A Reykjavik Review, and the Arctic Leaders’ Statement

By Yuk-kuen Annie Cheung, PhD, RPP


On December 20, 2016, Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau and US President Obama released the United States-Canada Joint Arctic Leaders’ Statement. It cited a series of bilateral efforts aimed at ensuring a strong, sustainable and viable Arctic economy and ecosystem. This release sets the stage for the deepening of partnerships with other Arctic nations and the Arctic Council of which Iceland is a member. I have just returned from its capital, Reykjavik, this month. Therefore, I offer my own personal observations about the way of life there, which I think provides some meaningful context for the development of a broader partnership strategy in the Arctic.

We usually go on family holidays in early December, sort of a pre-holiday season warm-up. This year we chose to go to Reykjavik. Iceland seemed to be a peaceful place, and we could just go to experience the place as the locals do. We did not go for the aurora borealis because cloud and rain were in the forecast for the entire week. This time of year, daylight hours are amazingly short, so, apart from casual perusal of travel guides and speaking to friends who had been there before about local tips and tricks (keep your receipts to get a tax rebate at the airport, opt for the Christmas beer and stay clear of a certain local liquor), we did not have a special mission in mind when we embarked on our journey.

As someone who is fairly environmentally conscious, and with a professional background in sustainable development, in my scant pre-trip research, I was drawn to the claim that Iceland harnesses 100% renewable energy. A home of about 2,000 square feet spends about USD 500 in annual heating, only a fraction of what we would expect to pay here in Ottawa. I was curious to see how this worked in practice, and how it would feel living Nordic style with December temperatures hovering around zero degrees Celsius.

Less eagerly, I wondered whether Reykjavik would live up to its reputation as one of the most expensive places to eat and drink, with the cost of living in Iceland at the top of the European range.

Upon our arrival at Keflavik International Airport, we were immediately made aware of the country’s marvelous renewable energy profile by a large billboard. Apparently, this is a point of national pride – much like Canadians like to highlight our vibrant urban cities like Vancouver and Toronto, or – else – hockey!

Our Reykjavik holiday was decidedly a downtown experience. Our plan was to have no plans, other than sampling local foods, coffee sipping, visiting places of interest, including pubs and jazz nights …, walking everywhere, with only occasional side trips by local bus. Generally speaking, to go with the flow.
December in Iceland is both damp and windy. Reykjavik, the northern most capital of the world, located only 2 degrees south of the Arctic Circle, receives reduced length of daylight until December 21st, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. But the city has a warm glow and is definitely livable.

Being a volcanic island, it is well endowed with geothermal fields which have been tapped into, harvested and developed in pace with technological innovations; this has made all the difference in contemporary living. Natural hot water is used for both home and institutional space heating, and also for generating as much as 85% of the energy supply. According to an expert, an energy system transformation, from coal-burning to geothermal and other renewable sources of energy (hydro, wind, solar, etc.), started in the latter part of the 1930s. It expanded gradually on a house by house, street by street basis, through individual consumer choice and by trial and error, snowballing constructively towards a now widely accepted common goal and political commitment. Ninety years later, not only do we see blue skies even through the dimly-lit December air, but heating becomes so dependable that most, if not all, housing and buildings, old and modern, have large picture windows to welcome natural light. Even the glass curtain-walled skyscrapers swing open windows in wintry December to let in fresh air. This might just be the cure for winter blues!

Moreover, in my Canadian eyes, so contrary was this to the North American ethos of maximum energy efficiency through retrofitting our homes to be air-tight against the elements.

As we roamed the city, darting between art galleries, museums, monuments, and eateries, we were struck by the beautiful streetscapes, tasteful public art, colourful gingerbread houses, imposing traditional buildings, innovative infill homes and spectacular modern urban forms such as the notable Harpa Concert Venue – all evidence and reminder of the “Reykjavik boom”. The framing by the distant mountains added to the charm, as did the subtly shifting blue-grey of the sky offsetting mostly choppy Atlantic waters.

To dispel darkness this time of the year, Christmas lights are strung over every shop window and door, family homes too. What a feast for the senses! Such is the delightful outcome of collective community efforts, now and through the years.

Christmas decorations and festivities are not only attractive for tourists, they are a cultural expression, appreciated as well by the whole community — a treat for children and the child in all of us!

In Reykjavik, for a modest user fee or by buying a seasonal pass, the public can enjoy outdoor swimming in the seven thermally heated public swimming pools and spas scattered in the city. These complexes also are equipped with hot tubs, steam rooms and Finnish saunas. We took the plunge into this Icelandic way of life, reemerging quite refreshed, and we saw fellow swimmers returning to work and business after a mid-day dip.

It may be arguable whether the longevity of Icelanders can be attributed to one, or some combination, of these factors: its clean air and fresh water fed directly from the glaciers; the outdoorsy lifestyle of walking, cycling and swimming; local diet (with or without the smoked Puffin); or – perhaps – their hearty Viking heritage! Evidently, from my perspective, their wise renewable energy choice and commitments over the years have greatly enhanced the quality of life for the Icelandic community; the renewables that are also affordably priced have broadened the scope and participation in healthy living. No more smog generation by coal-fire plants is not only good for the lungs and beneficial to health, but this has improved the appeal of the city, and the future of the place seems so much more beautiful and promising. The appropriate energy mix of thermal and other renewables defines and contributes to the unique Nordic lifestyle of Iceland, which is enviable to those of us who live in similarly blustery winter climates. Yes, my Reykjavik experience tells me that winter can be enjoyed, not only by avid skiers and outdoor adventurers, but also by the rest of us, young and old.

Yuk-kuen Annie Cheung PhD, RPP is a registered professional urban and regional planner and a published author. She is an Associate with the York Centre for Asian Research, York University, and is serving on the Editorial Board of OMNES – the Journal of Multicultural Society, published in Seoul.

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