NFU Master Award 2020

The NFU Master Thesis Award 2019 – 2020 

Winner announcement of the NFU master thesis award 2019 to 2020: Clara Julia Reich

The master thesis award 2019 to 2020 goes to Clara Julia Reich for her thesis “Exploring Placemaking in Oslo – Critical perspectives on the ‘making’ of places.” Clara holds a master’s degree in Development, Environment and Cultural Change from the University of Oslo. The award prize is 5000 NOK, funded by The Centre for Development and the Environment (SUM), the University of Oslo.  Congratulations!

The committee has the following praise for her master thesis:

Clara’s master thesis explores the concept and practices of ‘placemaking’ in Oslo. With Oslo’s former status as the European Green Capital in 2019, and ongoing debates of urban development in the city today, the different people and places engaged in ‘placemaking’ are no doubt relevant issues to study. On a global level, UN Sustainable Development Goal 11 aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”, linking the thesis’ topic to larger debates as well. The also thesis illustrates how issues of ‘development’ are not bound to particular locations on the planet.

The thesis asks with who, how, and why placemaking in Oslo unfolds, outlining the three core groups engaged in placemaking as public sector actors, placemaking professionals, and grassroots actors. Shifting its gaze from those working on placemaking, the thesis then asks who these actors are working for. While there was no consensus of how public places should be improved, informants participating in Clara’s research all claimed to work for the betterment of people and places. Urban development through placemaking is, as the thesis makes clear, not always synonymous with neither environmentally sound practice, nor sustainable change. Time constraints and limited budgets caused many placemakers in Oslo to implement projects where details were left behind on the drawing board, and complexities of local needs and potential outcomes were down-prioritized; a shoddy paintjob might save time, but exposed local waters to harmful waste; a public space might look exciting as it was built, but would soon fall into disrepair as the placemakers forget to consider its long-term maintenance.

The thesis is inspiring in the ways it ties larger development challenges to existing theory and local realities. But it is perhaps the latter, namely the sections where the challenges and experiences of local placemaking, which is one of its strongest points. To mention some, the empirical material moves through the work to include different populations in Oslo’s downtown street Storgata, the re-interpretation of a Sudanese artist’s mural, and the efforts of producing a floating garden.

Focusing on the larger area of ‘Gamle Oslo’ (‘Old Oslo’) in central-to-eastern-Oslo, the thesis critically discusses highly relevant issues of what urban development looks like in an area of heterogeneous populations, rapid gentrification, and conflicting ideas of how ‘placemaking’ should unfold. In one of its most thoroughly outlined cases, the thesis follows the effort of an artist collective as build a floating sauna in the newly renovated parts of Oslo’s harbour, and how the team behind the sauna navigate municipal bureaucracy, clashing ideas of the aesthetics of urban spaces, and creative use of local regulations to keep their project afloat and accessible.

Another detailed case focuses on the public space of Olafiagangen, which in many ways functions as the entrance to the Grønland-area of Oslo. The space is described as a dreary spot, plagued by a long history of marginalized and criminalized groups and activities, and currently considered dirty, unsafe, and unappealing. However, transforming Olafiagangen into a public space which local communities will both accept and engage with is complex. There are concerns that profit-seeking investors may push working class groups out. The diversity of municipal offices responsible for issues such as lighting, sewage, and more means there is a complicated bureaucracy to navigate. Jargon, legal regulations, and differing resources available to those planning the placemaking of Olafiagangen makes the process challenging.

At 155 pages, there is no doubt there is much hard work behind the thesis, although it could have been condensed a bit in places. Given the thesis’ aim to critically analyse the positions of different placemakers working in Oslo, it would have been interesting to see the researcher’s role reflected more clearly. Still, the thesis undeniably does a solid job in outlining theories and practices associated with ‘placemaking’. It shows the politics of developing urban spaces, and the ways actors navigate the spaces between good intentions and gentrification in downtown Oslo.

In short, Clara’s thesis provides a fascinating, grounded, and deeply insightful window about how to think about urban development and the many practices and interests shaping cities today.