Tag Archives: Environment

Garbage, the City and Sustainable Transitions

via flickr by Editor B

via flickr by Editor B

by Sally Gee, David Evans and Elvira Uyarra.

At certain times of the year, ‘rubbish’ can replace the weather as the go-to topic of light and polite conversation.  Christmas is certainly one of those times that we start to worry about the scheduling of bin collections, debate whether or not it is possible to recycle wrapping paper and revisit the time honoured predicament of just how to get rid of that Christmas tree (we are firm believers in putting it outside until it goes brown and dealing with it later!) Of course, rather more fundamental anxieties come to the fore as we confront the consequences of our own material abundance – and gluttony! It is probably no accident that the Institution of Mechanical Engineers chose the middle of January to launch its report – and startling figures – about the amount of food that we waste[1].  Yes, even during record-breaking levels of rainfall and a particularly unpleasant cold snap, rubbish, waste, garbage, excess – call it what you will – is something that friends, neighbours and colleagues appear to be talking about. Maybe this seasonal vogue will pass, maybe it won’t but for some of us – waste is something that occupies our thoughts throughout the year. Although the effective management of waste is deeply un-sexy and almost invisible in the day-to-day running of things; the ‘water cooler’ chattering mentioned above holds some clues as to its significance. I mean, think of the inconvenience and mild irritation that unfolds when bin collections are delayed or rescheduled during the holiday period. Now imagine what would happen if taken for granted infrastructures of waste collection and disposal were to disappear for good and its place, we were left with overflowing bins. Just how big a step would it be to civil unrest, a decline in public hygiene and outright chaos? Our point is this: waste and its effective management is critical to the economic, social and environmental welfare of cities, and as such is an exciting topic for academic research.

The development of appropriate infrastructures of waste management are intimately linked to the growth of cities, and it is at the urban level where challenges associated with waste collection (including recycling), disposal (e.g. landfill shortages) and treatment (e.g. incineration) are most clearly felt. But cities also play a critical role in shaping infrastructures more generally. They can provide the scale, institutional arrangements (including intermediaries) and political leadership to enable transitions towards more sustainable forms of waste management. Sally Gee and Elvira Uyarra have recently conducted an in-depth case study on the emergence of a recycling-based waste infrastructure in Greater Manchester that tries to understand the various dimensions (institutional, political, governance, social and technological) underpinning the transformation of urban waste infrastructures. In the course of this research, they have developed close contacts with the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority (GMWDA) and other key stakeholders in waste policy both at the national and local levels. From the case study it emerged that one major challenge for waste practitioners is managing the dynamic relationship between household practices and the physical waste infrastructure. The active participation of consumers and households is key to the transformation of waste infrastructure. Yet understandings of household behaviour are seldom informed by understandings of what people actually do ‘behind closed doors’.  Indeed, research exploring home consumption, material culture and everyday life rarely ‘talks’ to waste policy and research. David Evans has recently finished a project looking at the everyday waste practices of Manchester households and reached the conclusion that bins are fascinating, not least because they signal the importance of understanding what goes on at the intersection of domestic spaces and public systems of waste management.

Through various discussions of our respective projects, we realised that ‘waste’ might just provide a useful hook through which a range of academic perspectives (from urban studies, innovation studies, material culture, the sociology of consumption etcetera) might be brought together to address a practical and real-world problem. And so an idea was born. With the generous support of cities@manchester and the Sustainable Consumption Institute, we have been able to get our heads together and start thinking this through. We recently organised a workshop ‘Urban waste transitions: connecting innovation, infrastructure and households’[2] to involve other experts and stakeholders in our discussions.

In the morning Professors Frank Geels, Mike Hodson and Simon Marvin gave fascinating talks on how to conceptualise and understand the governance of sustainability transitions at the urban level.  Professor Nuno Gil complemented this ‘macro’ analysis with insights into the development of infrastructure and its relationship to the wider socio-technical system.  All speakers emphasised that innovation in complex systems is protracted, spatially embedded and contested. They also reflected on the challenges of governing sustainable transitions.  These presentations invited pointed questions about how these insights, tools and perspectives might be turned to the analysis of waste.  In the afternoon, it was time for the ‘wasters’ (if only there were a better collectively noun for people who specialise in waste!) to take to the stage and bring us up to date with what’s happening in waste scholarship and waste management.  Professor Nicky Gregson argued that ‘waste’ is not open to obvious or static definitions but an outcome of socio-economic processes, and emphasised the efforts to marketise outputs of resource recovery processes where waste becomes a commodity to be transacted.  Reflecting on this Professor Catherine Alexander explored the classification and re-classification of waste, highlighting the importance of challenging waste categories and understanding what they include as well as exclude.  She argued that the current focus on “bankable” volumes of waste collection redirects attention away from waste reduction and the reality of household processes.  Dr Tom Quested from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) discussed immediate policy issues and emphasised the importance of problem-orientated and multi-disciplinary research to support policy makers in their efforts to affect change.  John Bland (Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority) shared the GMWDAs experience of governing a sustainable waste transition in Greater Manchester involving not only the construction of new physical infrastructure in a complex political, organisational and economic environment, but also the authority’s efforts to promote behaviour change in households.  The speakers all reflected on the questions posed by the presentations given in the morning sessions and the ways in which these perspectives might be extended (or not) to waste.

A number of insights came out of this lively and well attended workshop.  Different speakers tackled different aspects of this dialogue and demonstrated the complex interconnections between innovation, infrastructure and consumption practices – and emphasised the spatial, temporal and economic dimensions to sustainable urban waste transitions.  There was unanimous agreement that technology and society are inseparable, and although this may appear obvious, it challenges some popular perceptions that transforming systems is merely a matter of matching supply and demand, or that sustainable transitions are simply a matter of technological fixes and/or straight forward changes in household behaviours.

This workshop was the first step in what we hope is an on-going process, helping us to identify gaps in research, as well as questions of academic interest and policy relevance.  So watch this space!  As Christmas festivities fade to a distant memory and our attention turns to failed resolutions for the New Year, tidying up the garden (including that brown Christmas tree) and the steady munching of Easter eggs.  As you struggle to remember which bin to put out this week, or how to fit all that cardboard into the cupboard under the sink; spare a thought for how your waste is created, who collects it and where it goes.  There is a whole system out there (and you – we all – are part of it) transforming waste in a variety of ways; some of which are more sustainable than others.

[2] http://www.sci.manchester.ac.uk/events/sci/urban-waste-transitions

Uyarra, E. and Gee, S. (2013) Transforming urban waste into sustainable material and energy usage: the case of Greater Manchester, Journal of Cleaner Production, at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652612006403 .

Gee, S. and Uyarra, E. (2013) A role for public procurement in system innovation:  The transformation of the Greater Manchester (UK) waste system, Technology Assessment and Strategic Management (in press).

Evans, D. (2012) Binning, gifting and recovery: the conduits of disposal in household food consumption Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30(6): pp. 1123-1137

Evans, D. (2012) Beyond the throwaway society: ordinary domestic practice and a sociological approach to household food waste, Sociology 46(1): 43-58

Evans, D. (2011) Blaming the consumer – once again: the social and material contexts of everyday food waste practices in some English households Critical Public Health 21(4): 429-44


A (Green) Roof Above Your Head?

by Andrew Speak, PhD candidate in Geography

There are some exciting, positive changes going on in some of the world’s cities and most people don’t even know it is happening.  That’s because it is happening above their heads!  I’m talking about green roofs.  A green roof is basically replacing conventional bitumen or concrete roof surfaces with a layer of plants.  The main type is known as an extensive green roof and consists of a thin layer of soil, which supports a mat of Sedum plants.  Sedum is a succulent plant that comes in many varieties, and has pretty flowers, but importantly can withstand the harsh conditions on a rooftop – periods of drought and high winds for example.  At the other end of the scale is an intensive roof which has a thicker soil layer that can support a wider variety of plants such as small trees, shrubs and even vegetables.

Extensive sedum green roof on Number One First Street, Manchester


Urban vegetation has many benefits, which are increasingly being recognised by city planners.  Street trees possess these benefits, but there is generally a lack of space at street level for tree planting schemes, so the space afforded by rooftops is a perfect site for urban greening.  There are a number of specific benefits:

  1. Reduced solar energy gain by building materials, through shading and replacement of concrete surfaces.  This lowers the need for air conditioning in summer which can lead to huge financial benefits.  Plants reflect more radiation than conventional urban surfaces.  Vegetation also has a cooling effect from the process of evapotranspiration which uses incoming long wave radiation to change water from liquid to gas.  The altered thermal budget of cities leads to a reduction in the Urban Heat Island phenomenon, which can make cities very uncomfortable places to be in summer.
  2. Plants act as passive filters of urban air pollution by providing a larger surface area for deposition.  Pollutants are then washed off in rains.
  3. Replacement of impervious urban surfaces with soil can reduce the pressure on urban drainage systems by acting as a storage buffer in rainfall events.  The water retained by green roofs is then returned to the atmosphere by evapotranspiration.  There is some evidence that pollutants can be retained within the soil layer as well, thus reducing the impact on receiving water bodies.
  4. Green roofs can provide habitats for birds and insects, thus replacing the biodiversity lost to urban sprawl.  Using native plants on green roofs is frequently promoted.
  5. Urban green space has a strong aesthetic quality and has been shown to reduce stress and promote feelings of well-being.
  6. By protecting roof membranes from huge diurnal temperature extremes and UV radiation, the lifetime of the roof is extended, thus adding another long term financial incentive.

The ability of green roofs to counteract high urban temperatures is being promoted as a form of climate change adaptation.  Work done by Manchester University’s Ecocities group has demonstrated the usefulness of green roofs to keep the city cool under future climate projections.

So if they are so beneficial, why aren’t UK cities full of them?  Currently, a lot of green roofs in this country tend to be ‘showcase’ roofs on National Trust visitor centres, garden centres and art galleries.  One inescapable reason is that green roofs do have a fairly high initial construction cost and intensive roofs can also have considerable maintenance costs.  Plus, not all existing buildings can support the extra weight that a wet or snow-laden green roof would add to the structure.  But this hasn’t stopped countries like Germany, Austria, and more recently the US and Japan, changing their googlemaps satellite street views from grey to green.

The contemporary green roof movement started in German-speaking countries.  One theory is that they sprouted spontaneously from flat roofs in Berlin that had been covered in sand as a fire-proof method after the war.   Deliberate roof garden construction was a large feature of the modernist movement, with flat roofs seen as an extra space to be utilised for enjoyment of healthy outdoor lifestyles.   The environmental movements that started in the 70s ensured growing numbers of people would start to look for alternative ways to live more sustainably.  Germany, Austria and Switzerland have always been very proficient at incorporating verdant elements into urban design, as beautifully demonstrated by the architect Hundertwasser.  Perhaps, it is something unique about the German appreciation of nature that has influenced the design of cities with a desire to bring nature into them.  Whatever the reason, Germany leads the way in green roofing with 5 square miles of green roofs being built every year, helped by government subsidies for construction costs, and policies that state new builds of a certain area with a flat roof MUST have a green roof.

‘Waldspirale’ in Darmstadt, Germany, by the architect Hundertwasser


Ubiquitous green roofing also exists in Scandinavia, where the turf roof dominates.  These roofs serve the purpose of acting as insulation from extreme winter cold, and have been in use since Viking times.   A recent trip to Norway opened my eyes to the possibilities of turf roofs, with everything from car garages to bin-sheds supporting mini-meadows.

No roof is too small for a green roof in Norway

A traditional turf roof in northern Norway


The UK lacks a definite policy at the moment with regards green roofs.  A number of architects install them on new builds, with the motivation being mostly driven by meeting BREEAM sustainability standards and getting an A or B on the Building Energy Rating, but there are no legal or carrot-and-stick methods to ensure green roofs are factored into new building designs.  Some new living roofs are even criticised because they are high-profile and well-publicised, which has led to accusations of them being a form of green-washing of neoliberal construction projects.

There are signs that the UK is catching up though.  The Green Roof Centre in Sheffield is doing great work at promoting green roofs and carrying out research on suitable plants and substrates.  They have also drawn up a UK specific code of best practice for green and living roof installation.  The Centre have been involved in a number of projects on schools, bus shelters  and university buildings, helping Sheffield towards having the highest number of green roofs.  London is also unveiling more and more green roofs of various sizes and types, often thanks to the influence of charismatic urban ecologist and green roof fanatic, Dusty Gedge.  Here in Manchester there are a number in the city centre, such as Number One First Street, The Hive, Spinningfields Apartments, Whitworth Art Gallery and MMU’s All Saint’s building.  There are a couple of notable roofs in the suburbs as well, such as the roof vegetable garden at Hulme Garden Centre and the intensive green roof on Unicorn Grocery in Chorlton which even has a pond on it!  And small DIY green roofs are popping up all over the place in people’s gardens.

So the ball is rolling, albeit slowly here in Britain.  Whether the motivation is to reduce air conditioning bills, attract wildlife, lower the burden on the city’s drains, or just have a conversation piece on the garden shed, more and more plants are sprouting up in the urban roofscape.

Andy Speak is a 3rd year Geography PhD student, investigating a number of environmental benefits of green roofs in Manchester. Watch Andrew talking about his research in this video.

Further info on green roofs:



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.