Johanna Alkan Olsson - June 2022
Johanna Alkan Olsson, member of the Urban Arena steering group and one of the heads of the Urban blue green infrastructure unit.
Where are you from and what has been your path to get where you are now?
Well, my path was very crooked, I was actually born in Lund and I studied here at the University. I studied at the department of Ecology, since that was the only place where they dealt with environmental problems at that time. But then in the midst of a field trip, with a lot of mosquitoes and birds, people were really engaged with those animals, but I understood that I am not as passionate about birds as my fellow students and that that was not my place to stay. I rather prefer being with people. So after that I started to study Environmental Law or every course that was related to the environment that I could find at Lund University, until I almost had two undergraduate degrees and in the end I did not end up with any. I heard about the possibility of going for an Erasmus year in Brussels, but after talking to the department study advisor I got told that Lund did not have a cooperation with that uni. So what I did was to become a free rider and I joined the Environmental Master Programme in Brussels, by choosing my own path and negotiating with different professors and study advisors. So that worked out and I went to Brussels for a one year Master's and since I enjoyed that programme so much I decided to continue in that direction. I thought I would write my Master thesis in Ecology, but that did not feel right, so at the same time I applied for a Transdisciplinary and Environmental PhD program in Linköping. I got the place and then moved to be a social or mixed scientist, since I just used social science methods and theories in my thesis. From there I moved to my Postdoc in England and then to a position as a research assistant, which was like a Post Postdoc in Sustainability Science. After that I jumped to the Department of Sociology of Law. As I was part of an interdisciplinary research group, somebody told me that I should apply for the position as a lecturer in Environmental Science. Since I had been away from Lund for such a long time, I did not know about the existence of the little department of Environmental Science. If I would not have gotten that position, I would have left academia for good! Moving around and not having a fixed position was very tiring, but I got the position and here I am! I have been holding tight to my position and doing a lot to improve my work and research. I do not think I can call myself a scientist, but I call myself an environmental social scientist, which is a very broad term, but it describes my path and what I do now.
It would be nice to know how your department is connected to the Urban Arena?
My department works mostly outside of the urban environment, but as more and more research money is going towards urban areas, more people are looking into exploring biodiversity and ecological issues in the urban context. Often they are not really well aware about the urban context and its structures, decisions, processes and needs. In the department we have six people who work in the urban area and we are three that are also looking at the wider context. We work as bridges between the natural sciences and other scientists at university.
Which research projects are you working on right now?
At the moment I am writing articles on Augustenborg in Malmö. We have looked into everything that has been written about that area and its history. We got interested in the area, since we saw that a lot of people use it as a reference and say it is very good. But we wanted to know what exactly is “very good” about it and explain how it became that way. Another thing we are working with is ecological compensation used by municipalities in the planning process by working with balancing principals. So if they destroy green areas by building or planning a new area they have a procedure for how they can compensate for that. We have been looking at all the Swedish municipalities and on how they work, why they work the way they do and what their focus is. So we have been wrapping up articles on that. Both with interview studies with 45 municipalities and document analysis on all planning documents of all the municipalities.
You are working with municipalities and how they could implement green strategies, what are some other future challenges that you think could be interesting or you would like to look into?
I think two future challenges that we try to get funding on are one the challenges of our coastal zones, where we perhaps have sea level rise. We work with protected areas and they either need to move somewhere or we need to solve the water level problem. There has to be a greater integration between the needs of the urban areas and the needs for biodiversity protection, which are also an important area for recreation for urban people. So we have to find out how we can work with that and how we can secure future biodiversity protection by still securing good urban development. And two I am working on identifying how we can implement Blue and Green Solutions in cities and actually showing how it can be done. Linked to municipalities there are issues on the knowledge and organizational level, such as having to find new technical solutions and innovating both organizational structures and nature-based solutions. I do not think that it is necessarily a new concept, but we have been on the same spot for a long time and we need to raise our level to make things happen. Both researchers and Swedish authorities come together working on this, since a lot of money has been poured into this research. And I hope something such as legal changes will happen. These are things not a scientist can work on, but we can prepare the data and show in which direction the policy makers can and should go to obtain certain results.
What is the Urban Arena for you, being also part of the steering group?
I think the network is the main thing for me about the Urban Arena. Meeting people and knowing that they are there is great. Actually right now I am supporting journalism students and their project focusing on climate change. My role is to serve as a bridge to all the people at Lund University. So then I can forward people with experts from example the Urban Arena and other Arenas I am part of. Every week I reach out to other experts to get inspiration or help for my articles, for applications or to connect them to other experts. I think knowing what other researchers do is really important, to use the collective expertise from Lund University and creating collaborations to tackle a problem with a different methodology or perspective. I think that is super fascinating. It is like different cultures that are sort of doing the same thing, creating a good life for people or in this case science. So for me that is it, the people.
Why are cities so interesting for you?
Again, the people. I think it is a very dynamic place, where we encounter each other and fill a lot of our needs. Cities are important for our culture and we meet and are forced to meet diverse others. In the countryside the dynamics are different. I like the countryside, but it can be problematic since it is not a diverse space. I think you can get inspired in the city. The Urban Arena itself is also a city within the university, a little community that you can grow with and from. Bigger cities give you a great vibe and that is where I feel the best. Many of my colleagues in the department like birds, but I like people. I like to see them, listen to them and get inspired by them.
What is your favorite city, do you have one?
I really fell in love with Washington as a city. I was so surprised and I think it could be fantastic if you took away a lot of the cars. It is a flat city with a lot of greenery and big trees along the roads and great spatial qualities. I like Barcellona as well and a lot of medieval cities. Well, I guess I like a lot of cities, but my main focus is on the green and walkability. I think that is how you can enjoy a city.
Any final thoughts or wishes?
In terms of the Urban Arena, I would like to meet people again in person in an informal way. I would enjoy getting to know the other experts and being able to ask them what they do, maybe even in a speed dating format, where everyone shortly explains their research. If we already have such a nice group of people, I want to meet them without an agenda.
You can find Johanna's reseach on the website of her department Centre for Environmental and Climate Science https://www.cec.lu.se/research and her research portal profile https://portal.research.lu.se/en/persons/johanna-alkan-olsson