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Building a sustainable city

Getting into debate in the Sustainability Café

Getting into debate in the Sustainability Café University of Bristol

View of participants discussing transport at Sustainability Café.

27 January 2009

Bringing people together is an exciting way to develop shared visions for the future of the City of Bristol.

One of the aims of the Environmental Sustainability Research Group is to help Bristol become a sustainable city. Professor Vala Ragnarsdottir, the former Head of the Group, is passionate about encouraging the city and its inhabitants to think about how attitudes, behaviour and practices can be changed to reduce environmental impact.

“As an environmental scientist I know the scale of environmental damage that is happening and how much can be avoided,” says Vala. “We have already seen some changes here in Bristol as a result of our and others’ attempts to engage people in discussion, but much more needs to be done.”

Vala has pioneered Sustainability Cafés in the City. The format is based on World Cafés where people get together to discuss questions that matter. The Cafés are open to anyone and those with particular expertise are invited to come. So far, Cafés have been run on developing a vision of what a sustainable city will look like, public transport, eco-housing, reducing carbon output, positive aspects of living sustainably and education. The Cafés are supported with on-line discussion groups — now at — developed by Vala’s research assistant Matt Fortnam with funding from the University of Bristol and Bristol City Council.

Recently a Café explored the options for creating a transport system the people of Bristol would enjoy and take pride in using. Attendees included representatives from the construction industry, the City Council and Parliament, as well as interested members of the public.

Groups of people were encouraged to move around and share thoughts on four carefully selected issues. Steven Williamson, MP for Bristol West commented: “Engaging in open debate this way is hugely inspiring and effective.”

 David Bishop, Director of Planning Transport and Sustainable Development at Bristol City Council, who attended the event, took the final report forward to the Council for consideration.

Pleased with how the event had gone, Vala commented: “The range of expertise and interest in the room was impressive.”  She added: “This could be a step towards us creating a city which we can enjoy travelling in.”

This is a great way of getting a conversation started between diverse groups of people. It’s continuing online now, so watch the space!

Further information

Vala Ragnarsdottir has now moved on to become the Dean of Engineering and Natural Sciences at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, but the work she started will be continued by staff in Bristol. One of her colleagues, Matt Fortnam, can be contacted by email at

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