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Bristol's green light (Nonesuch spring 2015) (Part 1)

Nick Lowndes

Nick Lowndes

Nick Lowndes

15 May 2015

This year, Bristol is the first UK city to hold the title of European Green Capital. But what does this actually mean – to the University, to the city, and to individuals? Nonesuch spoke to alumni, students and staff to find out.

Liz Zeidler (née Nash)(BA 1991, MSc 2002)

In 2010, Liz Zeidler founded the Happy City Initiative, a campaign to refocus communities, businesses and cities on the wellbeing of people and the planet. She has been Chair of the Bristol Green Capital Partnership since January 2014.

In 2013, I was part of the bid team persuading the European Green Capital jury to make it third time lucky for Bristol. We outlined a city that has many of the same challenges as other cities. We didn’t have all the answers. But we believed the spirit of Bristol is to try things out: to take risks, and to share our ups and downs so others can learn from us. I think the jury was excited that we would do things differently, with – in its words – 'a sense of fun'.

Having lived in Bristol since 1993, and studied here, I've always been aware of the breadth and depth of 'green' activity around the city. The Bristol Green Capital Partnership was set up in 2007 – a year before the EU launched the European Green Capital award – and now includes more than 750 organisations of all sizes and sectors, making it the largest green city network in Europe. It gives Bristol an amazing opportunity not only to create a vision for the city, but also, through collective effort, to turn that vision into reality. The University plays a key role in that: in connecting academics with policymakers and businesses, and engaging thousands of students with opportunities for action.

The European Green Capital award is just that: an award. It's recognition of what years of innovation and activism in the city have achieved, and an endorsement of Bristol’s vision for the future. We should be rightfully proud of winning, but we also need to challenge ourselves to live up to the title. Of course there are cynics. But it's not good enough to stand on the sidelines and judge. The spotlight is on our city, so we all need to seize the opportunity that presents.

Being European Green Capital is about building hope and opportunity for a brighter future. Ask any parent, anywhere in the world, what they want for their children – it's for them to be happy. And the real, proven routes to lasting happiness are almost all low-cost and low-carbon – connecting with other people, learning, being active – not, as some suggest, increased consumerism.

We developed the Happy City Index as an alternative to GDP – a way of measuring prosperity that shifts the definition of 'success' away from 'stuff' towards other elements of a flourishing life. Bristol is a pilot for the index this year, before we scale up to other cities in the UK, Europe and further afield.

The outcomes of the year will be many: some immediate, some much longer term. The influx of investment and attention will mean hundreds of local projects get a boost, while innovation in the city’s infrastructure will take longer to see. Both will lay foundations for better lives, across Bristol and beyond. 

Professor Rich Pancost

As Director of the University’s Cabot Institute, Professor Rich Pancost brings together world-class researchers to tackle some of the most pressing environmental challenges we currently face, including climate change, food security and renewable energy.

One of our priorities at the Cabot Institute is to work with government, industry and community partners – everyone from street artists and film-makers to Bristol City Council and the Government Office for Science. As academics, we’re uniquely and neutrally placed to bring together diverse groups, develop ideas and, perhaps most importantly, critically assess those ideas. In turn, those interactions stimulate and challenge us to conduct ever more creative and innovative research.

Bristol 2015 European Green Capital is a fantastic chance to showcase that collaborative research – research that helps us better understand environmental issues, and the role of green, resilient cities in addressing those issues. But we need to do more than just highlight challenges and celebrate those tackling them. We must reinvigorate conversations around climate change and bring new perspectives to the debate. We must initiate community- and business-led projects. We must not only propose new policies and technologies, but also create the framework in which to test them – in 2015 and beyond.

The Bristol Green Capital Partnership is such an exciting venture, and we've been involved from the start: our Manager, Philippa Bayley, shared the role of Chair with Liz last year. Bristol is the ideal city for disruptive innovation. I expect some big announcements this year – new digital networks, solar technology, driverless cars. But I don’t think it's appropriate to get locked into specific outcomes. One-off initiatives aren't necessarily the best indicators of success. A more lasting success will be empowering people from all walks of life to create solutions we haven’t yet thought of, and giving them space to test their ideas.

This raises some big questions about the role of our University in inspiring and assessing innovation. That's why we're supporting new initiatives for co-producing knowledge and sharing success – initiatives like the Urban Pollinators project, and Bristol is Open, three fast digital networks that will give residents the chance to interact, work and play with their city. We have many more collaborations in the pipeline too.

We’re also connecting with cities further afield: Santiago, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. We’re a global university and our decisions cannot be made in isolation. Let’s innovate and learn together.

Martin Wiles

Bristol University uses the same amount of energy as Portishead or Tonga. For Martin Wiles, Head of Sustainability, keeping a lid on the University’s carbon footprint is a major challenge, let alone reducing it. But it’s a challenge he feels Bristol can take on.

As a research-intensive institution, everything we do has a major environmental impact: what we buy, the waste we produce, the water we use. We’re already committed to reducing that impact, through lowering our carbon emissions and recycling 80 per cent of our waste. But this year, we’ve made four additional pledges: to give all students the chance to learn about sustainability, to make our procurement process greener, to reduce our transport footprint, and to aim for a net carbon-neutral campus by 2030. Fulfilling those pledges will be challenging, but is achievable.

We’ve already installed low-energy lighting, better-controlled heating and improved insulation. We also have recycling systems, bus services and renewable energy installations. And we haven’t highlighted one or two buildings as beacons. Instead, we’re working holistically – with everyone in every building – even though much of our estate was built before energy consumption was considered an issue. We’re also collaborating with Bristol City Council and other organisations on innovative low-carbon projects, including a citywide heat network that will help us save carbon and reduce our long-term costs.

We aim to spend a further £10 million to get us 70 per cent of the way to achieving our targets. The final 30 per cent is likely to involve technologies still in their infancy. Fifteen years ago, we didn’t have iPods or social media, and we hadn’t experienced 9/11 or the credit crunch. Anything is possible in the next 15 years. As Bill Gates once said: ‘We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years, and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.

There are two ways we can stay ahead of the curve. Firstly, by harnessing the intellectual capital of our academics to help us tackle the challenges we face here on campus. And secondly, by harnessing the ideas and enthusiasm of our students. When it comes to innovation, they’re a real inspiration.

Aisling Tierney (PhD 2011-)

Giving all students the chance to learn about sustainability is one of the University’s key sustainable pledges, as Aisling Tierney, Student Intern for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), explains.

Most people think of sustainability as just about the environment, but, at Bristol, we use the UNESCO definition, which includes social and economic justice, cultural diversity, and human rights too. This makes ESD more meaningful for the different faculties. For example, in dentistry, students might learn about the impact of the equipment and chemicals they use. In archaeology, students might learn about indigenous cultures and ecological conflict.

Three years ago, Bristol didn’t have a formal ESD strategy, but now we’re one of the very few universities in the UK that has international accreditation for our work in this field. My role involves mapping and monitoring what’s happening across the University, as well as talking to academics about ways to include sustainability in their subject areas. Often, it’s not about big changes – it’s about fitting ESD into existing undergraduate courses and postgraduate programmes.

Measuring the impact of our work can be difficult. Our success will be the sum of lots of small, long-term changes, like making sure staff think about ESD when they review their courses each year, and introducing new staff to ESD in their induction. For now, it’s a trickle-down effect.

Accountability and transparency are key. Nearly all of our resources are available online, and we know they’re well used by people outside Bristol. This autumn, we’re hosting an international ESD symposium: 2015 also marks the end of the United Nations’ first decade of ESD. The event is a chance to share best practice and incite debate, and we’re bringing together people with very different approaches to ESD – some much more practical than others. At Bristol, we like to see results, not just talk about them.

Continue reading for views from Sam Harris (BSc 2013), Adela Simonova (LLB 2013-), Sarah Butler-Sloss (BSc 1986) and Mark Sainsbury (BA 1991) 

Listen to audio version (mp3)

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