Sweden; A Sustainable Utopia?

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Flying into Stockholm, Sweden on Iceland Air

Iceland was a blast, quite literally sometimes as it was often very windy. But it was time to move onwards so off we went to Stockholm, Sweden! Once we arrived in the city centre, I was blown away by sheer size and amazing architecture of the old buildings. We found out later that people in Stockholm consider it a “small city”, even though there almost 1 million inhabitants, not counting the surrounding area.

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Walking the streets of Stockholm
Old Town
Old Town

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And then once we arrived at our hotel, I was even more impressed as we were staying on an old ship!

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Our hotel!
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Not a bad place to spend a few days
The view from my bed
The view from my bed

We spent the next few days sleeping on this wonderful ship at night and then exploring the city during the day or participating in planned activities. One such planned activity was to visit Trädgård på Spåret which literally means, “garden on tracks”. This was essentially a community garden that popped up once visiting Germans saw the abandoned railway and decided they would like to make a social green space. The idea took off from there and now it’s a vibrant community gathering place where locals come to learn how to garden, get in touch with nature, socialize with friends and even drink wine as one lovely local lady explained to me! Some takeaways from this initiative include:

  • make it about sharing. Share the knowledge, share the how-to, share the tools, share the food.
  • do it well and people will hear and come to you.
  • having a PR person as one of your founding members definitely isn’t a bad thing
Trädgård på Spåret
Trädgård på Spåret
Learning about the community garden
Learning about the community garden
It's all built on crates so it's mobile if need be
It’s all built on crates so it’s mobile if need be
Street art - vandalism isn't an issue in the gardens when they leave their gates open 24/7. It's only when it's locked does vandalism occur.
Street art – vandalism isn’t an issue in the gardens when they leave their gates open 24/7. It’s only when it’s locked does vandalism occur.

Close to the community garden was a traditional Swedish garden which consisted of mini-homes and beautiful gardens. I loved this space and while it’s not very functional for many in Stockholm as there is a 10+ waiting year list, I believe a modified version could be successfully created in the CRD as an answer for sustainable housing and/or low-income housing.

The Mini-Home Garden was right in the middle of a bunch of skyscrapers
The Mini-Home Garden was right in the middle of a bunch of skyscrapers
Gorgeous trail
Gorgeous trail
A well cared for garden
A well cared for garden
Such a great green space
Such a great green space

Moving on from the gardens, we took a look at two sustainable redevelopment projects in Stockholm. These were Hammarby Sjöstad and Royal Seaport. Hammarby was the older of the two and it included (but is not limited to) features such as reclaimed water, solar, car sharing, electric car charging slots, public spaces, strong recycling and waste programs, well connected active and public transporation routes and biogas. Royal Seaport was a newer development and had all of the same with more green spaces, community garden and more. Royal Seaport developers learned from Hammarby that they needed to improve upon 2 main things and these were:

  1. Make clear, measurable goals with a detailed step by step plan for each goal
  2. Engage the public before beginning construction
Royal Seaport
Royal Seaport – Notice the Recycling in the foreground and many many bikes in the background
Hammarby
Hammarby
Hammarby from the water
Hammarby from the water

Some of the key takeaways from these two developments were:

  • making active and public transport easier and cheaper than alternatives (i.e. driving) will improve their numbers (i.e. add trams, buses, bike lanes, metro lines, add congestion tax like Stockholm did, make certain areas pedestrian only).
  • make parking lots into parks
  • waste nothing – use waste as energy (i.e. biogas)
Royal Palace in Stockholm
Royal Palace in Stockholm
More of Stockholm's amazing architecture
More of Stockholm’s amazing architecture
Spent an evening working out on top of the boat. Not a bad view to do so
Spent an evening working out on top of the boat. Not a bad view to do so
Farewell, Stockholm
Farewell, Stockholm

After a bit more exploring of Stockholm, we took the train to Lund, Sweden, a university town near Malmo, one of the world leaders in sustainability. A town that was once an industrial town that evolved into a sustainable city through effective progressive top down management.

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Malmo’s most famous landmark – the Turning Torso
The Turning Torso is right in Western Harbour, another sustainable development
The Turning Torso is right in Western Harbour, another sustainable development

We only had a brief time in Malmo, but we took advantage of it. We had a great morning session at City Hall with their IT Department and Sustainability Strategists who walked us through their Comprehensive Master Plan and ingenious mapping techniques (including 3D)!

3D Mapping
3D Mapping
Models printed by 3D Printers
Models printed by 3D Printers

Some fun facts from this session would be:

  • Malmo’s municipalities are all centralized to one Planning Department, rather than all of them having their own
  • 200 of the city’s buses run on biogas
  • 500kms of bike lanes stretch across the city with various pedestrian only spaces

Once we finished at the City Hall, we took a tour with two different guides. One who helps run an outdoor educational program for kids and then another with a planner for the Western Harbour Redevelopment Project – home to the famous Turning Torso building.

Turning Torso
Turning Torso
I loved this building
I loved this building
Turning Torso Selfie #gopro
Turning Torso Selfie #gopro
Gorgeous sun halo that day
Gorgeous sun halo that day

Western Harbour is considered a leader in sustainable development and it was easy to see why, but it also still had its drawbacks. A quick list of some of the pros and cons are below:

Pros:

  • walkable
  • bikeable
  • close to public transport
  • reclaimed water
  • solar
  • biogas
  • wind power
  • active waterfront community gathering place (not intended)
  • car sharing (powered by solar)
  • each house is unique and set up as an old European city with nooks and crannies everywhere

Cons:

  • Aimed at the wrong demographic (aimed at older folks so had to scramble to build schools as it is now a family orientated zone, just like many of the projects we’ve seen)
  • still some social problems in other areas (i.e. low-income folks)
  • lack of large open green playing space for recreation and socializing (a must for me with my soccer and frisbee background)
Solar powered car sharing station
Solar powered car sharing station
More of the sustainable housing
More of the sustainable housing

The city also believed in the policy of making things easy to do and people would do it, (i.e biking and bike infrastructure) but also have some programs such as a bike counter to motivate people a little more.

I could go on and on about the sustainability aspects of Malmo, but I’m going to stop it here because I imagine you’re getting tired of reading all this as I am tired writing this. Although that could be because it’s nearly 1am here in Copenhagen, Denmark.

I will quickly mention that on our day off in Lund we went for a quick ride around the city on bikes and played around with my GoPro and stumbled across a Quidditch game!

Biking around Lund #gopro
Biking around Lund #gopro

 

I also got asked to join in on a Swedish bachelor party as we were walking across a town square at one point. The boys needed a contestant to compete against the groom by building any 4 legged animal out of nails and ductape, except I had the tape and the groom only had string. It was a great time and at the end I was awarded a beer or a hug from the groom and if you know me at all, then you know I obviously went for the hug.

Joined in on a Swedish Bachelor Party
Joined in on a Swedish Bachelor Party

With that quick recap, I shall call it a night. But for now, I will leave you with a reminder about one of the key lessons that we’ve been exposed to over and over again and how you can apply it to any aspect of your life. If you want to improve active participation rates, make it easier (and cheaper to do). This applies to sustainability, and active and public transportation, but it can also be applied to things such as eating healthy. It’s hard to eat healthy when you have a big tin can of cookies waiting for you in the cupboard. Make it easy and take them away. Can’t go for a run? Make it easy and put on your shorts and shoes and step outside – you’re halfway there already. So simply make it easy. 

 

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Iceland; Tough, Barren and Resilient

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. I am currently writing this on a train through the countryside of Sweden on our way from Stockholm to Lund. Before Stockholm, we (the Northern Europe Sustainability Field School from UVic) were in Iceland and before that we were at home in Victoria learning about initiatives a little closer to home before coming out here.

A quick recap on our Victoria portion of the field school would be that we:

  • participated in a Homelessness Workshop run by the City of Victoria featuring Mark Lakeman and Andrew Heben, both of whom have done fantastic work done there combating homelessness through mini-home communities. This concept really spoke to me, but not just as a homelessness initiative (although in Medicine Hat, where homelessness was recently eradicated, housing costs $20,000/year whereas if someone lives on the streets it can cost the city up to $100,000/year), but also a potential idea for sustainable communities.
  • Had several guest lecturers including several UVic profs, and some Traveler in Your Own City folks who taught us that the best way to engage in a conversation is to smile, actively listen and ask good questions (avoid yes or no questions).
  • met with City Counsellor Ben Isitt, Senior City Planner Kristina Bouris and several other CRD employees who spoke of Victoria’s current situation and upcoming plans. For example, wIthin the next 20-30 years, Victoria is planning to expand it’s bike lanes and active transportation routes, improve it’s public transportation, create walkable urban villages and ultimately a more sustainable and resilient city. Mr. Isitt asked us to look at several things in Europe and these include; housing supply (and how much the state/municipality provides), (compact) urban design, active transportation and food systems (i.e. agricultural land development and support).
  • toured and helped out at Springwood Commons, a community garden project in Fernwood that is run by members of the community and is really an inspiring piece of work in Victoria.
  • toured Dockside Green, which is a sustainable development in Vic West and noted our observations and discussions for a larger scale project, Eco-Urbanism for Dr. Meg Holden.

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    Views from the CRD Building (top) and from the top of a building in Dockside Green (bottom)

And then with that, we had concluded our Victoria portion of the field school! I then enjoyed a great May Long up island with family and friends, some whom I hadn’t seen in years! Eventually, Wednesday, May 20th rolled around and we headed out for our first international destination….Iceland!

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Blue Lagoon, Iceland #gopro

Our flight left Vancouver around 4pm and due to the time differences and the time differences we didn’t arrive in Iceland until about 6am the next morning (Iceland is 7 hours ahead of Victoria). Since we arrived so early and couldn’t check into our hotel until later in the day, we dove headfirst into the whole sustainability aspect of this field school and toured a Geothermal Power Plant. Some highlights from there would be that:

  • Iceland runs on nearly 100% renewable energy
  • They are firm believers in wasting nothing
  • They are closely connected to their land and effectively uses it for their own needs without disrupting Mother Nature’s ways
  • they are open to continuous learning and have indeed learned from original geothermal projects
Touring the Geothermal Power Plant in Iceland #gopro
Touring the Geothermal Power Plant in Iceland #gopro

 

Bus rides! #gopro
Bus rides! #gopro

Once we completed this tour, we drove over to the Blue Lagoon, a world famous geothermal spa. Let’s just say that soaking in a massive hot tub is the best thing to recover from a 7 hour red eye flight and up to 30 hours of no sleep for me at that point.

The part of the Blue Lagoon that isn't used by people
The part of the Blue Lagoon that isn’t used by people #gopro
Dr. Cam Owens, our awesome professor enjoying the Blue Lagoon!
Dr. Cam Owens, our awesome professor enjoying the Blue Lagoon! #gopro

From the Blue Lagoon we headed to our hotel in Reykjavik and got settled by walking around the city. As we were driving in though, we noticed that there were hardly any trees and later learned that earlier generations of the area had cut them all down. Fortunately, reforestation efforts were underway. Once we got into the city we were free to explore and explore we did.

Some of the colourful buildings in Reykjavik
Some of the colourful buildings in Reykjavik
A gorgeous cathedral in the city centre that had spectacular views from the top
A gorgeous cathedral in the city centre that had spectacular views from the top #gopro
Just one angle from the panoramic vista from the top of the cathedral
Just one angle from the panoramic vista from the top of the cathedral

Reykjavik is a young city, with a bustling main drag and surrounded by ocean or gorgeous mountains. It is not for the faint of heart when it comes to finances, however, as a typical meal from a decent restaurant would cost you north of $30. Even a burger could be $10 or more alone! Fun fact: $1 CAD = ~110 Icelandic Krona. But renting a bike wasnt’ too expensive so a friend and I rented some and biked all around the city for an afternoon and a had a blast!

Biking through the city #gopro
Biking through the city #gopro

We were fortunate enough to meet with the creators of the “Iceland Green Map”, an incredible initiative that works to connect residents with nature. The project struggles to get funding as many of these similar things do, but it’s amazing to see what dedication and hard work can do as the awareness the couple (Gunna and her partner, neither of whom are trained as environmentalists) has spread is huge.

View from my morning run along the coast in the city one day
View from my morning run along the coast in the city one day

We then spent two full days on a bus touring different parts of the island nation. The first day we went up the coast to the Snaelfessness (SPELLING?) Penisula and toured a sweet little Volcano Museum that a world renowned geologist spoke to us in!

The Peninsula itself was quite amazing with a beautiful coastline, fishing villages scattered throughout and volcanoes running rampant in the area (not literally, an eruption was not about to happen).

GoPro selfie on the top of a cliff near a little fishing village
GoPro selfie on the top of a cliff near a little fishing village #gopro
GoPro selfie with the village in the background
GoPro selfie with the village in the background #gopro

We even had a chance to climb up a volcano!

Selfie on top of a volcano #gopro
Selfie on top of a volcano #gopro

The next day, we did the famous Golden Circle tour of some of Iceland’s iconic landmarks. We had the same great guide from the day before, a gentleman named Arni. Arni was a great soul and he taught us:

  • Icelanders can be a bit reserved at first, but often open up quickly once you’re in
  • Iceland is in a similar situation to Canada with regards to governments – both of us want ours gone and Iceland is undergoing general strikes in the near future
  • lullabies in Icelandic are works of art as he proved it by singing one to us
  • transportation and food security are two of Iceland’s largest sustainability difficulties
  • how to talk to Icelandic men and women in a bar (simply say ya ya!)

And much, much more. Arni guided us to the famous Thingvellir World Heritage Site first and we saw an amazing waterfall.

Thingvellir Waterfall #gopro
Thingvellir Waterfall #gopro
Such a gorgeous spot #gopro
Such a gorgeous spot #gopro

Thingvellir was an amazing spot and it was easy to see why it became home to the world’s first national parliament!

Arni teaching us about Thingvellir
Arni teaching us about Thingvellir #gopro

Thingvellir was also home to one of the world’s premier dive sites due to it’s surrounding crystal clear waters!

The clear waters of Thingvellier - visibility is over 100ft! #gopro
The clear waters of Thingvellier – visibility is over 100ft! #gopro

Thingvellir literally felt like a magical place but the day was just beginning as we then headed over to the OG Geyser – Geysir in Iceland. Such a sight to witness the amazing power that the Earth has.

Up it goes! #gopro
Up it goes! #gopro

And last but not least, we toured the Gullfoss Waterfall – Iceland’s 2nd largest and once again we were blown away by the power of Mother Nature!

Overlooking the falls
Overlooking the falls #gopro
Last group selfie in Iceland! #gopro
Last group selfie in Iceland! #gopro

And with that, our time in Iceland came to an end. We enjoyed one more night in Reykjavik and then flew out early the next morning to Stockholm, Sweden! More on that next time, but let it be know that Icelandic people are  tough and resilient, traits that can be connected to their tough, barren and resilient landscape and the strong connections that they’ve made with Mother Nature. After all, Mother knows best.

Mother Nature in her finest form at Thingvellir #gopro
Mother Nature in her finest form at Thingvellir #gopro
Thingvellir #gopro
Thingvellir #gopro

PS All photos are either shot with my GoPro Hero4 Black or my iPhone 5s.