The sun is shining, music is playing, toddlers are playing on the seesaw, teenagers are picnicking and tourists are taking pictures of the colourful graffiti on the walls. Hjartagarðurinn (“The Heart Garden”) is one of the most appealing spots in 101 Reykjavík, especially on a sunny day. In one respect, then, the park’s caretakers have succeeded in making it a free communal space, but there’s still a lot that needs to be addressed and understood about this once abandoned lot.
We met up with Tómas Magnússon, Tanya Pollock and Örn Tönsberg, three of the people instrumental in cleaning up and reviving the park, which rests between Laugavegur and Hverfisgata. Sitting at a table by the heart-pattern of bricks that gives the park its name, they catch me up about the spot’s past, present and future. The land is privately owned by Reginn, a property management firm that owns many plots and buildings in downtown Reykjavík. Before 2008, it had plans to build a mall on the lot—seven storeys tall and four storeys underground—but those plans were scrapped after the financial crash. The empty lot in the middle of downtown area was mostly abandoned, only frequented by local graffiti artists who sprayed their works ranging from playful doodles to poignant social commentaries on the huge, barren walls.
Soon enough though, other people started to notice the abandoned lot. “We saw the potential and we wanted to be here with our kids, but it was totally trashed,” Tanya tells me. And that’s where their project began. Last summer, Tanya, Tómas, Örn and others began their efforts to transform the space into a community park. Because Hjartagarðurinn is on private property, the city is not responsible for its upkeep. So the team organised group clean-ups, removing the trash and broken glass that lay strewn about the area. Slowly, walls were torn down, a stage was built, benches and tables were brought in, a little playground was set up—and their dream of creating a communal park where people of all ages and cultures comes together was slowly realised. “This is a sanctuary from the capitalist environment we live in,” Örn says.
Tanya sees Hjartagarðurinn as a sort of reverse story from that of Austurvöllur, the public square outside Parliament, which has become associated with protests and negative energy. This is a positive space, which really reveals some of the good things that have come out of the financial collapse. It’s a story of hope and change. Indeed, Jakob Frímann, an advocate for downtown Reykjavík, who once led a no-tolerance campaign against graffiti in the city, has now become a big proponent for the art form and the park.
As for the future, it’s a bit unclear. Though Reginn has been supportive of the entire project, it still owns the property. For now, however, the team is more concerned with the immediate future. With little help from the city, they’re still organising volunteer clean-ups to clear the cigarette butts and broken glass that accumulate in the park after every weekend. But they want to remedy the cause, not just fix the symptoms. They hope that the Hjartagarðurinn will instil a sense of community and encourage people to take more responsibility for how they treat it.
It’s a free space, a shared space and (we think) the best place to spend a sunny day in 101. But it’s far more than a pleasant park—it’s a community. For it to survive and thrive, everyone needs to cooperate and take responsibility to keep it up.