IASC 2014 – European Conference: Umeå, Sweden

This week, senior research fellow John Powell is in Sweden in the town of Umeå situated in the north of the country as he is presenting at the International Association for the Study of Commons (IASC) European conference. The conference title is ‘From generation to generation – the use of commons in a changing society’. Its broad theme is ‘how to meet the changing society still using resources in a sustainable way’, and incorporates three sub-themes:

  1. Management of Northern Commons and Indigenous Commons in Transition
  2. Rural and Cultural Commons in Europe
  3. Multi-level Governance of Local and Global Commons


As with previous conferences, John has travelled with Kate Ashbrook from the Open Spaces Society, both of whom are presenting at the conference. More about that in due course however, as this initial Blog post from John, details his thoughts, experiences and musings from his first visit to this area of Sweden.


Flew in to Europe’s current ‘capital of culture’ last night – Umeå in the north of Sweden. The flight from Stockholm was relatively short, and so was the runway when we landed, I think the pilot had the engines in reverse before the wheels even touched the ground, and then did a fast u-turn from where we stopped – about 30 yards from end of the tarmac – to take us back to the terminal buildings.

Umeå’s a pleasant town, situated on the banks of the River Ume just before it empties into the Baltic. It is also known as the ‘City of birches’ due to extensive planting of Silver Birch trees along wide avenues following a disastrous fire in 1888 which destroyed most of the town.   Perhaps of more significance is finding out that Umeå is the home town of Stieg Larsson, (author of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ and other books in the trilogy), and from where he got much of his inspiration for the characters in his crime stories.

It’s quiet, even right in the centre of town, but whether that is due to the pedestrianisation of the town centre and the preponderance of bicycles, the trees and parks, or to the low population density, is difficult to tell. But there’s plenty going on including seminars (‘the Citizens Europe’), art exhibitions (Chinese, 19th century, photography, rock art), plays (‘The boy, the girl and the wall’), innovative music and dance at the opera, a week focused on sustainability of the region, a fashion week coming up next month, and when it gets dark – always the possibility of the northern lights.

The flight in was full and there is no shortage of new hotels, construction appears to be going on everywhere at the moment – driven by the ‘capital of culture’ designation and the towns significance in the regional economy of the north; with plenty of upmarket shops, and restaurants with fine food. Like anywhere else there are problems, Sweden has been taking in large numbers of immigrants from various parts of the middle-East which are inevitably causing some friction as different cultures adjust to one another. Another, very recent phenomenon in this part of Sweden, although found in many European cities, are the surprising number of beggars, a result of breaking down the barriers to freedom of movement within the EU. The other aspect that takes some getting used to are the eye watering prices, which have already required a visit to the ‘Bankomat’ to recharge the finances before a visit to a local bar, where we are served by a beautiful waitress – with tattoos all the way up her arms – but that’s another story.

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