By Collier Nogues
In March, the School of English and the Department of Geography hosted the 2016 Island Cities and Urban Archipelagos Conference. Presenters hailed from a broad swath of academic fields, ranging from landscape architecture to economics to English. Though I’ve been to, and presented at, several conferences and colloquia, this was my first conference presentation as a scholar of literature rather than as a poet. Several of my PhD colleagues wished me luck and also exclaimed how an interdisciplinary conference was the best kind—for one thing, they said, most people were specialists in other fields, and so I’d probably get a positive reception and no tangly aggressive questions in the Q&A. Sounds great, I thought.
They were right about the Q&A, but more importantly, they touched on something bigger which turned out to be a major virtue of the conference. Throughout the several days as we met in Run Run Shaw Tower, and then on Lamma for the conference dinner, or in Kowloon for a damp walk, there was an air of genuine curiosity and friendliness (which does happen at specialist conferences), but there was also a total lack, at least as far as I could tell, of the the competitiveness and network-y stress that tends to come with a gathering in close quarters of many specialists at different career stages. I felt like I was on a privileged tour of academic departments—each panel taught me something not only about the panelists’ topics, but also about their varying methodologies. It was a window into many different kinds of thinking, and it left my mind buzzing rather than exhausted, my usual post-conference state.
Stephen Graham, of Newcastle University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, kicked off the conference Tuesday morning with a keynote titled Vertical Ground: Making Geology. His explorations of how urban island spaces are organized, and how political economies drive distribution of limited resources, set the stage for the rest of the week. One of his questions in particular recurred throughout the following conference panels: why is it that we use the term “reclaimed” land, rather than “manufactured” or “artificial,” as though we are fitting something back into its place rather than inventing new shorelines? At issue are the social and political implications of the terminology engineers and architects use to describe their working projects.
Terminology was also a question in Vilsoni Hereniko’s film Moana: The Rising of the Sea, which screened Thursday morning, followed by a panel discussion. The film refuses the term “climate change refugees” to refer to island communities displaced by rising waters. That film and discussion, as well as a presentation on designing practical floating cities by Kelvin Ko (University of Delft), led the conference to one of its main takeaways. We were, of course, able to identify plenty of problems with the ways governments and institutions imagine and try to manage island cities. But what we wanted was a sense of possible solutions. As Ilan Kelman (University College London) pointed out in Thursday’s film panel, the technology to literally “shore up” disappearing islands exists; what we need is the motivation to mobilize it in service of communities rather than, or at least alongside, capital.
Quite a few presentations were Hong Kong-specific, ranging from a calculation of food miles required to supply ingredients to a luxury Hong Kong hotel restaurant (Stephen Pratt, PolyU) to an investigation of how mainland Chinese capital has influenced Hong Kong’s real estate market over the last decade (Ray Chon Fai Yeung, University of Calgary). Especially noteworthy was HKU Department of Geography Chair Professor C.Y. Jim’s keynote on how Hong Kong manages, and mismanages, its trees in the city’s densest urban areas. And in a feat of planning, the conference’s organizer, Adam Grydehøj (Island Dynamics and the University of Greenland), arranged several off-campus trips designed to allow participants to see Hong Kong’s island urbanity close-up: a boat tour of the industrial harbor, a walking tour of Kowloon, and an excursion to the New Territories including a visit to Wun Chuen Si Koon Temple and the Ping Shan Heritage Trail.
By Friday afternoon, I was tired but thrilled, and ready for the closing keynote by Elaine Stratford (University of Tasmania). Her discussion of Hobart, Tasmania’s capital city, offered a practical and optimistic perspective, tracing the city’s investments in downtown arts projects and its concurrent repudiation of hinterland stereotypes to become a regional cultural center. It was an excellent end to the conference, leaving us with a concrete example of how engineering technology and political action can address the challenges unique to island cities.
I regret to add that one of the keynote speakers, John Urry, will not be able to continue the conversation begun by his contribution to the conference. We learned in late March that he passed away about a week after returning to Lancaster University from Hong Kong. I think I can speak for all the conference participants when I say it was an honor to have been present for perhaps his last collegial meeting, and I’m grateful to have shared the time with him. The next meeting of Island Cities and Urban Archipelagos, November 2017 in Madeira, will be dedicated to John Urry’s memory and his contributions to scholarship.