Tag Archives: Climate Change

Summer Institute in Urban Studies 2014 – Some Reflections!

Elnaz Ghafoorikoohsar (SEED), Gwyneth Lonergan (SoSS) and Elisa Pieri (SoSS) reflect on their participation in the first Summer Institute in Urban Studies …

cities@manchester’s Summer Institute in Urban Studies took place last (30 June – 4 July) at the University of Manchester. The twenty eight participants – selected out of the 180 plus applicants – came from across the UK, Europe, Australia and North America, and brought with them a wide variety of research interests and experience. What united them was a keen interest in cities, whether in Europe, the United States, Africa, East Asia or the Indian Subcontinent.

Participants get to work!

The Institute provided an excellent opportunity for lively discussion on many of the pressing theoretical issues in urban studies today, including notions of urban assemblages, policy mobilities and the worlding of different cities, various forms of gentrification, sustainability, sustainable development, and climate change, and politics and post-politics in the city. Many speakers discussed the various methodological implications of studying the urban, and how to engage in academic practice that is ethically and politically responsible and accountable. Ultimately, we were interested in thinking reflexively about the future of urban studies and our role in the field. We were fortunate to hear presentations from leading urban studies scholars, both from within and from outside of the University of Manchester. These included speakers working outside of academia, in NGOs and in policy circles. Manchester’s own experience of post-industrial regeneration provided a case study, with a panel of speakers on this topic and a walking tour of East Manchester regeneration sites.


The Institute also gave participants a chance to consider many of the challenges facing early career researchers, including interdisicplinarity, different publication formats and strategies, ethical dimensions of academic research and practice, and engagement with stakeholders outside of academia. A large component of the program was devoted to professional development – for example, effective teaching, and curricular development, writing funding applications, securing a post following completion of the PhD, and planning a career trajectory. Many participants found this career guidance especially valuable, as they had not received any such advice as PhD students. Moreover, with participants coming from a wide variety of countries, it allowed us to exchange information and ideas about the different national research cultures and expectations.


The week was intense with participants enthusiastically engaged with all of the sessions, and we also enjoyed a friendly, sociable atmosphere.   The program allowed participants to explore issues with peers at a similar career stage as well as with more experienced academics, in a supportive environment. There was achieved through a mixture of both formal and informal opportunities for discussion and socialising. Many of these were classroom based, although highly varied, including a daily plenary as well as smaller workshops. Participants were expected to play an active role, completing preparatory reading in addition to chairing a panel, or acting as discussants. These activities were complemented by the walking tour, and the use of multimedia materials, including film, to stimulate discussion. An ‘official’ institute dinner was held at Yang Sing on the Thursday evening, but there were plenty of other opportunities for informal after hours socialising. Even as the Institute ended on Friday, there were already plans being made among many participants for future collaborations.


Expanding the web of flood risk management

Jeremy Carter is a research fellow working within the University of Manchester’s School of Environment, Education and Development. He is co-director of the Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy.

Flood risk across England and Wales in February 2014. Red indicates a severe risk of flooding. (Image from www.shoothill.com).

Flood risk across England and Wales in February 2014. Red indicates a severe risk of flooding. (Image from http://www.shoothill.com).

The floods that hit England and Wales over the winter of 2013-14 have pushed a series of issues to the forefront of people’s minds; not least the real risk of flooding that hangs over many communities across the country. It remains to be seen whether a progressive response can be driven forward to address the interconnected web of issues linking the causes, consequences and responses to flood events. These issues encompass diverse themes from agricultural practices and climate change to land use change and public funding priorities.  These themes are all connected. They represent different elements of the natural and human systems that combine to generate floods and associated environmental, social and economic impacts. Although there will always be calls for short term fixes from some groups, with demands for dredging rivers standing out in this particular case, the uncomfortable fact is that there are no immediate solutions to many of the issues raised by the floods. Searching questions need to be asked about the connection between flooding and way that urban and rural landscapes have been developed and managed, and about how they might evolve in the future. A concerted emergency response and recovery effort to the impacts raised by this particular series of floods, although necessary, will simply not be enough.

A noticeable theme within the media over recent weeks has been the political blame-game and mud-slinging that has accompanied the recent floods. Amongst these unwelcome distractions, one useful point was made by Owen Patterson, the current environment secretary, on the development of approaches to lessen future flood risk. He stated that,

“…we need to do more to hold the water back, way back in the hills.”[1]

The implications of this statement are far reaching. Effectively, Patterson recognised the need for catchment scale responses to reduce flood risk. This in turn calls for the management of land far removed from sites exposed to the threat of flooding for the benefit of those locations at risk of inundation. To take an example, until comparatively recently landowners in North West England were being subsidised to accelerate the drainage of upland blanket peat bogs by ‘gripping’ or cutting open drains along the peatland edge. Happily this practice has now been reversed, although there is still some way to go before the water storage capacity of these upland landscapes is re-established. Actions like this should be encouraged as part of a strategic catchment scale response to reducing flood risk. They are important because in the case of extreme rainfall events, which climate change projections suggest are likely to become more frequent, the capacity of existing defences to hold back flood waters may be insufficient. Measures such as this are also needed to help lessen the volume of water reaching sites exposed to flood risk.

There are major challenges associated with delivering catchment scale flood risk management responses. For example, certain sites may currently be providing important flood risk management functions to areas further downstream through the role they play in storing water and reducing the speed and volume of surface water runoff reaching water courses. However, in some cases, these locations will also be earmarked for future housing, retail or industrial development. This poses tricky questions concerning whether, and if so how, land can be managed at a catchment scale to reduce flood risk. Understandably, a local authority may be reluctant to forgo the potential gains associated with a new development to secure benefits offered by the land for residents and businesses located in an authority further downstream.

Catchment scale flood risk management responses of the type needed to reduce flood risk are hindered by the shape of existing political and administrative boundaries. These generally do not match the scale at which river systems operate. There are notable exceptions such as the European Water Framework Directive’s River Basin Management Plans, which are designed at the catchment scale to enhance the quality of water bodies and water courses. Largely, however, we are faced with a spatial mismatch. Issues such as flooding cannot be effectively addressed without the creation of new partnerships and networks, engaging agencies and organisations from different sectors, which recognise the cross-boundary nature of flood risk management.

Work ongoing within the Climate Proof Cities project, a Dutch government funded initiative on which the University of Manchester is collaborating, is bringing these themes together via a case study based on Greater Manchester and its surrounding hinterlands. Research led by the Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy (CURE) is mapping the extent of green infrastructure cover that is providing flood risk management functions to an exposed site in the centre of the city. Much of the green infrastructure that has been identified is located beyond the district at risk of flooding, and a significant amount lies beyond the administrative boundaries of Greater Manchester itself. Options to address this spatial mismatch are being considered.

Further details are available here: http://urban-energy.org/climate-proof-cities/


Collectivities matter: The ‘hidden’ geographies of urban energy deprivation

Professor Stefan Bouzarovski, Professor of Geography and Director of the Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy, University of Manchester, writes about his research based on his on-going work on energy vulnerability and urban transitions  …

In the UK, the onset of winter regularly stokes public concerns about the social impacts of rising energy prices. Reports about the predicament of ‘fuel poverty’ – often described as a condition where households are unable to achieve adequate levels of energy services in the home – abound in the media and political debates. The extent to which the government needs to intervene in the market so as to lower energy prices has become a major talking point, and a bone of contention among political parties, utilities, and the government. Similar dynamics can be observed in other European countries – high electricity prices, for instance, recently became a key electoral issue in Germany; and widespread popular unrest over austerity and energy bills was one of the main reasons why the Bulgarian government was forced to resign in 2012.

Storage of fuelwood for heating in an apartment building. Kyustendil, Bulgaria. Photo by Stefan Bouzarovski

Storage of fuelwood for heating in an apartment building. Kyustendil, Bulgaria. Photo by Stefan Bouzarovski

The relationship between energy affordability and poverty is complex and contingent, involving multiple factors related to the energy efficiency of the home, everyday fuel consumption practices, residential occupancy patterns, as well as broader dynamics of power and recognition (Bouzarovski 2013). Yet many public discussions and media discourses collapse the issue to a limited set of state policies at the energy price-utility regulation nexus. The archetypal image that accompanies this reductionism is one of a pensioner sitting in front of a poorly functioning gas fire or electric heater. This is often contrasted with representations of wind farms or solar panels, whose allegedly high costs are pushing increasing numbers of people into fuel poverty.

In part, the prominence of pensioners and older people in media discourses on fuel poverty can be attributed to the political agency of this group, and the severe fuel-related hardship that many of its members face – a reality uncovered by a significant body of academic research (Wright 2004). However, the prioritization of older people over other groups in society has led to the marginalization of other households and individuals who are vulnerable due to their demographic, economic or residential circumstances. Further exacerbating the situation is the normative emphasis on private home tenure in many fuel poverty amelioration policies. The requirements of the UK’s Green Deal, for example, are intimately tied with property ownership, which means that this policy is generally outside the reach of households in the leasehold, private rented or social housing sectors. The main French fuel poverty policy (Habiter mieux) has likewise chosen to focus on homeowners living in rural areas, thus resulting in an approach that favours older people over other groups (Dubois 2012). As a whole, therefore, the current state of affairs confirms the argument made by a number of academics: that how and where fuel poverty is addressed by the strongly depends on the interrelation between dynamics of procedure and recognition (Walker and Day 2012). This is counter to earlier understandings that emphasize the distributional aspect of the issue (Boardman 1991).

The disadvantaged position of private rented and younger or more transient populations within current fuel poverty policy is further exacerbated by the regulatory and pricing mechanisms associated with the ongoing transition to a low-carbon economy. This emergent policy regime entails the re-allocation of environmental externalities away from fiscal systems onto final consumption, accompanied by a broader shift from income redistribution toward environmental taxation. Its consequences are particularly felt by fuel poor households, who may be subjected to, inter alia, increased prices for energy – either because companies indirectly pass the cost of ‘carbon taxes’ to the final bill, or due to direct levies on energy service-paying customers. In many European countries, such processes primarily affect households who use electricity for heating, as this fuel is seen as the best medium for passing on the cost of broader energy and low carbon policies onto the final consumer.

High rates of household electricity use, however, are disproportionately present in cities, as is non-private housing ownership. This means that the emergence of new energy-related forms of deprivation and inequality is inextricably tied to the planning practices and spatial morphologies that define urban areas. But the lack of adequate policy to address such difficulties is supplemented by an almost complete absence of research on the topic. It remains unclear, for example, how the socio-spatial patterns created by the lack of adequate energy services in the home – and the broader inability to access infrastructural networks – map onto existing geographies of segregation. The agency of built forms is of particular importance in this context, as an additional determining factor to conventional poverty-inducing dynamics (such as incomes and prices). Also unclear is the manner in which the background context of ‘austerity urbanism’ is influencing dynamics of domestic energy deprivation, both via the exacerbation and deepening of existing inequalities, and by ‘residualizing’ and moving the responsibility for the delivery of fuel poverty policy away from conventional support structures.

It should also be noted that the city of today is a site of far-reaching demographic and cultural change. This involves new forms of friendship, kinship and community affiliation under the influence of processes such as the ‘second demographic transition’ (de Kaa 1987). How one conceptualizes and practices collectivity in the built environment of city thus becomes paramount; this is both because new forms of inequality are closely linked to communal forms of residence (houses in multiple occupation, apartment buildings), and due to the opportunities for alternative practices of sustainable living offered by innovative joint housing arrangements.

The ‘hidden’ geographies of deprivation that arise at the interface of energy use, collective living and urban formations are one of the main research themes of the newly formed Centre for Urban Energy and Resilience at the University of Manchester. We intend to break new academic and policy ground in addressing the numerous unknowns that exist in this research domain. During the past week, for example, we organized a stakeholder roundtable on energy efficiency, fuel poverty and houses in multiple occupancy in London, and a workshop on energy vulnerability in European cities in Brussels. Watch this space!


Boardman, B. 1991. Fuel Poverty: From Cold Homes to Affordable Warmth. London: Bellhaven.

Bouzarovski, S. 2013. Energy poverty in the European Union: landscapes of vulnerability. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Energy and Environment http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wene.89/abstract.

Dubois, U. 2012. From targeting to implementation: The role of identification of fuel poor households. Energy Policy 49: 107–115.

De Kaa, D. van. 1987. Europe’s second demographic transition. Population Bulletin 42: 1.

Walker, G. and Day, R. 2012. Fuel poverty as injustice: Integrating distribution, recognition and procedure in the struggle for affordable warmth. Energy Policy 49: 69–75.

Wright, F. 2004. Old and cold: older people and policies failing to address fuel poverty. Social Policy & Administration 38: 488–503.

Sustainable City Betrayed?: Calgary’s Neoliberal Sustainability Politics and Its Consequences

Byron Miller  from the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary and currently Guest Professor, Institut für Umweltsozialwissenschaften und Geographie, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, writes about how Calgary continues to wrestle with the issue of “sustainability” …

Over the past decade Calgary, Alberta, like many cities around the world, has promoted a wide range of sustainability initiatives as part of what While, Jonas and Gibbs have termed a “sustainability fix.”  There are certainly good reasons why Calgary might turn toward a sustainability agenda.  Long considered the poster city for urban sprawl in Canada, Calgary ranks as the Canadian City with the largest “ecological footprint,” the highest degree of socio-spatial income polarization, and one of the largest infrastructure deficits. Its politics, moreover, are dominated by fierce anti-tax sentiment, despite low tax rates.  Whatever the merits or demerits of the concept of “sustainability,” the need for Calgary to address its ecological, social, and fiscal issues has been clear for some time.   

To grapple with the perceived deterioration of quality of life in Calgary, the City began an extensive two-year “city visioning” process in 2004, called imagineCalgary.  Over 18,000 Calgarians participated in the process, which produced a surprisingly progressive and detailed document focusing on needed improvements in five systems: the built environment and infrastructure, the economic system, governance, the natural environment, and the social system.  imagineCalgary was adopted by City Council as an advisory document and laid the foundation for a new municipal development and transportation plan, dubbed “Plan-It,” which was prepared between 2006 to 2009.  

Plan-It was envisioned as a means to enhance the environmental, fiscal and social sustainability of the city and, indeed, it called for substantial changes in growth and development patterns to enhance transit service and walkability and to reduce the fiscal costs of growth.  The social aspects of early versions of the plan were dramatically weakened, largely due to restrictions contained in the provincial government’s Municipal Governance Act, and to avoid an anticipated backlash from the development industry.  Planners pressed ahead on the environmental and fiscal agendas with reports detailing the cost savings associated with Plan-It.  Public relations stressed not only cost efficiency of the plan but also consumer choice, particularly the provision of more mobility options, more neighbourhood facilities and services, and stronger local businesses.   

That city officials and politicians would anchor their arguments in the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility, cost efficiency, and consumer choice was not particularly surprising.  What was surprising was  the extent to which these neoliberal political tropes were adopted by many citizens and citizen organizations, including many that had been involved in the imagineCalgary process.  Indeed, many citizens’ organizations adopted the same neoliberal tropes, often for purely strategic reasons, to make their case for the sustainability agenda of Plan-It. Perhaps most  surprising of all, Plan-It was passed unanimously by City Council after early indications it would be defeated by a wide margin. The strategic adoption of neoliberal tropes to counter the anti-planning arguments of the development industry ultimately proved successful, but at what cost?  Quality of life, environmental, social justice and use-value arguments were largely abandoned, as were critiques of the federal and provincial governments’ underfunding of basic city functions such as public transit and social housing. Today, a concerted development-industry counter-attack that seeks to weaken the implementation of Plan-It relies on the same tropes and appears to be gaining traction, at the same time the provincial government further cuts funding to cities. The dynamics of Calgary’s planning politics raises questions about the merits of short term strategic adoption of neoliberal discursive tropes.  It also points to the role citizens play, unwittingly or not, in the reproduction and perpetuation of neoliberal hegemony.   To twist the words of Peck, Theodore and Brenner just a bit, “[citizens]… are not merely at the ‘receiving end’ of neoliberalization processes, imposed unilaterally from above.”

Boda-Boda! Rethinking Unregulated Urban Transport in the Global South

Unregulated transport is vital to billions living with poor road access in the Global South, yet is increasingly marginalised in transport policies intended to modernise cities. In this article James Evans focuses on boda-boda motorcycle taxis in Uganda to ask how current thinking in Geography might help us re-think the role of informal transport in achieving more inclusive and sustainable urban development.

It is impossible to visit the Global South without being struck by the variety of transport at street level. Rickshaws, tuk-tuks, jeepneys, minibuses and bikes appear in all sorts of motorised and non-motorised forms across cities in Asia, Africa and South America.  Kampala, the rapidly growing capital of Uganda, is no exception. Synonymous with its unregulated army of motorcycle taxis, so-called boda-bodas dodge and weave through the congested streets and alleys with passengers clinging on to the driver. Boda-boda taxis are part of African bicycle culture, originating as a way to cross the Kenyan-Ugandan border in the 1960s and subsequently spreading through East Africa as an industry with relatively cheap entry costs for migrants. In 2010 the Kampala Boda-Boda Association estimated that there were upwards of 200,000 boda riders and 5,000 stages (stops) serving an urban population that has doubled in the last 20 years to some 1.5 million people.

Boda-bodas connecting the full extent of the Kampala (source: Jennifer O’Brien)

Boda-bodas connecting the full extent of the Kampala (source: Jennifer O’Brien)

Boda-bodas connecting the full extent of the Kampala (source: Jennifer O’Brien)

Boda-bodas connecting the full extent of the Kampala (source: Jennifer O’Brien)

Offering affordable transport to the poor, boda-bodas are more efficient in terms of fuel, space and maintenance than cars. These kinds of informal modes of transport play an essential role filling the gap left by the absence of planned transport infrastructures and have grown at the same breakneck speed as the cities in which they exist, with estimates suggesting that informal transport accounts for 80-90% of public transport journeys in medium sized cities. Manifesting what AbdouMaliq Simone terms the distinctive mobility of the African city where movement is essential to daily survival, boda-bodas support the ‘thickening fields of social relations’ that city dwellers depend on. Flexible and cheap, they contribute to the connectivity and resilience of the city, running errands delivering both goods and information in addition to providing personal transport. It is through informal urban infrastructures like boda-bodas that existing socio-economic relations find material expression in the city.

Unlike slums that are often out of sight, informal transportation permeates and often defines the experience of an entire city. In response to a national road safety crisis that has been compared to HIV in terms of its national importance and the protestations of more affluent car-driving residents of the city, the recently formed Kampala Capital City Authority is attempting to bring the unruly growth of boda-bodas under control, leading to a long-running dispute between the boda-boda operators and the city authority over perceived attempts to cleanse the city of their presence. It is the powerful versus the poor, but more than this it is battle between competing visions of the city. This is a story that we find repeating itself from Shanghai to Lagos, leading to calls for new thinking about the role of informal transport in urban development. Delhi may have famously failed in their attempt to ban motorised rickshaws in 2010, but Chinese cities have progressively banned various forms of two wheeled transport in the name of modern transport planning.

The 2013 UN Habitat report Planning and Design for Sustainable Urban Mobility, which provides the nearest thing to a template for current global thinking on the issue of sustainable mobility, argues that robust land use planning is necessary to create urban landscapes that are amenable to more sustainable forms of mobility. But local transport solutions like boda-bodas question the validity of top-down planning approaches that seek to impose Western infrastructure on the city. Because informal transport infrastructures have developed incrementally with the city, they have shaped it materially and territorially. No doubt transport needs are dictated by the ways cities are planned, but equally the existing urban landscape reflects the kinds of transportation available. Changing the material form of a city is easier said than done; to the extent that things like existing houses, streets, wells and shops are obdurate, cities are locked into certain transport futures. At the same time, informal transport is so integral to cities like Kampala that imagining a future without it literally requires us to imagine a different place. For the city to be in any sense sustainable and inclusive, informal transport has to play a part.

While the idea that informal transport is more adaptable and thus potentially sustainable is not new, few studies have attempted to understand how its social functions are materially and territorially embedded in the city. More often than not, African roads are approached as a source of either terror or fascination by writers and commentators struck (not unreasonably) by their apparent chaos. Perhaps because of its poor safety record, motorcycle transport has received relatively little academic attention despite its importance to the billion people currently living in cities with poor roads. Researchers have focused on the impact of roads and road-building projects on local communities and cultures, but specific work on the day-to-day experiences of driving and using taxis is less common.

One way to capture this relation between mobility and the city is to rethink informal transport as a materially embedded urban infrastructure. Recent research has shown how self-building technologies and sanitation in informal settlements unavoidably reflect material conditions and constitute something distinctive and different to the kinds of development that characterise Western cities. In challenging received norms about mobility, the street-level practices of boda-bodas produce a very different kind of city to the ones commonly envisaged in planning documents and strategies. Focusing on the distinctive qualities of informal transport opens up new ways to think about infrastructure provision in the city and what a transition to sustainability could and indeed should look like.

Many basic everyday questions remain unanswered about boda-bodas in Kampala. For example, how do boda-bodas connect the city? Where do bikes circulate, what is their range, where are the stages, what routes do they trace, which parts of the city do they link and what are their working rhythms? What role do they play in circulating goods, people and informal knowledge? Beyond this, how is boda-boda infrastructure embedded in the city? For example, how, where and when are bikes fuelled, stored, repaired, recycled, reclaimed and maintained? Where do the drivers live and what do they eat?

Materiality matters. Just as political ecologists have shown how power is manifested in the material resource flows of cities so it is possible to open up alternative visions of the city though materially grounded analyses. In Kampala, the city planning authority is potentially receptive, currently developing a low-carbon development plan in addition to finding itself at the centre of a major transport row. If current solutions like simply building more roads have failed as a strategy in the West then they certainly won’t solve the transport challenges faced by cities in the South, which are that much more acute. There is an opportunity to establish a new agenda for the study of informal transport and its role in achieving more sustainable and inclusive urban development. In the search for viable alternatives, the question of what we can learn from existing forms of transport like boda-bodas seems to be a valid one.


A peak beyond the seamlessly integrated municipal energy networks in Europe

Ralitsa Hiteva, Research Fellow,SPRU, University of Sussex and PhD student, School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester

Urban spaces in the EU, especially within their municipal forms, where low-carbon transition agendas at multiple scales are abundant have become sought after and crowded policy spaces. Municipalities are perceived as having become stronger units of governance due to their increasing number of managerial roles and EU support, particularly in the shape of transnational municipal networks for climate change and energy policy. In fact, municipalities have seemingly become increasingly good in negotiating responses to various policy agendas, succeeding in integrating and reconciling approaches to energy efficiency improvements, decarbonisation and climate change adaptation and mitigation within the framework of concepts such as Smart Cities and programmes such as BioRegions. Such pioneer municipalities have been hailed as achieving so much, in areas where nation states have struggled (for example in integrating strategic low-carbon transition infrastructure and services such as transportation and energy). In doing so, they are seen as isolated ‘islands’ of low-carbon living, plugged into wider policy and stakeholder networks, whose “lights” are multiplying across the EU, flickering stronger and brighter in patterns spreading beyond and despite national borders.

Although a range of transnational municipal networks work in countries like Bulgaria, where the number of pioneer municipalities could be probably capped at less than 15, the lights might never come on. There are spaces where low-carbon policy tends to whirl around its intended target, without quite getting there. This is a quick peak in one such space in Europe. The interest of Bulgarian municipalities in energy efficiency can be traced to the mid 1990s when in the midst of fiscal and political instability responsibility for public lighting was transferred from the national electricity distribution company to municipalities. In the winter of 1997 fast growing inflation meant that municipalities struggled to keep the lights and heating on for public buildings like schools and hospitals. That’s when 23 municipalities set up a ‘self-help’ municipal network called EcoEnergy whose objective was to develop municipal capacity to increase energy efficiency in public buildings in order to reduce utility costs. Ever since, for the majority of Bulgarian municipalities, energy efficiency at municipal level has been equated with reducing the cost of energy. The membership in the municipal network quickly grew and in 2003 it represented 2/3 of the total population of the country.

Although the municipal network has actively worked for over 15 years at national, regional and international level, and is integrated within a thick web of key transnational networks and programmes such as EnergyCities, Intelligent Energy Europe, ManagEnergy and the Covenant of Mayors, it struggles to develop the energy efficiency agenda of Bulgarian municipalities beyond its utility reduction focus. Although many stakeholders maintain that Bulgarian municipalities are in fact reducing carbon emissions even with their rudimentary energy efficiency projects, the extent to which this is happening needs to be explored further.

In contrast to the Bulgarian agenda of energy efficiency as a means of cutting cost, in most EU countries the energy crisis of the 1970s prompted the interest in improving energy efficiency as a means of reducing energy consumption (i.e. energy conservation). Since then interest in energy efficiency and conservation has been maintained and elevated as the most cost-effective and fastest way to meet (substantial part of the) climate change mitigation targets. Energy saved – ‘negajoules’- compared to no improvements in energy efficiency is considered a key energy source in Europe. Thus, energy efficiency projects and programmes are often implemented under the headings ‘climate action’, ‘carbon neutral’, ‘sustainable energy’ or ‘green’. However, if we look deeper than the glossy new facades of public buildings and the happy endings of the before and after comparisons, we can see that in many cases the energy saving and carbon reduction agendas continue to simply circle around these spaces.

Images of buildings before and after retrofitting in Bulgaria in 2010 (Project Obnoven Dom).

Images of buildings before and after retrofitting in Bulgaria in 2010 (Project Obnoven Dom).

picture 2

Not all energy efficiency improvements result in a decrease in associated carbon emissions. Calculations of possible carbon dioxide reductions often present a skewed picture of the actual energy savings because they are based on a standardised baseline. The majority of municipal buildings in Bulgaria, such as schools, have been chronically under-heated and under-cooled, with levels of thermal comfort significantly below the EU average of 20C (even below the recommended minimum of16C) since the early 1990s. It is still a common practice for badly insulated buildings to have low annual thermal levels.

When such public buildings are retrofitted the associated carbon reduction is calculated based on a normalised baseline of 20C, rather than the actual which could vary between 11C and 16C. The calculations do not take into account that once the building is retrofitted and heated at the normalised levels it will end up not only not making any actual energy savings, but often will result in more energy being consumed. This illustrates a rebound effect, where some of the energy savings from efficiency improvements are used up in the form of higher energy consumption. In this case energy efficiency improvements serve as a means of achieving higher thermal comfort. Considering that more than 60% of municipal buildings in Bulgaria are in such condition, the gap between projected carbon savings and actual savings will grow with the number of retrofitted buildings if unchecked.

For Bulgarian municipalities implementing energy efficiency measures makes sense only if there are financial gains to be made (i.e. cutting the cost of utilities), while carbon dioxide reduction measures can mean having to choose a more expensive option. In fact, in a string of 11 interviews conducted in Bulgarian in 2011 all interviewed municipalities ranked reduction in carbon dioxide emissions as least important in implementing energy projects. The question then is not only How such spaces could be engaged with the network of pioneer municipalities which exists across Europe, but also To what extent is their context of spatial variations truly understood at EU level?

Safe to breathe yet?

by Andrew Speak, PhD candidate Geography

Remember the hole in the ozone layer?  It’s amazing how little discussion is given now to what seemed like a major global crisis just 20 years ago, but such is the nature of the media.  A huge hole in the Earth’s protective ozone layer was discovered over the Antarctic in the mid 1980s which prompted a ban on refrigerators and aerosol sprays that contained the culprit – CFCs.  It was another example, of which there are many in recent years, of how the whole of the developed and developing world was forced to wake up to the consequences of altering the composition of our atmosphere, and the media was full of cartoons of giant hairspray cans burning a hole in the planet.  Well the good news is that the hole is repairing itself since the CFC phase-out, albeit very, very slowly but a whole generation are coming along now with no idea that it ever existed.  This brings home the fact that environmental issues, that no longer seem important, can get neglected from media coverage and thus escape the attention of the majority of people.  So what about urban air pollution?

The UK has a long history of urban air pollution, with laws introduced as far back as the 13th century to regulate the use of coal in London in a bid to reduce smoke pollution.  In Manchester in 1792, the town hall emphasised the need for industrial chimneys to reduce smoke from coal combustion.  Many of Manchester’s buildings were covered in a layer of soot and grime, which undoubtedly found its way into the lungs of Mancunians.

View from Blackfriar’s Bridge over the River Irwell, 1870’s

View from Blackfriar’s Bridge over the River Irwell, 1870’s.  Engraving by Charles Roberts (Evans Picture Library)

The Clean Air Act of 1956 was introduced as a reaction to the Great London Smog, caused by burning low grade, sulphur-rich coal in a winter temperature inversion period, which caused an estimated 12,000 excess deaths.  Since then, the quality of the air in our cities has gradually improved thanks to a switch from coal to gas, industries moving out of city centres, and improvements in the technologies that reduce emissions.  So now, air pollution feels like something that happens far away in LA with its daily photochemical smog cycle, or in the permahaze-shrouded megacities of China where coal is still a major energy source and car ownership is increasing exponentially.  Well don’t breathe too deeply when walking down Oxford Road just yet.  The reason is road traffic, which is responsible for most of the main urban air pollutants – carbon monoxide (CO), benzenes, oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and particulate matter (PM).  The latter consists of fine particles, smaller than 10 micrometres in diameter (a human hair is about 50 micrometres wide) which can penetrate deep into the lungs, causing inflammation and allowing harmful substances present such as lead and copper to exert effects.

Illustration of the size of particulate matter fractions, PM10 and PM2.5

Illustration of the size of particulate matter fractions, PM10 and PM2.5

Car ownership in the UK is still increasing (DfT, 2009), despite efforts to convince people to cycle or use public transport, and this is offsetting the impact of vehicular emission controls.  These emissions are linked to 50,000 premature deaths a year in the UK, and shorten our life expectancy by an average of seven to eight months.  They have also been linked to childhood asthma and even type II diabetes.  So the effects of air pollution are a bit more profound than just a blackening of bogies, personally experienced in London, a place not lightly called ‘The Big Smoke’.  Just because it is invisible, and only infrequently mentioned in the newspapers, does not mean the problem has gone away.

Monitoring stations have been set up around Manchester to provide information on the urban background air quality.  Ever wondered what that little building is in Piccadilly Gardens?  The website www.greatairmanchester.org.uk provides online access to these air quality data.  Most days the air quality is acceptable but there are spatial and temporal patterns to be aware of.  For instance, there is a peak twice daily coinciding with rush hour traffic, and this appears to be strongest in the city centre and on a Monday morning.  Also, roadsides are places to avoid being in for long periods of time.  Interestingly, a study in Lancaster found that if you are walking on an inclined road it’s better to walk on the side of the road that cars goes downhill because trees on the side of the road next to cars driving uphill were found to have higher loads of PM pollution on their leaves from the increased emissions of cars struggling up a slope (Maher et al., 2008).

Urban air quality monitoring station in Manchester city centre

Urban air quality monitoring station in Manchester city centre

This particle-capturing property of vegetation is being exploited to improve the air quality in cities.  Strategic roadside tree planting can remove a large amount of pollution by trapping it on the leaf surface where it is subsequently washed off by rains.  This is yet another example of the benefits of urban greenspace, which include keeping people cool in heatwaves, reducing the risk of surface flooding, and simply lifting people’s spirits and making them feel better.  Tree-planting schemes are hindered, however, by a general lack of space within cites, and the fact that there is a considerable dollar sign attached to urban land.  For example, the site of the old BBC would make a lovely park but we all know it is destined to be a glass and steel multi-purpose hotel/supermarket/student accommodation/leisure complex.  Or something.  So it would appear that air pollution is here to stay, as technologies to reduce vehicle pollution at its source seem to have stalled.

One solution is to use the space afforded by rooftops and install green roofs.  Recent research in Manchester has shown that they can make a not-insignificant dent in the PM concentrations in the city centre, with 0.2 tonnes being removed a year in a scenario that involved all flat roofs getting a sedum green roof (Speak et al., 2012).  Larger plants, such as grasses and shrubs, would have a bigger impact, but are a bit more expensive to install and maintain than an ‘extensive’ sedum green roof.  See A (Green) Roof Above Your Head? for my other blog on green roofs in the UK.

An extensive green roof on the Number One First Street building, Manchester

An extensive green roof on the Number One First Street building, Manchester

A helping hand also comes from that seemingly permanent fixture in Manchester – the rain.  The rain droplets scavenge pollutants from the air as they fall, and recharge the capture efficiency of urban surfaces by giving them a good wash.  This, along with frequent strong westerly winds, means Manchester’s air quality isn’t as bad as in some other European cities, especially those in central and southern Europe.  However, the European Commission recently gave the UK a final warning over failures to meet limits for PM in London.  Perhaps it’s time to see urban greenspace as more than just an optional design feature for our city centres.  When combined with a decrease in car usage, maybe then we can ‘safely’ forget about this invisible threat.


DFT 2009. Department for Transport: Transport Trends 2009 Edition. London: HMSO.

MAHER, B. A., MOORE, C. & MATZKA, J. (2008) Spatial variation in vehicle-derived metal pollution identified by magnetic and elemental analysis of roadside tree leaves. Atmospheric Environment 42: 364-373.

SPEAK, A. F., ROTHWELL, J. J., LINDLEY, S. J. & SMITH, C. L. (2012) Urban particulate pollution reduction by four species of green roof vegetation in a UK city.  Atmospheric Environment 61:  283 – 293.