From Iceland — Keeping Downtown Wild

Keeping Downtown Wild

Published September 27, 2012

Keeping Downtown Wild
Arit John

Two-dozen little girls in Icelandic sweaters are singing songs inside a small glass building just outside the Nordic House. To the north one can see Vatnsmýri (“water swamp”), the small wetland area and wildlife reserve in downtown Reykjavík. Somewhere behind the plants Mayor of Reykjavík Jón Gnarr is waiting for his cue. He’ll be canoeing through the body of water to the shore where 20 or so eager guests—journalists, university employees and Nordic House staff—will greet him.
A few minutes before this grand event, Nordic House CEO Max Dager takes a moment to address the crowd, huddled together under the shelter of the building. “So why are we holding all these festivities here on a rainy day in Reykjavík? It is because we think that here in Reykjavík we have a unique extra quality which is rather unknown. And that is this wetland area and bird habitat here in the absolute centre of the capital.”
The mayor’s canoe trip is merely a gimmick of the September 13 press conference held to celebrate the opening of the Nordic House’s ‘Life in the Vatnsmýri’ exhibition, as well as to celebrate the first steps taken towards improving biodiversity in the wetlands.
Housed on the basement level of the Nordic House, the exhibition covers the wildlife and vegetation in the area and the Nordic House’s future plans for the area. The walls are lined with actual plants cut from the wetlands, as well as feathers and life-like dummies of the birds that nest there.
The second room of the exhibition contains a table with several magnifying glasses, where elementary school students can study samples from Vatnsmýri up close. This, after all, is the goal of the exhibition, to educate the next generation about the importance of nature in the capital. Max stressed the importance of teaching children about the importance of preserving nature and biodiversity. Instilling this sense of responsibility in the younger generation is a step towards ensuring the longevity of Vatnsmýri.
“Every weekday there will be a nature school for all of the elementary schools in the city and every day until the end of the exhibition in November it’s fully booked even though it hasn’t opened,” Max said. “I’m just sorry that I’m not 9–12 years old because then I could participate in this.”
The day isn’t just about the nature school. In collaboration with the University of Iceland, the City of Reykjavik and a team of scientists, landscape artists and engineers, the Nordic House has taken the first step in improving Vatnsmýri, a project that may take several decades. Specifically, they have expanded the ditches near the bird reservation so the area is completely surrounded by water. They have also lowered the level of the water by one metre and taken strides to remove some of the invasive plant species.
Over the years we have forgotten to upkeep the area, Max said during his opening remarks. “Now it’s polluted, we have a lack of birds nesting here and the number is diminishing every year. But now, at least, we have started a change in this development.”
Pollution in Vatnsmýri comes from two locations: Hringbraut, the main road that borders Vatnsmýri to the north, and the domestic airport, Vatnsmýri’s southern neighbour. When it rains, various contaminates—oil and chemicals used to defrost airplane wings, for example—are washed from the offending sites directly into the wetlands.
Katrín Ragnarsdóttir, the Nordic House’s architect, said the next step in improving the wetlands would be to prevent pollution by building drainage systems along Hringbraut and the airport. The Nordic House is also investigating methods of cleaning the water in Vatnsmýri naturally, using plants that are able to filter out chemicals and toxins. They have partnered with environmental NGO Landvernd (“Land protection”) to host a series of lectures with experts on the subject.
In 2007, the Reykjavík City Council called on the international community to come up with suggestions for the development of the Vatnsmýri area. The area under consideration encompassed the Reykjavík Domestic airport, Hljómskálagarður park, the University of Iceland and Reykjavík University, Nauthólsvík thermal beach, Öskjuhlíð hill, the Nordic House and Vatnsmýri wetlands and nature reserve. Participants were allowed to assume that the Reykjavík Domestic Airport (scheduled to be phased out by 2016) was no longer present.
In the introduction to the call for ideas, Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, the chair of the jury and a city councillor at the time, wrote: “Urban planning is always an interesting task, but planning capital cities and their key areas is not only fascinating but also very challenging for all communities which set themselves high standards. And Reykjavík is indeed that kind of community and that kind of city.”
Part of the ‘Life In The Vatnsmýri’ exhibition takes the winning design of the competition—presented by Graeme Massie, Stuart Dickson, Alan Keane and Tim Ingleby of Edinburgh (UK)—and alters it to further expand the suggested park area to span from Reykjavík City Hall to the Nauthólsvík thermal beach. The hope is to create one large area to centre the city around.
“A lot of very good things came up from the contest. I don’t think the last ten years of Reykjavík growing into various suburbs is very good,” Katrín said. “Reykjavík has become too spread out, in a L.A. way, where you have to go everywhere by car and you don’t really have any centres.”
The plan to phase out the domestic airport and develop the area that has been nicknamed 102 Reykjavík (the competition results were published in a 206 page book titled ‘Vatnsmýri/102 Reykjavík’). However, the biggest roadblock to this development has been the question of where the domestic airport will be relocated. Those opposed to the move cite the need for large city centres to have access to air transportation, especially considering the country’s lack of trains.
Even the Nordic House, which would benefit greatly from the absence of the airport and the pollution it produces, isn’t intent on the airport moving right away. “The airport should move when people are ready,” Katrín said.
“It’s not really a pressing matter, I don’t think it has to be exactly now,” Katrín said. “Iceland doesn’t really have the money to develop the area right now anyway, but in the future I think that this will be one of the areas that will be important and valuable for the city centre.”
This spring the Nordic House launched a call for entries of its own, asking participants to suggest ways to improve Vatnsmýri and connect it to the lake. The winning entry proposed digging a trench, or a “rainbow” passage under Hringbraut, “letting water, people and nature flow freely between the two sites,” as the proposal reads.
Connecting Vatnsmýri to Hljómskálagarður park makes sense. Ecologically, Vatnsmýri and the lake share the same water supply. Water flows underneath Öskjuhlíð hill, down to the airport, through Vatnsmýri, under Hringbraut and into the lake. It continues to the stream underneath Lækjargata (“stream road”).’
At the end of the day, the Nordic House understands its limitations. Despite the presence of natural water in the area, Vatnsmýri is a man-made wetland. The first generation of ducks to settle in the area were brought in by humans. Their wings were clipped to keep them in Reykjavík and only after several generations did their offspring get in the habit of returning to Vatnsmýri.
“The birds are there because the Nordic House chooses for them to be there,” Katrín said. The inorganic development of the Vatnsmýri makes humans responsible for the area, but also limits how successful it can become.
“The important thing is to understand that… we call it wild nature in the capital, but it’s man made and it’s really there for the birds to nest,” Katrín said. “You have to take care of it as if it were a garden or a flower bed. It’s really not, and it never will be, the most perfect wetlands area. What’s interesting about this area is it being a showcase to the citizens.”
For the Nordic House, the University of Iceland and ultimately the city of Reykjavík, the key is to not take the development opportunities available to them for granted. Only a handful of capital cities can lay claim to a giant swath of green nature in the centre of their city. So while Vatnsmýri may not be the most impressive wetlands area in Iceland, it serves a specific purpose.
“It’s really a unique opportunity to have the capital of a country with a very large, green park in the city centre,” Katrín said. “And we should take care of that option and not build a little here and a little there until the possibility’s not there anymore because you cut it into pieces.”

Life in the Vatnsmýri runs until November 4.

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