Wednesday, 14 April 2010


Is there any such thing as an urban Norwegian? If there is, they are a very rare species indeed.

A surprising 80% of the Norwegian population are classed as city-dwellers, people for whom the bustle of a city is all around them day and night. Such folk are adept at being city-slickers, looking chic, making the most of public transport, perfecting three-point turns into minute parking spaces, knowing the best places to shop, eat and keep themselves entertained.

But somehow they seem very different from the city-slickers of our British cities. They may well live in an apartment several floors above ground-level, but they are not cut off from the land, from nature, from seasonal changes. They all seem to know how to fish, how to row a boat, how to ‘brew up’ in the wild, how to ski, hike, climb and swim. Even if I lived in a flat in the heart of Oslo, it would be perfectly possible to come home from work, sling my brief case onto my Ikea sofa, lose the heels, grab the ski boots, pick up my skis and set off through the snow from my own front door. I could head up the hill behind my home and enjoy a pleasant evening on the piste.

Two Norwegian friends decided we should visit the extremely long and very high Ski-Jump at Hollenkollen, offering as it does an ideal view of the city of Oslo. The experience made me realise why Norwegians can never be serious urbanites.

While we drove up the hill towards the jump, we passed several Norwegians enjoying a typical evening of painfully steep uphill-running, some of them clearly carrying rocks in their ruck-sacks for added pleasure. As we arrived at the hilltop, we waited for them to have a little rest. if. Did they sit down on a bench for a moment to draw breath? Please. They threw their rock-filled luggage down and immediately fell to the ground to start a series of frenzied press-ups. ‘Now that’s just showing off, buddy,’ I yelled at one of them from inside the car. He just stood up, shrugged, and set off jogging up the zillions of steps to the top of the jump itself.

We toiled up there laboriously and emerged, breathless wrecks, at the top to admire the view. All I could see was a mass of trees with one or two roof-tops sticking up between them, and a glittering fjord beyond.

‘Are you absolutely sure this is Oslo?’ I asked one of my Norwegian companions.

He rolled his pale blue eyes heavenwards in despair. ‘Well, duh. Have you noticed yourself leaving the city since you arrived yesterday? Of course it’s Oslo.’

‘Oh yeah...s’pose so,’ I said doubtfully. ‘I’ve just never seen a city that looked so like a forest.’

It turns out ‘Oslo’ in Old Norse means ‘the fields of the Gods’. With a population of just 500,000, geographically-speaking it is the largest city in goes on for miles. Unlike other cities, space is at far less of a premium than elsewhere. Norway has the lowest population density in Europe after Iceland. No wonder they are all outdoor fitness-freaks....even if they try to be urban, climate and topography won’t allow it. Sitting at the head of the Oslofjord there is a lovely sea view for the bulk of the population. Then there’s the Nordmarka (north woods) to the north of the city which provide a ‘green belt’ for hikers and skiers. With such easy access to both sea and mountains, Oslo represents one of the most liveable cities I’ve ever seen.

Of course Scotland’s four main cities are all by the sea, and all of them have countryside and mountains within reach. But it is far more of an effort to get there, so it is not every city-dweller that can afford to enjoy the countryside. Unless you have your own transport, or you make a point of belonging to some organisation that involves you in outdoor pursuits, it costs money to get out.

You can take the girl out of Glasgow, but you can’t take the Glaswegian out of the girl. Therefore, I know there is a gaping chasm in Scotland between those who have access to the landscape, and those who do not. I’ve met inner-city children who have literally never been beyond the city boundary, who have never seen animals on farms or in the wild, never climbed a tree, hiked up a mountain, swum in a burn or the sea, or run across a moor. Often their parents are the same. The result is a disconnection from the natural world which is almost heart-breaking.

I know there are continual efforts to try to change things, so I remain hopeful. We may well have less land-area per head of population, but at least we have great landscapes, wonderful mountains, glorious seascapes, beautiful lochs and rivers, extraordinary flora and fauna. For the sake of our health and well-being, and for the good of the landscape itself, we just need to get better at sharing it.


  1. Probably no chance of introducing allemannsretten in Scotland?

  2. Ah, but we do have allemannsretten in Scotland now. With the introduction of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code in 2003, everyone can have access over most land and water, providing they do so responsibly. So, access isn't so much the problem, it's far more the culture. Scots, and Brits in general, are less motivated to get outdoors, particularly given the lure of tellies, computers, social networking and the ubiquitous drink. But it's also the problem you describe of not having enough attractive, natural land in and around urban areas. Priority for larger spaces is frequently devoted to pitch sports anyway, here in Scotland. So while it may be possible to change the layout and design of places, changing the culture may well be trickier!