“They gathered in their thousands, clutching roses, united in one message: Evil must not triumph.
More than 150,000 Norwegians surged through the streets of Oslo last night in a show of support and remembrance for a killer’s 76 victims." 1
The rose they held aloft, a symbol of the Labour party, in defiance of the Right Wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik who mowed down the party’s youth camp members in a gun rampage after detonating a bomb in the centre of Oslo.
Speaking to the nation Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg echoed the words of a survivor,
“No one has said it better than the AUF girl who was interviewed by CNN: “If one man can show so much hate, think how much love we could show, standing together.” 2
At a time when the nation’s collective spirit had been shaken it would have been so easy to talk of blame, revenge and the need for greater security perhaps even at the cost of civil liberties - a direction which other states struck by terrorism have taken. Instead the Prime Minister went onto say,
“We are shaken but we will not give up our values. Our response is more freedom, more democracy but not naivety.” 3
It is still very early on since these tragedies yet Norwegians seem determined not to change their way of life. One member in the crowd explained, “he [Breivik] shall not win, we are the winners, we’ll show him that he tried to fill the streets with fear but it failed.” Another added, “it will affect the Norwegian society much less than he would have wanted it to.” 4
This deep attachment to values of trust, openness and democracy are a characteristic that goes to the heart of Norwegian society, and the mass show of unity on the streets of Oslo only goes to highlight these strengths.
A closer analysis of Norwegian society shows that they enjoy the kind of values and quality of life that we have seen evaporating from the United Kingdom.
The social economic structures that Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsenworked to put in place after the Second World War, in the very same government institutions that Breivik attacked, were based on Keynesian ideas of a mixed economy where the State used its strategic levers to finance industrialisation and implement a strong welfare system. These principles endure to this day and can be seen in Norway’s high taxes and state ownership of the country’s key natural resources of oil and gas, which is in turn used to fund public needs like pensions instead of boosting the profits of private investors.
With this background it’s no wonder that a small country like Norway is able to produce some of the highest quality contemporary civic architecture in the world like Snohetta’s Opera House whilst at the same time delivering high quality affordable co-operative housing. In fact as almost half the country’s population are members of at least one co-operative and 15% of Norway’s housing stock is built through co-operatives going up to 40% in the capital Oslo.5 However you find it very difficult to find publicised examples when you try to Google these projects, perhaps this is because it’s just seen as normal, nothing to shout about.
The result is that Norway is one of the most egalitarian societies in the World and Norwegians have consistently experienced the highest standards of living for everyone as reflected in their position the top of the United Nations Human Development Index for the past 10 years. 6
Whereas here in the UK, where the divide between rich and poor is greater than at any time since the Second World War,7 living standards have fallen behind the average of other OECD countries over the past few years. 8
One leading theory that could explain this difference is contained within a major study into inequality published in 2009 in the book ‘The Spirit Level’ by the sociologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The Spirit Level shows that one common factor links the healthiest and the happiest societies: the degree of equality among their members.
Wilkinson and Pickett’s research shows that almost every modern social problem – poor health, violence, lack of community life, teen pregnancy, mental illness – is more likely to occur in a less-equal society. 9
This theory would begin to explain why so many of us now believe that we live in what our Prime Minister David Cameron once described as ‘Broken Britain’. The study shows that Britain is now one of the most unequal societies in the developed world.
The research of Wilkinson and Pickett would also begin to explain why although levels of crime stay relatively stable the perception of crime has gone up and even general public anxiety over security within our communities remains high. They state that trust is the key factor. 10
“Trust affects the wellbeing of individuals, as well as the wellbeing of civic society. High levels of trust mean that people feel secure, they have less to worry about, they see others as co-operative rather than competitive.” 11
Lamenting a loss of these values shouldn’t be regarded as harking back to a by gone era – these are values that are attainable now. As Wilkinson and Picket highlight subtle things like leaving blankets out for people at cafés in case of cold are not gestures resigned to the past they are existing in more equal societies like Norway and we should again see them as attainable too.
Often in architecture we are endeavouring to foster comfortable, nurturing environments, so these surely are important lessons for all those who wish to design and create better communities for everyone. The word community itself stems from the Latin communitatem also meaning fellowship and it is impossible to imagine fellowship in un-equal setting, as sociologist de Tocqueville pointed out, “we are less likely to empathise with those not seen as equals; material differences serve to divide us socially.” 12
However if we are to build communities that reflect these values then we will have to as a society work together to fundamentally address inequality.
Original article 'Learning from Oslo' by Pidgin Perfect from The Culture Blog at bdonline.co.uk - published, 18/08/11