sociocultural analysis of local communities, is helping city planners and other investors create neighborhoods where residents can shape strong identities, trust in one another and institutions, and hope for the future.
I also asked him what stands out about the United States in comparison to Norwegian trends. The first thing he mentioned, like de Vibe, was the differences in transportation habits. For Americans, the car has almost become an extension of the self, while in urban Norway, car culture is waning. Of course, he noted, this is less true of rural Norwegian places, for example, Alta.
Brattbakk has lived in Oslo for 19 years without owning a car. He participates in a car-sharing program, which, in a city that strongly disincentivizes car ownership, is far less expensive and still provides access for tasks where a car is necessary. In Oslo, of course, one can also take the T-bane directly from the middle of downtown to the ski trails, never having to think about parking. Still, Brattbakk was pleasantly surprised by the fact that in winter, Grand Forks prepares ski trails right through downtown.
That kind of access is part of what informs both Brattbakk’s and de Vibe’s thinking about “byløftet” in Oslo, the city’s efforts to “lift” neighborhoods and boroughs that have struggled economically by providing high quality communal facilities, safe gathering spaces for young people, and social and community structures. The goal is to help residents identify positively with the places they live and “use” the environment of the city in a meaningful way.
Grand Forks’ politicians share many of those goals, and Haga, who welcomed the NORTANA conference to town, was thrilled by the chance to share ideas and initiatives with the distinguished Norwegian guests.
Haga, whose grandfather was a Norwegian immigrant, is proud of his heritage, and while he likes a good lutefisk dinner, for him, it was far more exciting to be able to talk about what’s happening in Norway today. “We are both working toward developing democratic public spaces for diverse societies,” he said, “to bring people together, from refugees to native-born residents.”
In addition, he noted how both Oslo and Grand Forks are deeply concerned with sustainability, fostering a “connection with the land, and sensitivity to the climate so that future generations will have a good city to live in.” It was affirming to see how closely those values are shared by these two different places: “The scale is different,” he said, “but the principles are the same.”
Speaking of scale, Haga and Gjellstad also had the unique pleasure of taking the Norwegian guests on a trip from Oslo to Oslo—Oslo, Minn., that is, population 330.
This article originally appeared in the November 29, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.