Magnus Gommerud Nielsen is called the Electric Gardener by the city of Oslo. He has worked as a gardener at Vestre Cemetery for the past 12 years and from there he has driven change with a simple but revolutionary idea: the maintenance operations of cemeteries in Oslo has to be electrified towards a greener city.
He has been replacing fossil-fuelled machinery at the cemetery for electric ones and tractors for bikes. His initiative has contributed to the electrification of the entire Agency for Cemeteries in Oslo.
Magnus is Green at heart and he saw an opportunity to change the way cemeteries were maintained in the last decades. ‘I like to work with green things and find new solutions that can help make both the cemeteries and Burials Agency and Oslo greener’, he says with a smile.
Magnus was met with a fair bit of skepticism when he first initiated greener daily operations. His colleagues were, after all, fond of the tools and vehicles they were already using. In addition, it costs money to replace equipment, and the proposals had to be approved by the City of Oslo. But they listened to him.
Cemeteries are often large and flat burial grounds. ‘It is completely foolish to drive 50 meters in a heavy tractor with only one spade on the loading platform’, explains Magnus Gommerud. ‘Vestre Cemetery is large and flat, so the bicycle is a very convenient means of transport. In addition, we now have limited unnecessary driving with diesel-powered equipment’.
His interest for cycling may be due to the fact that he is half Danish and has grown up with box bikes from Denmark. ‘We did not force people to switch from tractor to bike, but when the new electric cargo bikes became available, my colleagues began to prefer them. People who have sworn by the diesel-powered tractors for years have suddenly started loving the bikes, and that is fun’! he says proudly.
Vestre Cemetery has also replaced large parts of its petrol-powered equipment with electric and quiet lawnmowers, edge mowers, chainsaws and hedge trimmers thanks to Magnus’ efforts. ‘When we use the electric equipment instead of the previous petrol-driven and motorized ones, we do not have to breathe in as much exhaust or be exposed to as much noise’.
Previously, you could hear the noise from the lawnmowers from afar. Now the cemetery has become even more peaceful, although it is situated close to the metro and a busy road.
Cities are now more willing to rethink their cemeteries in a sense that they are beautiful green spaces that offer excellent opportunities for citizens to connect with nature. With the drop in demand, there are old cemeteries where burials are no longer carried out and they are being recycled and converted into public parks, playgrounds or gardens. However, how to manage the coexistence of the dead and living remains a challenge.
In Munich in two old cemeteries the city complains about too much noise made by visitors. However, in Berlin children are encouraged to explore the space at cemeteries, and not discouraged from climbing on some of the stones. On the contrary, increasing density of urban areas threatens cemeteries like in Cairo, which has developed into one of Egypt’s worst slums and around 500,000 people occupy the necropolis.
Due to these many challenges we will see in the coming years innovation driven from cemeteries towards a more sustainable and greener city.
Magnus explains that they think holistically when they work with environmental solutions at the cemetery. In addition to reducing carbon emissions, they work to strengthen and safeguard biodiversity since parks are significant green areas in cities.
The meadow projects they have initiated facilitate increased biodiversity and better conditions for pollinating insects. They have also planted a lot of pollinator friendly perennial plants in the flower beds that attract large amounts of bumblebees, bees and butterflies.
For Vestre Cemetery and the Cemeteries and Burials Agency, it has been a good idea to think in an innovative manner, and not to take for granted what they have done for years. The green mindset in people is starting to give positive ripple effects that become tangible through citizens’ ideas. And the city of Oslo is listening.
Photo on the cover courtesy of Oslo European Green Capital 2019