Arctic Circle Forum: Scotland and the New North

Graham Marchbank discusses the recent conference held in Edinburgh

This two-day conference was an opportunity for Scotland to align itself with neighbours to the north; “a new geopolitical neighbourhood” as the former president of Iceland put it, alongside the more typical relationships with Westminster and the EU.  Climate change, natural resources, renewable energy, transport systems and tourism were big themes.  Here’s a flavour of the content.

Sub-federal territories including Alaska and Quebec (see its Plan Nord operate within their nation-states forging bespoke policies and goals.  Along with more autonomous areas such as Greenland and the Faroes, there’s active interest in collaborating within the Forum, as can Scotland with its devolved interests.  For a partial view on the political and commercial polarities at the conference (pun intended!), look no further than this article in Bella Caledonia.

Lord Deben, chair of the UK Climate Change Committee made the point that while Scotland is ahead of the curve, it can do more, notably as Ute Collier from the International Energy Agency commented on decarbonising heat.  Climate change also affects marginal and poor especially coastal communities across the globe who do not enjoy the luxury of adaptation.  So there’s a good read-across to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 13.

For planners, the conference was an opportunity to learn from research, emerging evidence bases, not just on climate change, (not even on fish migration) but building-in community and transport resilience, energy innovation, design and digital.  The digital economic opportunity is to make size of community and distance irrelevant.

Container shipping across newly available northern routes as a consequence of ice-melt is still an uncomfortable conversation.  But if done well, Scotland and Iceland can grab a slice of the action if ports are upgraded – mention being given to Scrabster, Scapa Flow,  Stornoway and Aberdeen (NPF3 national development 5: consented but a question mark over container capability?).  But the price to be paid from marine diesel emissions in the high north is beginning to register although conversion to cleaner LNG is being taken up.

Hot on the heels of its overall award in the Scottish Awards for Quality in Planning, Orkney came out of the conference especially well for its work on renewables at the European Marine Energy Centre including the project (green hydrogen systems in isolated territories), in local development planning taking account of flood risk, on-site renewables in new-build and on harbour upgrades.

Exhibitors included a presence from schoolkids under the Wester Ross Youth Development umbrella.  To underscore the importance of Scottish Planning Policy’s focus on connectivity, progress has been made on broadband for the Applecross community.  Applecross echoes investment in internet and radio communication which has transformed educational attainment in western Greenland.

The conference was heavy on data, stats and graphs to suit the subject, for example tourism growth in Iceland.  Turns out Eyafjallajokull did Iceland a favour by erupting!   The Scottish angle was perhaps looking at a different tack e.g. food and drink quality to enhance the offer but also the idea of the snow roads route in Cairngorms National Park.  The slow adventure in northern territories idea is well worth a look, encouraging longer stays rather than the Instagram shot while the engine idles.

Visit Scotland referred to the National Tourism Development Framework which highlights the role of the  planning system. North Coast 500; Scotland’s answer to “Route 66”  was a tourist route I had not heard.  A strong sense of brinkmanship was in the air concerning visitor management or tourist taxes.  However Iceland’s Blue Lagoon has already managed tourist traffic away from busy mornings spreading the load and enhancing the visitor experience in so doing.

Cruise ships visiting small ports in Alaska partner local companies to spread the load out of town but the sharp-eyed amongst you will have read about the tourist backlash and pressures from monolithic cruise liners in the Mediterranean.

In a session on design, innovation and digital, Graham Hogg from Glasgow architectural practice Lateral North introduced some really interesting ideas about work on people and place in the wider north including with the community and the Anchorage Museum and augmented reality tourism focused on sculpture in Staffin on Skye.

The event ended with a session by Young People in Remote Communities including a pitch by the 2050 Climate Group with the hashtag #2050startsnow where there was the opportunity to sign up as mentors for younger professionals dealing with adaptation and mitigation on the transition to a low carbon economy.  2018 is the Year of Young People and planners across the profession should be alert to ensuring our youngsters participate in place-making.

So all-in-all, look north on as well as to other points on the compass for inspiration!

Graham Marchbank is a member of the RTPI Scottish Executive Committee

Guest blogs are not always the views of RTPI Scotland


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