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Oslo: Norwegian Society and Governance

Oslo, Norway

Oslo, Norway’s progressive capital, is a showcase for livability, with pedestrian-friendly streets, waterfront parks, and appealing neighborhoods created from industrial zones. Norwegians pay high taxes in return for good government and lifelong security.

Complete Video Script

For much of its history, Norway was ruled by other Scandinavian powers — Denmark and Sweden. In fact, for 300 years, the city was named Christiania, after its Danish king. Then, in 1924, to underscore their independence from Denmark, locals tossed out that name and took the Old Norse name… Oslo.

Situated at the head of a 60-mile-long fjord, Oslo is by far Norway's biggest city. The city sprawls from a small historic core to encompass over a million people in its metropolitan area. Nearly one in five Norwegians calls greater Oslo home. Its streets are a mix of glassy high-rises, and — especially in its finer residential neighborhoods — grand facades. Oslo's harborfront hums with international shipping and a thriving cruise industry. Upscale condominiums enjoy fjord-front settings, and people here seem to be living very well.

The city's grand boulevard, Karl Johans Gate, cuts from the train station through the center of town to the Royal Palace. It's a people-friendly boulevard, lively with restaurants, parks, and strolling crowds.

The boulevard is named for the man who built this palace, Karl Johan. He was the 19th-century Swedish king who ruled Norway after Sweden took Norway from Denmark.

A military parade befitting Norway's modest military power enlivens the scene. It ends up at the palace, where people gather to watch the daily changing of the guard.

While Norway still has its royalty, they are figureheads tamed by a constitution. Today there's no question — it's the people who are in charge. And they're making their city increasingly livable. In the past, you would have dodged several lanes of traffic to get to the harborfront. Oslo has made its town center quiet and pedestrian-friendly by sending most traffic through tunnels under the city. They also levy a traffic-discouraging toll on cars as they enter town, which subsidizes public transport.

Many European cities are doing the same thing: tunneling and finding creative ways to help fund public transportation. People are retaking their lakefronts, riverfronts, and harborfronts. You can even hear the birds.

The historic Akershus Fortress overlooks Oslo's harbor. While once the menacing place from where Danish and Swedish overlords kept an eye on the Norwegian people, today the fortress seems to oversee only good times. While it's still a military base, soldiers seem only to guard oblivious picnickers. Cannon-strewn ramparts offer inviting benches and fine harbor views.

Opposite the fortress, a row of former warehouses has been transformed into trendy restaurants and condos. Once a gritty industrial zone, today it's a vibrant neighborhood enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.

Oslo's striking City Hall faces the harbor. It was finished in 1950 to celebrate the city's 900th birthday. Norway's leading artists all contributed to what was an avant-garde thrill in its day. The statues, which date from the 1930s, celebrate the nobility of the working class. The art, which shows everyone working together, implies a classless society.

Inside, the grand hall is famous for hosting the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Entering here, I'm reminded that in this most highly taxed corner of Europe, city halls, rather than churches, are the dominant buildings. While the state religion is Lutheran, people rarely go to church. Instead, they seem to almost worship good government. In fact, this main hall actually feels like a temple. The altar-like mural celebrates family values, good citizenship, and civic administration.

The mural shows both town folk and country folk — people from all classes and all walks of life. Together, despite their differences, they're collaborating with a determination to build a better society.

This art illustrates how Norwegians are comfortable with their more socialistic form of government. They pay high taxes, have high expectations of their government, and are generally satisfied with how their leaders spend their money.

Today, with this idyllic fjordside setting, locals seem content not to sail far away… but to simply enjoy the delightful setting of the city they call home.

And for the people of Oslo, their fjord is a natural wonderland. Many choose to live in peaceful island communities, just an easy commute from downtown. Others see it as a playground. My cousin Kari-Anne and her partner Knut are picking us up for a short cruise.

Within minutes, Oslo is a world away, and we're surrounded by the beauty of its fjord. Islands provide a quick escape for commuters, vacationers, kayakers, and campers. While locals love to zip off in their boats, even tourists can hop on a ferry to enjoy much of the same experience.

We're anchoring in a charming cove only about 10 minutes from the city.

Rick: So it's the perfect escape, Oslofjord.
Kari-Anne: Very nice resort for everybody.
Rick: When a tourist comes to Norway, we kind of think "expensive" and "high taxes."
Kari-Anne: But we also have a thorough social democratic principle where the idea is that the basic things should be free for everybody.
Rick: Now a normal American worker pays probably 30 percent of their income in taxes, I think. What would a worker… ?
Kari-Anne: Generally would be around 50 percent.
Rick: OK, but if you add in the cost of education to send your kids to college, and health care in America…
Kari-Anne: It would probably be the same.
Rick: Probably the same. But does this idealism demoralize people from being innovative and working really hard to get ahead?
Knut: I think it is the opposite, because you have security in the bottom, and then you can actually have creativity and productivity based upon that.
Rick: I'm sure it's not perfect, but all in all, do you like the system?
Kari-Anne: I'm convinced that it's a good idea. I mean politically, it's a basic idea I believe in. And of course it can always be better. But I think the best thing is you're free from the kind of anxiety that I have a feeling many Americans feel — that, um, "How can I afford to go to hospital in case I get ill? What happens when I get old if I don't have the money to stay in a nice place?", for instance. All these things are more or less taken care of in this system.

Wherever I travel, it's stimulating to learn about different social systems that confound many Americans.