Imagine a group of ecological Nordic superheroes. Let’s call this team ByKuben, just for storytelling purposes. These superheroes levitate over the ground and use their powers to make plants and trees grow all over the city of Oslo. That’s how I (kind of) imagine everyone that cooperates with and from Oslo Centre for Urban Ecology.
Essentially, this centre (called ByKuben, roughly translated as “the city hive” or “the urban cube”) aims to raise awareness and to green the city through both dialogue and action. Those who work there try to find the balance between urbanisation and the preservation of their natural habitat through what is called urban ecology. This stability must be sustainable, which means protecting nature’s life forms and respecting people’s lives and businesses at a local level.
But how do they manage that? ByKuben’s action is based on three pillars: nature in the city (provide space for all nature’s forms), the circular city (proposals for consumption patterns and waste reduction) and involvement of local communities. As a solution to the unbalance, both should be considered: the urban planning and the residents’ needs.
We’ve got to talk
In ByKuben both are organised: open and closed meetings. The urban cube hall, a room for about 60 people, and a meeting room for 14 are lent to actors who work with urban ecology, sustainable urban development, environment, and climate. The space not only hosts dialogues but also activities of community engagement. They count on a CityLab for communicating and gathering ideas, a platform of green youth jobs and a bunch of stories of citizen actions to spread around.
The centre is a meeting place for everyone interested in urban ecology. “You have all those environments within the municipality, but you also have the public, the residents, the commercial industry, so to share ideas between them we have to be in dialogue with them. Quite simple in a way”, says Andreas Fadum Haugstad, leader of the project.
Through planting the trees, the abstract idea of the green qualities becomes more concrete when you hold the tree and dig with the shovle in your hand. You feel it.
The city council communicates to the public and the commercial sector what the council is working on (a lot of strategies for environmental and climate policies) to create an understanding in the public about the changes in the green shift. But also, it becomes an exchange of ideas, giving the public the chance to contribute back. “It’s about this dialogue and about creating a meeting ground for people to join in, talk with each other and share knowledge. We want to showcase how things can be done, so it’s not just about politics and talks, but also examples on what people and companies are actually doing.”
Plant a tree
Oslo trees is one of the initiatives coordinated by the Centre for Urban Ecology. You could think it’s about planting trees, but it goes beyond that. “In the long run, it’s not about us offering activities; we’re just a few people. The point is we’ll create this movement so commercials, industries, shops, big companies, whoever, can join and contribute with their own effort. That’s the idea: a huge collective effort of planting trees and preserving the green city.”
Frøydis Jørve works at the Youth Club in Ammerud on the East side of Oslo, a relatively low-income district. Last year, she started planting vegetables and flowers, and later trees with the kids from the club. “It was a foreign experience for them, but it made them very proud. This place is near the train station and when we were working people were passing by and cheering and saying “guys, you’re making the area so much nicer!” So we decided we wanted to do more of that. We got in contact with ByKuben and thanks to their funding we’ve been able to involve more kids and reach more areas, which has been very interesting and fun”.
Although the beginning has been limited by the pandemic, the project is a 10-year initiative that has just started, so it has plenty of time to grow. In the coming spring, they’ll launch a system so that ordinary people can register the trees in their gardens or on the streets. Not only can they register green actions, but also submit a request like obtaining trees on their residential street.
Watch it grow
In Jørve’s opinion, it means a lot to the people that live in the area. She states that she was very stressed out at the beginning because she’s not a gardener or a farmer. “I am learning along the way. And I have realised the importance of people seeing non-professionals doing this because that makes them much more involved. A woman came to me yesterday and she said, ‘I have a lot of time off during the day, is there any way I can be useful here?’ She wouldn’t have done that if I wore a uniform.”
The place is near the train station and when we were working people were passing by and cheering and saying 'guys, you’re making area so much nicer!'
Not only that, but kids also learn so much with the experience of greening areas. “They know apples come from trees but are shocked when they find out that strawberries come from plants because they’ve only been buying them in the shop. Now we’re having a bit of a drought and they see if you’re sick one day and you’re not going to work, the plants are suffering.” She defines tree planting as an empowering experience. “We are so used to thinking that the landscape around us shapes us and our everyday life, that it sort of happens to us, and that we are almost passive observers, or even victims – if we live in an area that we really don’t like, for some reason. And when you take a group of kids out to plant a tree – or twenty! – right by the pathway where they walk to school or to the metro every day, they get to actually shape the area and the world around them, too.”
By 2030, they expect to have planted 100,000 trees in Oslo. Nowadays, around a million are living within the city, not including the forests. And this is the most important thing for Fadum Haugstad: to preserve what they already have, even more so than planting another ten per cent. “How do we create that awareness? Through planting the trees, you offer people the opportunity to join in and the abstract idea of the green qualities becomes more concrete when you hold the tree and dig with the shovle in your hand. You feel it.”
But I told you this was more than that. In Jørve’s project, a lot of kids with different backgrounds are involved. “Some of the neighbours that stop by have much more competence than I do because they may have worked in farms in Sri Lanka or Pakistan. Some of them don’t have jobs in Norway now so they have a lot of time and don’t feel that useful but then they feel ‘this is something I can actually help with.’ Next year I want to work on involving them more systematically. Luckily, a couple of them have already come to me.”
Accept the challenge
Green Life Oslo is about visualising natural spaces within the capital of Norway. The green areas and their activities are presented in a paper map of the city accompanied by digital content on social media. This way, the urban ecological attractions of the city are accessible to citizens and tourists to see not only places of commercial interest but those of an ecological one.
Those ideas and those solutions might be found not just in Oslo but in all cities.
This year, the entire city was scanned in an aerial analysis. “This data will tell us with high precision how this nature contributes to the sustainability of the environment. We want to use that data to trigger curiosity so normal people will also desire to know more about the green space around them.”
But if there is something that triggers curiosity, that’d be the green challenges, a campaign that invites Oslo residents to carry out environmental and climate-friendly duties in their daily lives. Tips, tricks, advice and games gather to turn ecological tasks into dynamic initiatives.
At some point, urbanization must stop, or we have to think of it differently.
It all started by the ByKuben leading a collaboration with environmental organisations as well as environmental projects within the municipality, talking and getting an overview of different environmental efforts. “My green challenge is about taking those projects and efforts and communicating them to a broader public in an activating way with a low threshold, making it fun and intuitive with activities for kids and older people, like a gamification as well as information”.
Be a pioneer
Oslo is recognised for investing in preserving its green spaces. A total of one million trees grow within the urban zone and two-thirds of the area within the city boundary is forest, parks and lakes. Awarded the European Green Capital 2019, the city is still actively involved in ecological actions along with its citizens, organisations, and businesses. Also, Oslo became a Green City Accord signatory in January 2021, building on a continuous commitment to improving environmental standards over many years. By signing the Accord, Oslo has committed to addressing five areas of environmental management: air; water; nature and biodiversity; circular economy and waste; and noise.
Is the Norwegian capital a reference for European cities? “We have the forest on one side and the sea on the other, so we’re very lucky, we’ve got a lot for free already. But there is a lot to be done,” states Jørve. For Fadum the answer is not categorical: “I’d say yes but we’re probably facing the same challenges as all cities in the world. Even though now we have quite a high degree of green spaces, that level is decreasing because of urbanisation. We’re making a lot of effort trying to find ways to make new solutions that can be sustainable for these qualities. But we’re just exploring. Those ideas and those solutions might be found not just in Oslo but in all cities.”
Oslo has something that may seem like a conflicting goal. Arrangements will be made both for new homes and for the preservation of the existing green areas. To have control over this, the municipality conducts a green account every four years. “If we are to accept urbanisation and densification, if we are to accept that way of living then we have to solve that equation because it’s unstable. The exciting thing in Oslo is that there is awareness of this and a lot of effort is made to get that back in balance.”
Jørve defines herself as an optimist: “I like to think that with innovation and creativity that can actually happen. At some point, urbanisation must stop, or we have to think of it differently”.
Do you want to know more about Oslo? Check their zero-emissions construction site