Bridging Islands – Introduction

The Bridge Effect
Introduction by Godfrey Baldacchino


Key Questions
If the notion of ‘boundary’ is key to an island’s existence and identity, then it is no surprise to find that physical bridges, linking islands to mainlands … “[drive] deep fissures in islanders’ collective unconscious, challenging their sense of themselves, their past and their future” (Milne 2001: 111). Physical bridges threaten to impose a logic over previously segmented places (Castells, 2002: 359). In spite of John Donne’s (1624) famous dictum that “no man [sic] is an island, entire unto itself”, there is no island, unless, and as long as, it awaits discovery. Islandness is not only about boundedness but also about connectedness. All island habitats depend on links with the world outside. But what kind of links? And what happens when these links become physically permanent? Would a bridge threaten an island or save it? Is an island physically linked to a mainland still an island? (Drouin & Foucault, 1997). Indeed, some islanders tend to be suspicious, cynical or outright hostile to such developments as bridges, causeways and tunnels; they express concern and disapproval of the socio-cultural, economic, political and/or environmental effects that being permanently connected to a mainland by a bridge or any other fixed link would have on their ‘island way of life’.

Islands, Connections, Separations
Whether in the real world or as metaphors, bridges (and other types of fixed links) are seen as typical examples of evolving and intensifying connectedness, icons of an exorable pressure of capitalist expansion and space-time compression, the material equivalent to the relentless linkage of the world’s people via information and communication technologies (Harvey, 1990; Huang, 2002: 1).

Bridges, tunnels, causeways and other fixed link formats are wonders of structural engineering and feats of human endeavour: most people would welcome and celebrate their construction as icons of prestige and engineering miracles. Yet, this is not to say that everyone considers these links to be a good thing. The main concerns arise from those on the periphery who are suspicious, cynical or outright hostile to the effects – socio-cultural, economic, environmental and political – that being permanently connected to a metropolitan ‘core’ may have on their ‘way of life’.

Small islands, with their small size and geographical precision, have an identifiable terrain – being surrounded by water – while small size reduces the options for self-reliance in a whole range of goods and services. In fact, small inhabited islands, almost by definition, would have some means of transportation that connects them to the rest of the world and which assures them of the provision of, often basic, needs. But what happens when such means of communication – such as planes, helicopters or ferries – are augmented or replaced by bridges, tunnels, causeways or other fixed links? And can anyone – on the basis of solid evidence – state unequivocally whether such a change is for better or for worse? And better or worse for whom? Are short-term benefits offset by long-term losses; or is it the other way round?

Insularity and connectedness are but two sides of the same coin, their meanings forever entangled. But: how does a bridge, tunnel or causeway change that? While it seems obvious that a physical connection can threaten islandness by removing its physical prerequisite, could connectedness save, enhance or even invent an island identity? Social Scientist Georg Simmel observed that a human being is “a connecting creature who must always separate and cannot connect without separating”. In connecting two objects, we simultaneously acknowledge and underscore what separates them; in separating two objects, we underline their connectedness. Thus, as Simmel has argued, in the act of bridging two items, we may actually be underlining their distinctiveness.

Moreover, perhaps it is not so much fixed links that should be the topic of study but people since it is they, with their actions or non-actions, who effectively limit, separate and border. While raw technology may appear unstoppable, its effects can and are nuanced in a variety of ways by individuals or institutions. Here, we realize the creative use of jurisdictional powers: we have islanders lobbying for special historic status, lobbying for the removal of tolls, voting in plebiscites for or against fixed links; voting to get their islandness back; supporting the introduction of ‘eco-taxes’ that would act to reduce traffic flows; renegotiating their island space with tourists or new affluent residents coming from the mainland; or voting with their feet and leaving their island altogether. Between these two extremist island scenarios –of gentrification and depopulation – we also realize the towering and influential role of key individuals in specific historical conjunctures: politicians, community champions and cooperative members who promote visions, table legislation, set up organizations; those who, in short, are political actors.

Bridging Islands to Mainlands: The Case of PEI
Closer to home, whether and how to bridge the Northumberland Strait, separating Prince Edward Island (PEI) from New Brunswick and the Canadian mainland, has been perhaps the most keenly debated and most traumatic event in the modern history of Canada’s smallest province. Moreover, it is ironic that so much debate took place about the imputed impact of the Confederation Bridge (referred to simply as ‘the Bridge’ on ‘the island’) before it was built and completed. Yet, only a few scholarly or technical reports have (so far) been undertaken after the bridge’s completion; appraising whether the various prognostications made before the bridge was opened have been proved true or false; and reviewing in a scientific and level-headed manner, what has been the actual score-sheet of the impact.

Research Focus
The book project will focus deliberately on islands and the effects that bridges have when islands, especially small islands, are connected to mainlands (even in cases where these are themselves islands). This is useful in order to: focus the research effort, and thus justify comparisons; delve into the controversy of a fixed link – a matter which is typically more contentious where islands and islanders are concerned; allow for much better insights on the tenet of globalization. After all, smaller island size and population would tend to heighten any of a fixed link’s effects on economy, polity, culture and society – or so one would postulate a priori; permit a resort to small islands as convenient microcosms: sites for those effects and processes which exist elsewhere on a grander, less research-manageable, scale.

Research Process
The research process involves unpacking a series of socio-cultural, economic and political variables relating to island territories whose character may have changed by virtue of the impact of a fixed link. Many of these have been sourced from debates and impact assessments undertaken prior to the fixed link construction and opening. These variables (of which a sample is provided below) are then analyzed by means of one or more standard research techniques (1) interviews with stakeholder analysis, (2) relevant archival and literature reviews; (3) reliable, valid and objective ‘before-after’ and ‘experimental group versus control group’ comparisons, as well as (4) time-series, data analysis (demographic, economic, touristic, labour, trade-related). Such variables would fall broadly within three disciplinary dimensions, though there is also their inter-relationship to consider:

Socio-Cultural: changes in: demographic patterns; housing/real estate market; (in/out)migration; brain/skill drain/gain; ‘island way of life’; crime; consumption and mobility patterns; traffic and congestion; indigenous languages; encroaching cosmopolitanism. Economic: changes in: job creation/loss; time savings/delays; utilization of plant; closure/relocation of indigenous firms; investment flows; trade (import/export) flows; competitiveness; taxation levels/ flows; costs of upkeep/ removal/replacement of fixed link; impact on specific economic sub-sectors (agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries, mining, construction, manufacturing, tourism, retail & wholesale trade, public administration, ferry & other transport services); effect of fixed link tolls.

Political: changes in: local/provincial versus national/federal friction; jurisdiction and local governance capacity; viability of airports / ferry services; ‘self-rule’ versus ‘shared rule’; regionalism.

Fixed links are the antitheses of islanding. A “cycle of decline amongst island communities” may prove difficult to break out of. The hard evidence correlating population growth on islands to fixed links, and population decline to their absence, is not absolute but nevertheless very strong. So is the correlation with numbers of tourists, as with the price of real estate. Perhaps we need to bear in mind that hackneyed adage here; think global, act local. It is in shrewd local political and fiscal responses that the right balance between island gentrification and depopulation may lie. Fixed links or no fixed links.


TWITTER · Facebook · Instagram · YouTube · NEWSLETTER

© 2021 Institute of Island Studies, University of Prince Edward Island. All rights reserved.