Author: Trausti Valsson
2003, University of Iceland Press, Reykjavik, 480 pp. ISBN 9979-54-567-4
This is a remarkable book, in that it sets out to understand the evolution of settlement and planning in Iceland from the very beginning of human settlement in that country, a period of just over 1000 years. The author states that ‘the main purpose of the book is to create an understanding of how settlement and planning have evolved in Iceland’. The book is therefore about much more than planning, and a major theme is how humans adapted to the opportunities and limitations of the Icelandic environment, or at times ignored this experience and made significant planning mistakes. To again quote the author; ‘it is one of the main goals of the book to tell the story of the cohabitation of man and nature in Iceland in order to get practical lessons from the experience as well as to understand more profoundly why the settlements in Iceland evolved the way they did.’ In fulfilling this goal Trausti Valsson records the knowledge gained by Icelanders about living in their environment. He also shows how settlement patterns changed as economic structures changed, and argues that from this we can learn ‘…which elements of today’s settlement structure are probably going to fall into decline and which structures or locations, on the other hand, probably have the future on their side.’
The book is divided into five parts, called ‘books’. The first describes the geologic forces that created Iceland and continue to shape it; the opportunities, limitations and hazards of the environment; and examples of good and bad human adaptation to this environment. The second describes the development of the pattern of settlement, and the influence of environment, changes in climate, economic activity, and political and church power structures. The third book examines the development of some settlements into urban areas; the beginnings of the planning of both settlement patterns and the structure of individual settlements, particularly Reykjavik; and the development of regional plans for rural areas and major regions, including recent controversies. This is a substantial part of the book, and is well illustrated with fascinating historical photographs and plans. The fourth takes a national view of planning, and discusses economic, conservation, environmental, tourism, energy and marine planning, ending with a chapter on steps towards a national land use plan. The fifth book examines the present, starting with a marvellously discursive review of trends in ideas about society, urban living and planning, and continuing with an account of planning for Reykjavik and its region.
The book is directed at the general public as well as planning professionals, as the author argues that planning is a matter for public debate, and so one of his tasks is to provide the basic knowledge about planning and human settlement in Iceland that is needed to inform this debate. Consequently there is considerable material on planning theory, concepts and practices that will be familiar to planners but not necessarily to the general public.
Planning in Iceland: From the Settlement to Present Times comes as both a printed book and a CD in Acrobat PDF format. It is well written, and covers an enormous range of topics and issues. Even so, some topics seem to need more discussion. For example, I found it hard to get a clear idea of the vegetation cover of the island at the time of settlement and the extent of change since then. In addition, I would have liked the author to have written conclusions to each of the sections, to help pull the many parts of the book together (there are 120 sections or sub-chapters in the book). It is richly illustrated with some 1250 maps, diagrams, drawings and photographs, and even the title pages of key publications on planning and settlements. These greatly add to the interest of the book, and my only criticism is that not all of them are explained in the accompanying text.
While Iceland may be a distinctive environment and society, the issues discussed, such as environmental conservation, preservation of rural landscapes, car dependency and urban consolidation, will seem quite familiar to readers from other countries. Similarly, the author argues that planning should not be seen by the public as a way of imposing controls on people, but as a means of helping people and their political representatives make good decisions about their natural and built environment, again a thought that has parallels elsewhere. What may particularly interest readers, however, is the way these issues are examined in the context of the full sweep of Icelandic history, as well as the many concrete illustrations of poor planning practices, such as a university where students drive between buildings.
The book comes endorsed by the doyen of British academic planners, Sir Peter Hall, who writes:
Trausti Valsson not only tells the story in rich detail, from the earliest origins of planning to the present day; he also sets it firmly within a rich geographical and historical context, so that in important respects this is a definitive general history of the development of social policy in a very distinctive Northern European country, with a distinguished story of positive intervention in social matters. Little known outside its homeland, this story needed to be written, and it has found an exceptionally able chronicler.
I can only concur with this endorsement.