Iceland sees resiliency at play in Portland

Transit planner, Peter Koonce (center) with planners from Reykjavik, Iceland(Photo taken by Victoria Dinu)
Submitted by: Victoria Dinu
Student Ambassador, First Stop Portland

Cities across the world are challenging themselves and others to work towards reducing climate risk and greenhouse gas emissions. “Is the conversation getting easier as the city gets greener?” asked one of the five urbanist from Iceland who joined us for a day long study tour. Many of their questions where almost rhetorical, proving the point that there is still much to learn and improve when collaborating with different sectors while creating a shared vision for the future. Two of the deeper themes that threaded throughout the day alluded to how change is made and the importance of intentionality in regards to protecting our natural environment and what is built in, on, and around it. At one point, Portland transit planner Peter Koonce explained that the best way we can make the conversation and the process easier was to:
  1. “Internalize caring about the environment, and its value.”
  2. “Do things incrementally.”

Icelandic planner, Ragnar Björgvinsson (right) chats with Principal Landscape 
Architect, Mike Faha (left) from GreenWorks. (Photo taken by Victoria Dinu)

Here in Portland, Oregon we take pride in the diversity of the natural land surrounding us. This too is similar in Iceland. Because the great outdoors are so close to home, it is a central part to our belief system of what we prioritize as being important. One local architecture firm, GreenWorks exemplified these beliefs when they designed the Westmoreland Park in SE Portland. This nature-based play area includes boulder mounds, log structures, and movable sequoia branches. The design and material used show a stark difference compared to what most playgrounds look like in the U.S. and around the world.

Our delegation was fascinated by the park's natural character and design and how the children were interacting with it. GreenWorks Principal Landscape Architect, Mike Faha walked us around the park. He described some of the apprehension parents first felt about the unorthodox play structures. One mother told him "My child could get hurt..."  then looked at Faha and smiled after she realized that maybe that was probably a healthy experience for her child. The Icelanders pointed out that many of the playgrounds across their country were being standardized to look the same and made with unnatural material. Brynja Ingólfsdóttir, a planner from Reykjavik explained, "If you don't fall and hurt yourself, you never learn how to be normal, or what normal is." Another delegate from Iceland chimed in,"If parks are too safe, kids experimenting and playing don't get hurt and don't learn how to improvise."


These ideas struck me. If we want our youth to learn how to be more innovative, creative and ultimately more resilient, why wouldn't we want these traits as adults - and why not our cities as well? Why do we not allow ourselves to fall, brush ourselves off and try again? When we are discussing and putting ideas into practice, how will we champion new sustainable practices if we don't take bold risks and learn from them whether they are successful or not?

Resiliency is an underlying theme and a characteristic we need to embody. Resilience is even a central term in the rhetoric used today when communicating about the environment. According to Robert Cox, a former United Nations officer and Phaedra Pezzullo, an Associate Professor at the Indiana University wrote about this in their book, "Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere". They explain "The modern environmental movement remains heavily influenced by early 20th-century ecologists and core terms they have identified such as resilience, an organism's ability to adapt and to persist at the same time" (Cox, Pezzullo 2016). When we plan for the future and attempt to solve some of the most pressing issues involving our environment, our thinking and ideas will need to be new, innovative ones. The only way to do that is allow ourselves to take risks, and if we "fail" or "fall", it educates our steps moving forward. We must adapt and proceed with strength and curiosity in order tackle environmental issues facing our cities and planet. 

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