Ecological Sustainability and Urban Green Space

OSLO - CENTRALLY SITUATED TOWN DWELLINGS

Project design and method

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Urban Density and Green Structure Case Studies

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CENTRALLY SITUATED TOWN DWELLINGS

A survey of residents in seven Norwegian towns - NIBR Report 1998:10

Jon Guttu and Johan-Ditlef Martens - NIBR

 

Nowadays living in townhouses in city centres represents a viable alternative to living in the suburbs. Firstly, homes like these are considered to be environmentally friendly, for several reasons.* Secondly, there appears to be a considerable demand for new homes in central locations. This is a relatively recent trend in Norway, where house construction in previously unbuilt areas has been the rule.

* For example, they have lower energy requirements, because existing infrastructures are exploited, and new buildings built in developed areas mean that the green areas surrounding the densely populated areas are left alone (Naess 1996).  

The prevailing regulations drawn up by the Norwegian State Housing Bank were designed in general with detached and semi-detached houses in mind, and most research on external factors affecting the quality of life has been carried out in such areas. A great deal of our knowledge concerning "quality of life" has, therefore, been associated with the above mentioned types of houses. There has been a relative dearth of knowledge about what those living in the city centre felt about their housing situation and the types of requirements which ought to be formulated in relation to the dwelling itself, as well as the apartment building and the neighbourhood.

 

A large proportion of the homes which have been built during the past decade are located either close to or in the centre of towns. The quality of this housing has never been reviewed systematically and little has been known about what the people living there feel about their residential situation. A survey has been carried out in Oslo previously (Christophersen 1992, 1994). This study revealed a number of deficiencies in constructions being built at the time.* The Norwegian State Housing Bank, therefore, wanted to know whether the standards of housing being erected in other Norwegian towns were comparable, and how the users viewed the results.

* Judged in relation to the Norwegian State Housing Bank's norms and requirements and the proposal for a municipal plan for the inner zone.

 

The aim of the study has been to rectify this oversight. We have reviewed the physical quality from both the professional point of view and from that of the people living in the area. We have selected certain housing put up in, or close to, the centre of seven Norwegian towns over the past ten years. The survey has focused on three levels: the environment or neighbourhood; the individual building ("the project"); and the flat or apartment. It has been divided into two separate phases, of which there was a data gathering phase and a survey. The field work was carried out in 1996. Following a questionnaire survey in 1997, the registration was augmented by the opinions of the residents concerning their living conditions, thus resulting in the present report.

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Project design and method

We decided to investigate new town houses in the following towns: Fredrikstad, Drammen, Kristiansand, Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim, and Tromsoe. We started off by selecting projects with the assistance of the planning authorities in the towns concerned, resulting in all, 41 projects. We registered a number of the project characteristics by means of drawings and on-site inspections. On this basis we characterised the projects and carried out brief evaluations of each of them. The result of this is published in a NIBR Working paper 1998:116. It consists of a collection of samples, supplemented by information from the survey.

 

Subsequent to this came the questionnaire survey. We chose to send a questionnaire to one person per "family",* giving a total of 1553 people in 36 projects. The response rate was 55%. The respondents are reasonably representative in age, but the proportion of female respondents amounted only to 40% (while the proportion of female residents in the projects is 52%).

* The National Population Register is based on ''family units", not households.

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Results

Residents

The houses we have studied do not represent a particularly viable alternative for newly established families with young children. This conclusion is drawn from the age composition of the sample. Only about 8% of the residents are under 19 years of age, compared with 25% as the national average. Correspondingly, there is a predominance of older people in the survey. The households are small: 41% are single-person households, while 46% have two occupants. On average, every household contains 1.7 people.

14.5% of the respondents report that someone in their household has mobility problems. Of these, less than 1% are confined to wheelchairs. This roughly corresponds to the proportion of disabled people in the population at large, but is, nevertheless, somewhat lower than might be expected based on the number of elderly people and in view of the fact that many of the homes have good access, with lower ground floor garages, lifts and adaptation for wheel chair users.

Two-thirds of the new homes are freehold: approximately 20% are rented, of which about half are temporary contracts, mostly with younger tenants. 13% are members of housing cooperatives.

 

Why did the occupants move here?

Nearly half the occupants moved from a detached house outside the centre. This applies mostly to residents over 50, who chose to exchange their detached house for an easily kept town flat. Many felt that their last home had become too impractical, too demanding, or too large. Younger residents, some with children, had moved to improve their standard of living, or to live in a neighbourhood they liked. Both for the younger and the older residents, it was the location near the centre of the town and a less demanding housing situation which attracted them to a new town house. The neighbourhood also played a major role in the choice of new accommodation. From the point of view of the professional, the residents seem surprisingly well disposed towards their neighbourhood as well as to the building and the actual flat itself.

 

What do the residents think about their neighbourhood?

When listing the attributes of the neighbourhood, the residents mainly refer to the physical aspects of the area such as pleasant streets and open spaces, proximity to an expanse of water of some kind and the amount of greenery close by. But the public transport system and freedom from dependence on a car are also viewed as important advantages. Visits to cafes and social contacts, on the other hand, are deemed less important.

The traffic is reported as being the greatest drawback of living in the centre. Nearly half of the respondents have noted this. People suffer particularly from the noise and the pollution emanating from the traffic. 20% -30% also refer to the lack of green areas, industrial noise and the fear of street crime.

The residents make relatively frequent use of public recreational areas. Nearly every other adult resident visits the green areas in the town once or more a week. Joggers constitute a clear majority here. More than two-thirds of those who use the parks go for walks or a jog. Four of five families with children reported that they go out together with their children. None of the residents appear to find any great disadvantages in their use of the green areas. The size of these areas is evidently the most negative feature. But accessibility problems and stray dogs have also been noted as problems. Very few consider that the areas are ugly or badly maintained.

The 110 children (including teenagers) in the apartment buildings played in various locations. As many as one third of the children between six and twelve played outside on the pavements and streets on a daily basis. Parks and playgrounds were used even more. The most important reason given as to why the children do not play beyond the confines of the building is, surprisingly, the fear that they might drown. A very large percentage of the houses in the projects are in the vicinity of water, some of them right by the quayside. The next most important reason given is the danger of traffic.

For a sizeable majority, having parks and recreational areas in the vicinity means a lot. Nevertheless as many as 40% of the respondents felt that being close to the town's service and entertainment facilities was the most important factor in living centrally. Parks and recreational areas do not mean very much to them. The elderly, in particular, take this view, while a large majority of the younger parents set store on the nearness to green spaces.

Satisfaction with the neighbourhood varies considerably from place to place. Some areas have many advantages with few drawbacks. Such places are Teglbrennerveien near Bakklandet in Trondheim and the areas along the Otra, on either side of the Lund Bridge in Kristiansand. Areas with heavy traffic along Innherradsveien in Trondheim and the "quadrangle" in Trondheim score badly.

 

What do the residents think of their building?

In general, residents are very satisfied with their building. The standard of building is particularly valued, as are parking arrangements, safety from burglary, the outside areas and the relationship between residents. Some express less satisfaction with the accessibility for the disabled and places for bicycles, prams, etc.

The parking system seems to work satisfactorily for the majority. Only 7% are of the opinion that it works very badly indeed, generally because they have no parking space for their own cars. Accessibility for the disabled is judged to be good by 70%, but it is worth noting that this leaves 30% of the residents who are not happy about accessibility. Of the 15% who think it is very poor, most (80% of them) lack a lift. Luckily, there were very few among them who experience great difficulties in moving about.

We have noted many small, dark, and badly developed areas and it is surprising that dissatisfaction with the building's grounds is not more widespread than it is. Families with small children also express relative satisfaction with the outside areas. The 20%-40% who express somewhat greater unhappiness say that they feel stared at, that there is too little space, too few trees and that play ground equipment and furniture are lacking. People make use of the grounds to significantly varying degrees. Children between 6 and 12 are the most frequent users. We found, in addition, that those who use the public recreational areas and those who use the grounds are generally the same people. A third of the homes have access to a common roof terrace. This is used more often than the outdoor spaces at ground level.

The physical quality is a decisive factor as to whether the outdoor spaces are going to be used or not. It follows that there are great differences in the degree to which people avail themselves of such spaces from project to project. One third, among them most of the families with young children, are very nearly daily users, while two thirds of the sample say that they hardly ever go outside in the grounds. This might indicate that the families with children have chosen projects precisely because of the acceptable standards of the outdoor spaces. In projects with a high outdoor use, more than three in four residents make use of the outdoor areas on a daily basis, or several times a week. At the other end of the scale there are projects where the outdoor areas are never used at all. Generally speaking, frequency of use corresponds with the assessments we made prior to the survey. Almost three-quarters of the residents consider that communal outside areas are needed for the residents of the building, even though there are parks and recreational areas in the vicinity. These results undermine the notion emerging from the Oslo study, namely that it is the parks which mean something to people and that outside areas adjacent to the building are considered to be almost an expendable luxury.

How content the residents are with their building varies considerably from project to project. Contentment varies with the residents' views on the neighbourhood and the flat, with the residents' age and the size of the project, i.e. the number of residential units. On the other hand, we find no correlation between contentment and density as measured as "floor space index". Varied ownership arrangements do not seem to play a systematic part either. A more comprehensive documentation of physical differences should be carried out as part of more in-depth studies of the projects.

 

What do the residents think of their flats?

In our sample, nearly half of the flats consist of three rooms* and a kitchen, and one quarter consist of two rooms. The dimensions of the flats are considerably greater than were found in the Oslo study. Roughly speaking, the younger residents occupy the smaller flats, while the older residents have the medium-sized and the larger flats. There is a lack of space** only in the case of young residents, including a number of families with small children.

* In Norway, the relative size of a home is given as the total number of rooms, excluding the kitchen and bathroom.

**According to the Building Research Series, a residence is deemed to be too small when the number of rooms is less that the number of persons, and also when one person lives in a singe-room dwelling.

78% of the homes extend from one external wall to the other. This is a quality particularly appreciated by the residents. 14% have only one exterior wall, which faces the street. Otherwise people are especially satisfied with the technical standard, the design or layout of the flat, and the size. There is somewhat greater dissatisfaction with regard to the the amount of sunlight, balconies, and storage space in particular.

Four in ten of the residents are disturbed by noise in their flats, especially noise from vehicles. In addition, some of them suffer from noise from neighbouring flats and external walkways. Three in ten suffer from being seen in, by neighbours or people in the courtyard or on the walkways.

Nearly two-thirds of the sample have what we call an open kitchen arrangement, with the kitchen forming part of another room. This is especially typical in the flats of the younger half of the residents. More than four in five residents with this type of kitchen design are satisfied with it. This contrasts sharply with what has been found in previous studies (Svennar 1975; Guttu et al. 1985), where open kitchen solutions have been the object of unanimous criticism. As a consequence, housing planners and the Norwegian State Housing Bank have upgraded the kitchen as a separate room with a window. Residents with tenancy agreements and residents in housing cooperatives are those who are most dissatisfied with the solution. These people have probably not chosen the layout themselves.

A balcony is an important aspect of the outdoor area for the residents. At the same time, it is the single aspect of the flat about which dissatisfaction is most strongly voiced. Nearly two- thirds of the residents consider their balconies are deficient in some way or another, either that they are too small and exposed to view, or noisy or get too little sun. It is striking that those who have no balcony of their own are the most critical of the quality of cornmon outdoor areas.

A large majority of the residents feel that foregoing sunshine and light in a flat is unreasonable, even though they live in the middle of town. Especially the younger residents consider that normal sun and light conditions should apply to town housing.

An analysis of satisfaction with the flats shows a great deal of variation from project to project. Residents are much more positive in their judgments than professionals. In the most highly appraised flats, their size and technical standards are highly valued. In the least valued projects, the residents are dissatisfied with the sunlight conditions. Too little space for storage is also a common complaint.

Possessing a balcony and flat which extends from the front to the back has a significant effect on the degree of residents' satisfaction. The residents of upper storey flats are more content than their lower storey neighbours. The attitude towards the flat also correlates with the age of the residents.

 

Moving home

Five in ten respondents between the ages of 20 and 30 want to move. The desire to move varies strongly with age - this includes the age of any children. The few parents of teenagers in the sample seem to have settled down to a degree not matched by the parents of smaller children. The desire to move decreases as the value of the home increases and is highest among those who have occupied their flat only for a short time. Among tenants with time limited contracts, 58% were planning to move. Too little space in the flat was the most important factor. In general, too high living costs, too much traffic, and unsatisfactory air quality were given as reasons for wanting to move. About 40% of all the households containing children under 19 wanted to move. For these families, the reasons which weighed the heaviest were too little room, poor playing opportunities for the children, air pollution and traffic.

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Conclusion

There are three town-residence situations or "package deals" among the residents and the projects in our study, which, to a certain extent, explain the differences in attitudes:

 

1. Middle-aged or elderly residents with a comfortable income have sold their detached house, and have elected to settle in a centrally located town flat. They have purchased a spacious dwelling of a high standard with parking space on the lower ground floor, a lift, a large balcony, good sun conditions, etc. And all this in a neighbourhood characterised by stretches of water, pleasant streets and parks close by. They do not consider the common outdoor areas essential as long as they have a nice balcony, but if they have access to good outdoor areas or to a roof terrace, they will make use of them. They are content and do not long for their detached house life. A number of the younger residents without children and with a good income also belong to this category.

 

2. The established family with children have chosen to live in town and have found a place they like. They have not bought anything right in the middle of the town, rather in areas with easy access to the centre where the building density is lower and the dwellings resemble an area dominated by small detached or semi-detached houses. Their living standards are relatively high, although there is not too much space. There is space for the children to play and that is an important feature for them. The parents use the outdoor areas and recreational grounds a good deal and are out and about with their children a lot, too.

 

3 . The young household on a limited budget has to be make do with somewhat less. The household may consist of a single individual, couples, or households with children. For people like this, their home is a stepping stone on the way to something better. A lot of them want to live centrally, but quite a few, not least those with children, think of moving beyond the town centre. In this category we find a larger proportion of tenants, smaller flats, and a generally lower level standard of living. The residents express greater dissatisfaction with a range of features. In addition, these homes are to be found in town areas with greater environmental problems, such as noise and pollution.

 

As researchers we have been taken aback relatively often about the relatively high degree of contentment we have found among the residents. When interpreting this we need to bear in mind that the largest proportion of them have chosen to live as they do of their own accord, and have paid for their new town home at no small expense to themselves. Experience has taught us that this encourages a more positive attitude. We must also remain open to new ideas and attitudes of the residents in relation to urban qualities, which perhaps we have not elucidated sufficiently in the study. Moreover, the lifestyle of elderly people and their opinions have seldom weighed particularly heavily in earlier housing studies. In addition, it is understandable that professionals and residents observe and judge differently. The tension between the views of the residents and researchers ought to be investigated further by means of qualitative studies. Here lie the seeds of a development of (even) better town dwellings.

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©Jon Guttu and Johan-Ditlef Martens, 1998