Greening the Islands Foundation

What’s an island’s habitability?

I am proud to get the opportunity to present a new approach to island studies in the Greening the Islands Magazine. Since I received the GTI Award in the water category in 2017 at the GTI Conference in Favignana, we established friendship and respect with GTI.

The ‘Habitability’ method is non-technical and is still young, so far only tested on ten islands, but we believe it can contribute to the sustainable transition of islands.


A small island

I am an islander from the Åland Islands (Finland) in the Baltic Sea, an archipelago with five thousand islands whereof 55 are inhabited. One of these is my home: Kökar, a member of the GTI Observatory.

Kökar is a municipality far out at sea with 232 all-year residents, 700 summer residents, 7.000 yearly visitors, 150 cows, 2 horses, 200 sheep, 11 dogs, and 1 million honey bees. The island’s area is 64 km2, the same size as Manhattan, NY – but not as populated.

We run fifteen companies, a modern grocery shop, a post, a bank and a hotel. We have a school, an elderly people’s home, and a district nurse. There are seabirds, berries, apples, and millions of stars at night. The sea freezes in winter and the sun never goes down in summer.


Trying to be sustainable

Back in 2019, we asked ourselves: are we a sustainable society? We had become one of 26 pilots in the “Clean Energy for EU Islands” initiative and a partner in an Interreg project. We had funding to investigate ourselves, measure our sustainability and make plans for transitioning to green energy.

But we got stuck. Methods and tools offered to us didn’t fit our scale. Thumbsticks were too big, questions too grand, shoes too wide. The measurements overshot our targets, stretching outside our borders and far beyond our responsibilities. On the other hand, important issues weren’t addressed at all, above all how our population shifts heavily with the seasons which strongly affects our infrastructure, our energy use and our cost of living.

At that time, I was the chairman of the island’s municipal council. Our two most important problems were the slow but steady decrease in population numbers, and the ageing of our residents. What worried us most was our lack of attractiveness as a place to live. How could we stop young people from leaving our beautiful island? What was wrong with us?


An alternative method was born

We weren’t habitable, a word and a concept I invented at the time. It wanted to focus on matters we ourselves could influence, practical issues within our powers, such as jobs, housing, school, social services, well-being and ferries.

We divided our research into seven parts: (1) well-being, (2) trust and participation, (3) water, (4) ecosystems, (5) attractiveness, (6) energy, and (7) local economy. Within these seven areas, a student, my fellow islanders and a core team developed 40 understandable, measurable indicators. Half of the island’s population got engaged in meetings, surveys, interviews and focus groups. We trusted people to investigate their own island as citizen scientists, working within the given framework.


What did we find out?

After half a year, every indicator had been measured. The worst ones regarded CO2 emissions, energy use, seasonal shifts (in population), municipal tax and municipal debt. Bad ones were fish, distance, prices, population numbers, summer residents, visitors, renewable energy, locally produced energy, energy use, and tourism. Assets and strong assets were safety and integration, water and sewage handling, vital biotopes, daycare and school, the grocery shop and waste handling. We summarised our findings in a report and converted our findings into a municipal action plan.


What did we do with the results?

One of the great weaknesses of our island was the huge amount of fossil energy spent on heating and transport. 63% of our energy was used to travel to and from the island causing 81% of the emissions.

We submitted a bid to Horizon 2020 on innovative ways to use less fossil energy. The program committee found our application interesting and well-grounded thanks to our habitability analysis and granted us 1.2 million euro in funding to make a green energy transition.


Habitability circle diagram



What can others do?

The concept sparked curiosity among the European community of islands. So far, nine more islands have assessed their habitability.

One eye-opener is how we calculate the populations of an island in person-days, and how we describe the extreme shifts in human pressure over the year. This will make it possible to address infrastructural, socio-economic, and natural challenges to the transition.

A habitability study, mainly conveyed by the islanders themselves, forms a solid ground for change.


Author of the article: Author: Christian Pleijel – Senior Advisor, Ilmatar.


Christian Pleijel

Christian Pleijel

On Key

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