Relational landscapes and rock star geographers on a solo flight

After a very smooth trip to Malmö, Sweden I stepped into an IKEA catalogue. This hotel room was going to be home for the next four days. I was in Malmö for the Relational Landscape Studies of Urbanisations Conference at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. I have blogged before about how I find conferences exciting and overwhelming experiences. It was great “flying in AUSCCER formation” at the two first conferences I attended. In those instances there were colleagues who introduced me and who guided me and other starting PhD students around. None of that on this occasion, it was time for my first solo flight.

There was another reason this conference particularly excited me. To understand my enthusiasm you should know that in the first lecture of my master’s degree, Paulus Huigen taught Don Mitchell’s The Lie of the Land. There and then I realised that geography offers me a lens to study interactions between landscape and people, which appealed much more to me than the lens I had thus far used to study the world – that of the architectural historian, which tends to focus exclusively on the actions of architects and planners on the landscape leaving so many social groups and the landscape itself out of focus. Mitchell, a rock star geographer as fellow conference participant Colleen Hiner called him, was one of the keynote speakers of the conference. Put in teenage terms, this event was like moving out of my parent’s house and running into Johnny Depp on the very same day.

After organiser Mattias Qviström opened the conference, Don Mitchell lectured on the racist landscape of Moraga, California. He revealed how the local, predominantly white population’s green politics and environmental activism are an attempt to maintain the green hills around the town as a landscape of privilege. Reacting to conditions in nearby Oakland and a set of zoning and development regulations, ‘densification’ has been made into a racist code word that is operationalised to protect Moraga’s assets such as its white schools and high property values. His lecture set the tone for the rest of the conference, in which presenters questioned who certain landscapes are for and how the concept of a relational landscape can be put to use to unveil current and past agendas.

With thirty presentations the conference was easy to navigate. There was much time for discussion after the presentations and because of the small group there were lots of opportunities to probe and chat over the many cups of coffee, dinner get-togethers and a half day fieldtrip to a deserted and rewilded cement  quarry in Limhamn.

Limhamn quarry

Limhamn quarry

As the conference progressed and people got acquainted, a friendly and supportive community evolved in which constructive questions were asked and additional literatures suggested. After the formal part of each day we relaxed into informal chats over beer and soccer with cynical academia informed jokes sprinkled on top. After two and a half days it seemed to many of us as if we had met much longer ago. Now that I’ve met these people I look forward to big conferences like the AAG much more, because I can then meet up with them again.

On the last bus of the conference back from Limhamn to Malmö we discussed and mocked examiner committees, thesis opponents and graduation celebrations: beacons that mark the anticipated end of this PhD journey I’m on. After three long Scandinavian summer days we were all starting to get tired and as the bus approached Malmö Central I suppressed a yawn and Mitchell rested his head on his arms. Time to round up. This conference, an intermediate station on the PhD journey, further determined me to focus on the ones that are excluded from the urban landscape, it extended my reading list, it brought me new friends and it taught me that even rock star geographers are kind of like humans sometimes.

Ellen van Holstein is a PhD Candidate with the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research. You can follow her on twitter @ellenvan_h. Her last post was A stranger in Bangalore: reflections from the field.

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