In between the University of Iceland and the Reykjavík Airport is a stretch of wetlands. On a cold winter day, steam rises above the marsh to make this small piece of nature seem otherworldly – particularly set between two modern institutions. This is Vatnsmýri Nature Reserve, 37,026 square metres of protected marshland that provides the water that runs into Tjörnin pond in downtown Reykjavík.
Vatnsmýri literally translates as „water marsh.“ The marsh‘s life, biodiversity and size have been affected by human interaction, much like the two other famous locations that sit adjacent to it: Nauthólsvík, a beach with imported golden sand, and Öskjuhlíð, a forested hill that stood bare in the early 20th century before a concerted effort was undertaken to plant and cultivate trees and other vegetation.
Part of Vatnsmýri was used for agricultural purposes during the 19th century. The first flights in this area occurred around 1919, and more experiments with planes taking off and landing in the area of Vatnsmýri began in the late 1930s. When the British invaded during WWII, they occupied the marsh and built a proper airport: RAF Reykjavík. Flights from this British base started in 1941. The British military handed the airport operations over to the Icelandic government on July 6, 1946.
The airport expanded over the years, and a good portion of the marsh disappeared. The University of Iceland encroached on the marshland as well, and other businesses and important institutions like the Nordic House were built on the land. This construction of buildings and destruction of land had a marked impact on the wildlife of the marsh – particularly the birds that nested there.
Not until 1981 did Reykjavík designate this area as a nature reserve, and only in 1984 did the city council pass the legislation necessary to protect Vatnsmýri. Despite several plans and the city‘s efforts to protect the land, invasive plants and animals and the destruction of the habitat have caused a steady decline in nesting bird populations. Chervil and creeping thistle have deterred birds common to the areas from nesting like they would normally do.
Despite the fragility of the wetlands and its ecosystem, Reykjavík held a contest in 2005 to design a layout for the city‘s use of Vatnsmýri. The University of Reykjavík was allocated a piece of land near Nauthólsvík, and construction began in 2007. In 2017 and 2018, student housing for the University of Iceland began on one end of the marsh, while a new residential area slowly rose on the other end.
In the last 20 years, efforts by the University of Iceland, the Nordic House, and the Reykjavík City Council have improved the conditions of the marshes. Sedimentation ponds, bridges, fences, and walkways have been built and plans are in place to remove some of the invasive species in order for the nesting birds to return in larger numbers.
Vatnsmýri is an important part of Reykjavík‘s nature. Not only does it feed one of the city‘s most prominent attractions – Tjörnin Lake – it is also a peaceful and beautiful location for a walk. Without it, Reykjavík may look very different. Our hopes lay in the institutions that have been responsible for its demise but now look to protect the marshes not only for future generations to enjoy but also for the sake of Iceland‘s fragile wildlife.