From Iceland — Determining The Future Of A Beloved Urban Forest

Determining The Future Of A Beloved Urban Forest

Published August 25, 2023

Determining The Future Of A Beloved Urban Forest
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Isavia demands 2,900 trees be felled on Öskjuhlíð

What is the value of a tree?

They are key components in fighting the human impact of climate change. In tandem with the transition to green energy solutions and the phasing out of polluting industries, increasing the world’s forested land is key to sequestering carbon dioxide being expelled into the atmosphere. Moreover, scientific studies have found that access and exposure to urban forests has a positive effect on mental health, reducing stress, anxiety and depression.

Those are among the many reasons why news reports in mid August of Isavia’s call for Reykjavíkurborg to fell one third of the forest growing on Öskjuhlíð in central Reykjavík is raising concerns and sparking conversation among Reykjavík residents.

Isavia wants 2,900 trees felled on Öskjuhlíð

Photo by Art Bicnick

“As we state in the memo, we are just saying that we have noticed that the trees are becoming too high for the aircraft to operate in a safe mode towards the runway,” Isavia Regional Airports CEO Sigrún Björk Jakobsdóttir told the Grapevine about a notice sent to Reykjavíkurborg on July 6 requesting the removal of 2,900 trees from the southern slope of Öskjuhlíð. “This is nothing new. This has been discussed over and over again between the city and Isavia.”

The conversation about tree height and aviation safety was part of a discussion between the city and the state-owned operator of Reykjavík’s domestic airport dating to 2013. That conversation resulted in an agreement that eventually saw 140 trees felled in 2017 and around 10 trees each year since, according to Reykjavík Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson. “But this is at a totally different scale,” he said.

“We got this letter from Isavia demanding that around 2,900 trees would be cut down,” Dagur explained. “The plan B was for around 1,300 trees [to be cut down]. So we are processing this. It came as a bit of a surprise.”

Protected greenspace

Aside from catching city hall by surprise, Dagur says Isavia’s request raises questions on account of Öskjuhlíð being “a very valuable area for recreation and outdoor activity, and one of the most cherished green areas in the city.”

Öskjuhlíð also enjoys certain protections due to its placement on the National Heritage Register and being classified as a protected greenspace in Reykjavík’s master zoning plan.

Photo by Art Bicnick

The hill in central Reykjavík served as an outpost for British and American troops during the Second World War, and concrete bunkers can still be found while wandering the expansive walking trails through the pine and birch forest or meandering off the path among the greenery and boulders. Many visitors to Reykjavík would recognise Perlan’s glass dome atop Öskjuhlíð.

The trees at the centre of the conversation now are mostly pine varieties that were planted in the aftermath of the war. They are around 70 years old and some have grown to over 15 metres tall despite the notoriously harsh Icelandic conditions.

“The majority of the trees in the forest are pines and when they were planted in the ‘50s, nobody believed that they would ever grow so high,” Sigrún admits. “And in our opinion, you could plant a birch or other slow-growing and a lot lower trees [in their place]. That is something we want to discuss.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

Dagur says he has yet to see specific proposals from Isavia on solutions or alternatives to replace the mature growth, but he notes that growing trees in Iceland takes decades. “It’s one of the oldest woodlands in the city; it was totally bare before,” he said, adding that the city is interested in entering into a dialogue with Isavia to hear about their ideas and weigh the impact and timeline of those. “But our specialist warned that if those trees would all be taken down, it would be a project that could take decades to make something else grow instead.”

While the argument about aircraft safety will be considered, Dagur said he doesn’t take it lightly that the area is defined as a green space and classified as protected. “That is one of the key things that creates quality of life in our cities,” he said.

The threat of the trees

From Isavia Regional Airports’ perspective, the height of the trees at the eastern end of one runway are posing a safety threat to aircraft on approach for landing from the east. The angle of the approach is becoming too steep for some aircraft to handle.

The runway can be safely approached from the west without any obstacles. A westerly approach over Öskjuhlíð is sometimes required due to wind, Sigrún said.

“The EU regulations we’re working by state that no obstacle can be in the obstacle clearance surface,” Sigrún explained, saying that to immediately remedy the situation the trees approaching the obstacle clearance surface should be cut down, which she initially said “will be a lot less.” Once pressed, Sigrún clarified it would be around 1,000 trees and the remaining 1,900 would still need to come down thereafter.

Isavia has said in the Icelandic media the trees need to be felled in the next year.

Photo by Art Bicnick

“These are the regulations that we are bound to obey and this cannot be a decision of Isavia or somebody else. [A solution] has to be found that all parties can agree with,” she said. “I think if Öskjuhlíð is becoming more accessible and if we plant different kinds of trees in Öskjuhlíð, I think everybody should be sort of enthusiastic about that because we could make this a beautiful, even more beautiful place and more accessible than it is now.”

Sigrún told the Grapevine that Isavia would plant two trees for each one cut down on Öskjuhlíð – either slow-growing, shorter species on Öskjuhlíð or trees in other areas within the city limits.

Finding solutions

The location of Reykjavík’s domestic airport has been a debate for about as long as it has existed. The current airport was built by the British Army during the Second World War when the population of Reykjavík was a sparse 38,000. Today, residents of the capital area number around 140,000 and the land on which the airport rests would be valuable for sorely needed residential development.

Moreover, the noise pollution created by aircraft regularly taking off and approaching for landing immediately over homes in the city centre is considerable and constant.

But relocating the airport is a poison apple for members of parliament, who choose to court the favour of constituents in the countryside who enjoy flying into the heart of Reykjavík without having to commute 40 minutes from the international airport in Keflavík.

Sigrún said the airport – “if it will ever be relocated” – would take two decades to move.

Yet, the trees on Óskjuhlíð have been growing for seven decades and removing the towering pines now will deprive entire generations of Reykjavíkingur of an accessible, mature urban forest in which to wander, escape city life and connect with nature.

While solutions that would see limited easterly use of runway 13/31, possibly diverting some traffic to Keflavík International airport, would pose a minor inconvenience, the decimation of a beloved urban forest would be an irrevocable tragedy.

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