Not long ago, Árbær was merely heathland that walking or horse riding travellers passed through on their way in and out of Reykjavík. The land was bought by the City of Reykjavík in 1906 to gain access to clean water after linking a typhoid epidemic to contaminated wells in the city centre. It was not until 1965 that building began in what is today one of Reykjavík’s ten districts—a suburb with 3.540 homes and 10.192 inhabitants. In fact, almost all of the houses are built after 1965 and it is home to more young people, sixteen years old and under, and fewer older people, 67 years old and over, compared to other districts in Reykjavík.
Árbær is named after an old farm in the area, which had a guesthouse for people from out of town and a canteen for bored residents of Reykjavík. In 1957, this farm had stood uninhabited for decades and was nothing but a shadow of its former glory. Unwilling to let it decay any further, the City of Reykjavík decided that year to preserve it and create an outdoor museum. It was decided that the outdoor museum not only feature the Árbær farm, but also a number of other old houses that were moved from the city centre to this outdoor museum, which had been a popular concept in other Nordic countries. With over 20 old houses, Árbær Museum is the biggest outdoor heritage museum in Iceland.
A WINDOW TO THE PAST
The houses at The Árbær Museum are not the only historical remains in this fairly new suburb. When driving east on Ártúnsbrekka, one of two roads in Reykjavík where you can drive 80 km/h, a peculiar building can be seen on the right side of the road, just before the gas station. This building has always caught my attention. As a child, I was told that it was a potato storage and later, as a grown up, I learned more about the reason for its existence. It was one of the barracks built by US soldiers in Hvalfjörður during World War II for the purpose of storing bombs.
It was around this time that residents of Reykjavík got into farming vegetables—primarily potatoes. With the advent of geothermal heating of houses, however, a problem developed. Namely, people’s homes were suddenly too warm to store these vegetables. An entrepreneur saw an opportunity to move the old bomb storage to Reykjavík and transformed it into special storage for keeping potatoes as fresh as possible. The storage became fairly popular and served many mouths, with the potato loss being about 5% rather than 20–50% in the newly warmed houses.
A NICE PLACE TO RELAX
If you’re not fan of old houses and potatoes you need not worry. Árbær is a suburb that was designed with zoning in mind; people were to live in one place and work in another. An area of more than 370.000 m2 is reserved for industry with over 6.000 jobs at some of the biggest food companies in Iceland, which make chocolate, liquorice, beer, cheeses, ice cream, and more.
At the same time, Árbær is also home to some of the nicest outdoor areas in Reykjavík, with about 35% of its land being a municipal conservation area. Heiðmörk, which has been a municipal conservation area of Reykjavík since 1950, is the largest nature reserve in the city.
With lava fields, caves, and old stone shelters for sheep, the area is popular for walks, family picnics and fishing, especially during the summer. In Heiðmörk you also find Reykjavík’s water reserves and more than four million trees, which have been planted there in the last sixty years. There’s a strong belief that Heiðmörk is the location of Iceland’s first parliament, before it was moved to Þingvellir, but ruins were submerged in 1924 with the construction of a dam, leaving many people scratching their heads and gnashing their teeth.
AN IMPORTANT RIVER
The other recreational area in Árbær is the Elliðaárdalur valley. The word Elliðaárdalur is made up of the words Elliði (named after a ship belonging to settler Ketilbjörn), ár (river), and dalur (valley). The river Elliðaá, which runs through the valley, is cited in scripts dating back to 1235, and remains a notable river in Reykjavík.
In 1921, the river was used to quadruple the electrical power in Iceland when the first hydroelectric power station in the country opened. The power plant is still functional and its original building is designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, who also designed Hallgrímskirkja church, The National Theatre, and many other official buildings between 1920–1950. Today the river’s world class salmon and several hundred year old plants and seashells, which can be found in sediments, attract fishermen and geology lovers from all over the world. There is also a popular picnic area, dubbed Indjánagil (“Indian Canyon”) by teenagers in the late ‘90s, which has hosted an outdoor theatre in recent summers.