Towards a Sustainable Manchester?

In the context of the ever-deepening financial crisis and a series of environmental uncertainties, attention has turned to how cities can be adaptable, resilient and sustainable. In addition to actions by government, there is growing acknowledgement that local groups will need to play a role in redefining what constitutes economic activities. Building upon their existing contributions, these groups will be required to be involved in the production of a more economically robust Manchester.

On 21 June 2012, cities@manchester will host a panel discussion (view full details and book a free place here) to explore the opportunities and challenges for Manchester to realise a more sustainable future. This forum will bring together stakeholders with a wide range of views to debate this vital issue. The aim is to develop understandings that can inform further developments in the city. Below are some brief provocations from each panellist to initiate reflection and debate.

Charlie Baker, URBED

‘Carbon mitigation as an urban development strategy’

If you take the view that we are powerless in the face of climate change, then we cannot adapt to it any better than the people of Pompeii adapted to living near a volcano – partly because, like them, we’re not really sure how bad it will get. But it’s not a volcano, it is something we as a species are doing to ourselves and by definition we can and therefore must do something about.

Manchester has a strong history of leading change and with efficient planning could make the Low Carbon Economic Area an example to the world. URBED have proved through a set of real world projects that, with a proper assessment method, it is possible to take a very ordinary house and reduce its carbon footprint by 80% without resorting to eco-bling, while making it a more comfortable, healthier place to live and getting households off the fuel cost escalator which is pushing many towards fuel poverty. Retrofitting Manchester’s housing stock would cost £15-20 billion, which over 30 years would support substantial local job creation and manufacturing. ‘Made in Manchester’ could become a sign of a reliable retrofit product, with an ecosystem of local suppliers who can make things like properly fitting triple glazed windows.

But Mancunians need to want to do this to make it happen. Informing people through local examples where they can see what can be done and using co-operatives and community organisations to identify trusted suppliers can expand the number of houses retrofitted, moving up the adoption curve until it becomes culturally normal. Allowing people with spare cash to invest in a bond which helps fund other people’s retrofits will get them a better return than banks currently offer with a carbon savings return as well. Once people understand housing retrofits, many of the ideas can be applied to community and commercial buildings. At a city scale, a network of decarbonised renewable power generation would be owned by the consumers who would get the financial benefits. This is how Manchester can transform the contemporary carbon mitigation challenge into a long-term economic opportunity.

James Evans, University of Manchester

‘Transforming Manchester through experimentation’

Sustainability lays down a moral challenge to figure out how to do things differently, to live differently. Perhaps the most important characteristic of cities that are held to be more sustainable is an ability and willingness to experiment with new regulations, technologies and forms of organisation. This is a win-win scenario – novelty is also the key to making cities more interesting and, subsequently, more successful as people flock to them to live, work and play. Difference generates both pride and revenue. Manchester’s own Gay Village is testimony to this. But what would the sustainable equivalent of Canal Street be?

Running a city in a radically different way requires us to learn from other cities that have experimented successfully. For example, Copenhagen’s reduction of central area car parking by 3% every year has had the effect of creating a city in which cycling is more prevalent than Amsterdam. Changing laws changes how people live, but it also opens up rich new niches for experimentation. Staying with the example of cycling, the Dutch law of strict liability means that in any collision between a motorised and non-motorised vehicle the motorised vehicle is liable. This simple change of law transformed Dutch cities into cycling paradises and stimulated a mass of inventions in bike engineering and planning, such as the utility bike that makes cycling easy, comfortable and thus popular, and the woonerf, or bike-centric suburb. The pace of change can be quick. In 1950, rates of cycling were higher in the UK than in Holland. Today, a third of journeys in Holland are made by bike compared to just 1% here.

Experiments don’t just happen, they need the right conditions in which to propagate. Evidence from elsewhere suggests that people are ready and willing to take up the challenge – it is simply a matter of changing regulations in line with accepted goals to let a thousand flowers bloom. Some of the changes that would breed more sustainable lifestyles are easily defensible. The idea of Nudge economics suggests that policy makers need to meet people half way when it comes to prompting change. In a nutshell, make it easier for people to do things that are part of the solution, and harder for them to do those that are not. This requires fairly brave decisions from those in charge, but then what better reason to sacrifice a little pragmatism on the altar of radicalism than the alarming consensus that humanity is facing a four degree rise in global temperature over the next century? Lots of exciting experiments are already happening in Manchester and the city has a proven willingness to pursue sustainability through its transport and planning system. But experiments will remain just that without the fillip of regulatory change.

Neil McInroy, Centre for Local Economic Strategies

‘A resilient Manchester needs to come out fighting’

From Cottonopolis to the present, Manchester is a great example of a durable city. However, unlike never before, this durability is challenged. The world is faced with unprecedented levels of global, national, city and local environmental change, with significant social and economic turbulence. These changes are not predictable or singular, but highly unpredictable, interconnected and complex. There are many views to this crisis.  Some are active ‘deniers’, some choose to turn a blind eye, some have more pressing everyday ‘here and now’ problems, whilst others hunker down under old securities. But it is clear that Manchester cannot avoid these changes (this is simply beyond the ability of all cities) or merely seek to lessen the worse of the impacts (the poorest and most vulnerable will suffer).

Some enlightened individuals and organisations focus on adapting for and mitigating environmental change. Of course, flood defence plans and a move to a low- or no-carbon future is of vital importance. However, Manchester is not going to be resilient if we merely think about environmental sustainability. Instead, we need Manchester to develop a more broad-based proactive capability – rolling with the inevitable economic, environmental and social punches – and bouncing back from adversity or springing toward opportunity. In a city of social and economic inequality, we must also create a broad and penetrative transformation of Manchester’s economic development model, in which prosperity, social and economic justice and well being for all stands alongside the physical limits of our environment.

In this, I believe the city requires a broad ‘development strategy’ – a new deal for Manchester. In practical terms, this means transforming our economy toward a more steady state and closed loop economic system whilst maintaining (in the short term) traditional economic growth. It means investing in people through pre- and re-distribution of wealth policies (i.e Manchester Living Wage). It means building social groups and citizenry to take more individual and collective responsibility. It means making this city greener, more energy self-sufficient and reducing its carbon footprint. Above all, it means developing a comprehensive social, environmental and economic transformation. Manchester needs to have resilience in its DNA and be capable of coming out fighting. This is Manchester’s future.

Todd Holden, Director Low Carbon Policy and Programmes at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

‘We started it, so we’ll finish it’

A few hundred years ago here in Manchester, we changed the way the world worked forever through the industrial revolution and the social benefit and wealth it created. The economic model which drove this industrialisation has not changed in the intervening centuries and it has clearly brought lots of benefit. At the same time, a simple look around us says it’s not without its faults but few would say it’s fundamentally flawed, it just needs tweaking.

Business economics is the same as Darwinian evolution, it’s the survival of the fittest. So every year companies get better at doing what they do. In the beginning, this was fine as it meant that year on year, people had to work less hours to earn a living wage. But since the 1970s there has been little reduction in the working week. So the only way companies could carry on employing the same number of people is if they and the economy grew. The problem isn’t that we need growth, it’s that growth is based on the consumption on energy and materials which on average get disposed of within six weeks of being extracted from the ground. So every year, we use and dispose of more and more stuff.

But – and it’s a significant ‘but’ – as every Star Trek fan knows ‘you cannae change the laws of physics.’ In a world where there is only a finite amount of resources, the faster we use them the faster they will run out. What then? As Paul Ekins (Professor of Energy and Environmental Policy at the UCL Energy Institute) has said, when the laws of physics clash with the laws of economics, physics wins every time. Yet we live in a world which, as far as it can, tries to ignore this simple fact. This is a challenge of our making, it seems only right that we recognise this reality and work towards finding the solutions.

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