Reclaiming the waterfront

Oslo harbor east becomes a major attraction by putting traffic in a tunnel and culture on top

By John Erik Stacy
Norwegian American Weekly
The land surrounding Bjørvika is becoming the "city within the city" with the new Oslo Opera House at its center.

The land surrounding Bjørvika is becoming the “city within the city” with the new Oslo Opera House at its center.

Oslo has a beautiful waterfront and they are making the most of it by keeping cars and trucks from getting in the way. In 1990 the “Fortress Tunnel” (Festningstunnelen) was opened to route traffic flowing across the city on E18 under- ground for just over a mile. Now, instead of a constant stream of metal and noise in front of Oslo Town Hall and Akershus medieval fortress – both of which are national treasures and worthy of respect and care – citizens and tourists can drink in the view and traffic can get through down town without navigating an obstacle course of signals and cross-streets.

Encouraged by the success of the 1990 tunnel, an extension east is nearing completion for 2010. The new section of tunnel will speed traffic under Bjørvika bay and allow the full blossoming of development plans on shore. This new tunnel segment is an ingenious construction of linked football-field long concrete sections that create the submarine portion of the tunnel (Norwegians  have long experience with submarine concrete since they use it in platforms for off-shore oil).  Although not quite ready for traffic, construction crews now move freely within the approximately three-quarter mile length of the tunnel.

The land surrounding Bjørvika is becoming the “City Within the City” with the new Oslo Opera House at its center.  This stunning building – whose slanted surfaces allow visitors to roam from the water and on up onto the roof of the building – is but a taste of things to come. The spaces on the landward side of the opera house, currently occupied by highway E18 and its on and off ramps, will be transformed into a new urban experience that will join the Opera Hotel and Oslo Central Station (and the fast train to Gardermoen airport).  To the east of the opera building and the mouth of Akerselva (Oslo’s central river) is the site for the Bispevika portion of the development that will feature a range of businesses, residences and public spaces.  Further east still is the Park of the Middle Ages (Oslo before Christian IV reached the sea in this area) and to the south is Sørenga Pier that will become an attractive residential area.

Naturally, Oslo residents and suburbanites enjoy visiting the existing downtown waterfront areas.  Locals usually arrive using one of the many public transport options. Light rail lines connecting other parts of the city and suburbs stop within a few blocks of the waterfront at National Theater, Egertorget (the stop that comes up on the main walking street, Karl Johann) and Jernbanestasjon (Oslo Central Station). Street cars and busses come right up to the water. Taxis are also readily available and commonly used by those enjoying a night on the town.  West of Oslo Town Hall (Rådhuset) is the Akerbrygge complex. Once the site of a shipyard, Akerbrygge is now an extremely popular destination for shopping, entertainment and leisure.

Tunnels have been a crucial part of the development of Oslo into a modern city. The Fortress Tunnel and its extension under Bjørvika are just a few of the subterranean passages beneath Oslo. The 1980’s saw the joining of eastern and western rail lines under the city (the Old Oslo West train station is now a visitor center near Akerbrygge and Oslo East morphed into Oslo Central Station). The connection of eastern and western light rail was achieved in about the same time period, allowing travel through downtown from the either edge of “Oslo Marka” (the forested area surrounding the city).

Clearly, the tunnels have come at a cost and voices were raised in opposition to these large public projects. The Fortress Tunnel was funded by tolling traffic into and out of Oslo, and the extension under Bjørvika is being funded by extending the toll period.  So motorists must stop at a tollbooth when entering the Oslo “toll ring” (bomringen) or they need to subscribe to an electronic pass system. Most Oslo residents find this an acceptable solution, and many express pride in their city that has demonstrated good public planning and combined intelligent solutions, daring design and respect for the past.

This article was originally published in the Norwegian American Weekly on Feb. 6, 2009.  

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