Økern’s roll as a hub can be traced far back in history, thanks to its location at the intersection of several key transport arteries in the former Aker municipality. This became especially clear with the opening of the Alna railway and the industrial growth in the area in the early 20th century. Økern established itself as Oslo’s largest marketplace, with particular emphasis on agricultural products as well as specialist services such as the Skinnsenteret auction house. Økernsenteret opened in the 1960s. At the time, it was a modern commercial centre with integrated metro station. Hovinbyen is part of Oslo’s major strategy for urban expansion, which will provide space for more inhabitants and utilise Oslo’s land more efficiently. Økern as the primary centre and hub of Hovinbyen is to be developed “again”.
The work of assessing the redevelopment of Økern Sentrum began back in 2006. Until 2019, the plan was to build Oslo’s biggest and best shopping centre here, alongside a new public swimming facility and water park. A huge amount of resources was spent on planning over several years, with the building permit granted in 2017. But a lot has changed over the years. When the time came for work to commence, Steen & Strøm and Storebrand had to ask themselves whether this was really what the area needed, and whether this really was what’s best for Oslo. Had the moment actually passed for this kind of investment?
“While we were planning the new shopping centre at Økern, Oslo’s population grew by 125,000. Retail has changed and people want experiences. In addition, had the plans for the new Tøyenbadet facility been launched, there would have been a new municipal waterpark for the whole of Oslo. Oslo had also assumed a position as a European pioneer in sustainable and social urban development. The view of the preservation of cultural monuments, reuse, access to water, nature, and social meeting places had changed significantly,” explains Thomas Holth, project director for Økern Sentrum.
Økern - a cultural venue
We believe in Økern as a meeting place and that residents will increasingly want to explore Økern as a venue for retail and experiences. People will use Økern because they want to, not just because they have to for practical reasons. They will want to spend time in the centre, both during the day and in the evening, and at any time of year. The streets and squares will be brimming with cultural and social activities, with outdoor cafes and markets, and street performances on a daily basis. Social shopping will largely take over from functional retail, which has less of a social dimension.
Although architecture is important and provides the physical framework, the buildings do not in themselves create the life and qualities of the city. It’s the people and how they live outside their homes that will make the district attractive. If we’re to achieve this, we must enhance the social sphere, which must offer varied cultural experiences to give Økern a distinctive character and identity. Culture must be a clear driving force in our urban development.
The successful development of Økern’s ‘new urban life’ offers the best guarantee of it becoming a safe and pleasant place that people see as inclusive and culturally enriched. It’s when places are devoid of people that they feel unsafe and unpleasant.
The population as a partner
To find out what the area really needs, a comprehensive survey and participatory process was initiated in order to get the input of Økern’s population. In this way, the project gained a huge amount of knowledge about Økern’s challenges and potential.
“We’re confident that Økern will improve as more people get involved in the work with the new plans. We’re talking about everyone, of any age and background, as well as key decision-makers and the municipality itself,” continues Thomas.
Reflects Oslo’s plans
Oslo city centre is surrounded by various urban centres, including Skøyen, Majorstuen, and Nydalen. In Oslo’s largest and most ambitious urban development plan, Hovinbyen, Økern has been designated as the new primary centre in the east of the city, with a view to achieving the seamless expansion of Oslo.
Økern is the missing piece in the puzzle. According to the new plan, Økern will be connected to its surroundings and sew the city together by way of roads, bridges, green areas, underpasses, and streams. Oslo Municipality’s investment in the Green Ring, with Økernparken, Hovinparken, Løren Activity Park and Valle Hovin, for example, will frame Økern. This will provide green surroundings, which in turn will provide attractive meeting places and excellent surroundings in which to relax and be physically active.
The focus of Oslo Municipality’s visions and plans is, among other things, making urban development climate-friendly and ensuring that Økern continues to be a versatile area where everything is close at hand, while enhancing the area’s biodiversity and residential qualities. The plans for Økern Sentrum are a response to these visions.
An urban centre with parks, waterways, and good housing is all well and good, but a cultural dimension is needed in order to create a truly attractive place.
“We want to create a new urban centre for the east of Oslo, Hovinbyen, and the Groruddalen valley where life bustles 24/7/265, with a diverse range of retail, housing, and workplaces, as well as activities and culture. This will be a multifunctional district where people thrive and enjoy spending time. With this project, we want to place Økern Sentrum on the map, with exciting architecture and a dynamic urban life and cultural scene,” explains Thomas.
“People should enjoy living here, it should be a smart choice to do business here, and people should come here to immerse themselves in culture and experiences.”
A centre rooted in history
Økern has a rich and varied history. It is important that the developers of Økern Sentrum take this history into consideration. In the new plans for the area, historical elements play a pivotal role. Økern Sentrum will become a hub, a venue, a heart, and a centre. It will be a centre for Hovinbyen’s population of up to 175,000 people.
Økern - the venue for creativity
We’ve looked beyond Norway’s borders to learn about the urban lives of tomorrow and have learnt more about being a venue for creativity. What are the criteria for success for some places to appear more exciting and innovative? Often the answer partly lies in the fact that those who succeed are those who have managed to attract creative, talented, and not least open people. The idea has been that the focus of urban development should be on getting people to thrive.
“An open and inviting central square by the high-rise block will be the heart and central meeting point in Økern and will bustle with life and activity! Landscapes and natural elements that have been hidden for a hundred years will once again see the light of day, with the reopening of the Hovinbekken and Refstadbekken streams. We’re very much looking forward to welcoming you to the new Økern Sentrum,” concludes Thomas.