In June I was lucky enough to attend the 5th Nordic geographers’ conference at the University of Iceland in the city of Reykjavik.
This was an exciting conference that offered a forum for exchange between groups of people interested in how we might address the long term concerns about the environment, resource use and everyday social practices. The theme of the conference was ‘Responsible geographies’ and so many of the presentations were related to different ways that we might extend thinking around ways to conceptualise responsibility differently. There were a range of impressive presentations that displayed a diverse range of theoretical and methodological perspectives. For just a few examples; time geographies, gendered patterns of mobility, uses of art and sound as methodologies, patterns of migration and geographies of home and belonging, dealing with the effects of economic crises.Keynote speaker Kathy Gibson from the University of Western Sydney gave an inspiring presentation that invited a meshing of ideas from the conference to open up new ways of thinking how we might negotiate our understanding of and relation to the ‘economy’ differently. While many of the presenters drew on theories or empirical case studies rooted in different paradigms there was a real sense of hopefulness that got people talking to each other no matter how different their views.
The conference-organised field trip to the geo-thermal energy plant underscored the relevance of geography for how we take part in the global ‘carbon economy’. Iceland derives seventy-two percent of its energy from renewable energy sources (www.or.is). Eighty-nine percent of the population utilise geothermal energy to heat their houses to almost Hawaiian temperatures, roads and walkways are heated underground to prevent icing, and outdoor heated swimming pools and hot tubs are common. Energy use is high but environmental impact is low; this is hard to reconcile. As we drove past huge hot-houses growing bananas for export in remote parts of Iceland where no trees grow naturally, it really drove home the complicated and bizarre nature of the webs, chains, networks and relationships that hold people and places together.
Being in the Northern hemi-sphere meant with just a short plane ride I was able to take advantage of the networks established by Professor Lesley Head to visit the University of Gothenburg. I visited the Geography department for a brief three day visit and got to meet and talk to quite a few people considering it was the Swedish summer. Bertil Vilhemson, Marie Stenseke, Anders Larsson, Therese Brolin, and Lota Frandburg, Elin Slatmo (and others) all extended me a warm welcome. I got to tag along on a (slightly wet) boat cruise to visit an archeological dig of a significant historical site that was being considered in relation to urban-redevelopment plans
As someone interested in mobility what I found most fascinating about my visit to this city was how the use of alternatives to the car created a very different feel to the city. I was surprised by the large numbers of people walking, eating and drinking on the sidewalk cafes and bars in a busy city of over half a million. With wide leafy tree-lined streets, cobbled walkways, two-way cycle paths, trams and buses the streets no longer belonged entirely to cars. Following legislation last year, car drivers in Sweden must now give way to pedestrians. For me at least this meant making eye contact with drivers (not to mention cyclists) and negotiating the space of the road… something that I am not accustomed to living in southern Sydney. However, as Lesley points out in her post, it is important not to romanticise, as access to transportation is unevenly distributed amongst different groups in society and is caught up in the processes of gentrification in urban areas. Still, riding a bicycle on a summer’s day through the streets of Gothenburg without choking on car fumes does make one think that there might be other possibilities for Australian streets.