Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Green building as urban sustainability strategy

by Julia Affolderbach
The building sector has been identified as the single largest contributor to human-related greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, the sector is also seen to hold the greatest potential to lower emissions based on the relatively low levels of retrofitting existing or constructing new buildings, the availability of technologies, and the need to transition towards greener energy supply and demand (see for example related earlier blogs on sustainable building and green homes). The GreenRegio research project focuses on the potential of reducing greenhouse emissions through changes in the building sector (i.e. implementing more sustainable building practices) as urban climate change mitigation strategy. Based on case studies in four city regions – Freiburg, Luxembourg, Vancouver and Brisbane – one of the main objectives of the project is to identify the reasons behind innovations in green building.
Information sign on a 'Green Building Audio Tour' offered by the City of Vancouver in its award-winning Southeast False Creek neighbourhood.
One perspective we have adopted as part of our research is to understand green building through urban sustainability policies that seek to respond to climate change but also include aspects of city branding and marketing as part of broader, global and competitive sustainability discourses. Using the City of Vancouver’s “Greenest City 2020 Action Plan” (GCAP) and based on document analysis and interviews, we seek to assess the role of the GCAP as part of the city’s sustainability transition, and how green visioning and marketing can contribute or divert from the Plan’s objectives.
Greenest city Vancouver? Vancouver's beautiful natural setting between mountains and ocean is used as one of the main arguments to explain the strong environmental commitment within the local community.
Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan is a politically motivated strategy with the ambitious goal to turn Vancouver into a world leading green city. It consists of 10 goals that are further defined through identified mid-term (2020) and long-term (2050) targets to be monitored through measurable indicators specific to each of the targets. The GCAP illustrates how green policies are used to both draw on and speak to local constituencies, as well as a global audience by framing the ‘green city’ both as a local process and globally competitive positioning.

The competitive nature of the policy and the ambition to present the city as global leader in sustainability is already evident in the development of the GCAP. The development of the strategy was led by a ‘blue ribbon task force’, the Greenest City Action Team (GCAT), consisting of leading and well-known academics, civic and environmental leaders and industry representatives, which commenced work in Feb. 2009 and delivered its recommendations later that year. The GCAT identified ten sustainability goals based mainly on an evaluation of best policies and best practices used in leading green cities around the world which are grouped into three areas: zero carbon, zero waste and healthy ecosystems. Nine of the goals were chosen based on what other cities were doing internationally while the tenth goal, local food, was at the time identified as unique to Vancouver. Interestingly, the goal to ‘out-green’ other cities was identified as a clear motivation in our interviews with respondents who are or had been involved in the implementation of the GCAP.

At the same time, the GCAP incorporated views and interests of residents and the general public, both through public engagement and participation during the development of the strategy and the implementation of the objectives. Targets involving green jobs, transportation infrastructure and increased citizen involvement resonate with local people  and emphasize municipal empowerment, while at the same time they seek to address a global audience through a language of superlatives.

A model laneway house developed to illustrate low-carbon building solutions as well as urban densification. Laneway houses are small homes that are added to pre-existing lots (usually in the backyard and opening to the back lane) that help increase density in low-density neighbourhoods without changing the existing building structure.
The focus on global positioning and leadership can be criticized for using local sustainability issues in urban marketing and branding strategies in order to advertise the city as attractive place for tourists, workers, and businesses alike. At the same time, the pursuit of global leadership can offer a number of positive effects beyond green washing. For example, our interview partners described how the ambitious goals set within the GCAP have provided precedent cases that have been used by other municipalities to implement new regulations. One other benefit relates to the provision and sharing of specific know-how, data, experience and establishment of collateral knowledge networks and opportunities for co-learning. To illustrate the point, the City of Vancouver offered a two-day workshop in May 2015 to share its experience and give practical advice to other cities on how to set up a sustainability centre based on Vancouver’s CityStudio. CityStudio is a city-led innovation hub that brings together city staff, university students, and community members to create, design, and implement community projects of all kind in support of the GCAP. The ‘art of cities’ workshop brought together teams from 8 Canadian cities that are working on building up similar initiatives to engage students and citizens in solutions to sustainability issues in their local communities.
Vancouver CityStudio's Keys to the Streets project that seeks to promote the use of public space and increase the sense of community. (Photo: Inside Vancouver)
GreenRegio is a 3-year research project funded by the National Research Fund Luxembourg and the German Research Foundation. Further information on the project and research findings from Freiburg, Luxembourg, Brisbane, and Vancouver are available on the project website.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

How I became an environmental economic geographer

By Julia Affolderbach

When asked professionally, I will say I am an economic geographer. Yet, this doesn’t feel right as I don’t specialize in the central topics of the discipline. Supply chains, international division of labour, clusters, innovations, and the quantitative analysis of these trends are not my domains. When attending economic geography conferences, I sometimes struggle to find sessions relevant to my work. This is why after stating that I am an economic geographer, I usually specify that I am interested in how the natural environment and environmental values impact and change economic development. Since childhood, I have identified as being an environmentalist. I grew up worrying about and criticising nuclear power plants, acid rain, deforestation in the Amazon, pollution levels in Germany’s river Rhine and other environmental problems driven by economic activity. This is why I would never have expected to go from environmentalist to anything related to economics.

When I started my studies in Germany at the University of Cologne in 1995, the only degree programs offered were combined undergraduate and postgraduate programs through which you would gain a degree comparable to a British MA or MSc degree. Although I enrolled in Geography, Geology and Botany, I also took courses in Zoology and Spanish. I enjoyed learning and was thirsty for diverse experiences. This exploration led me to an introductory economic geography course. I struggled to wrap my head around the concepts but I enjoyed it. Despite getting by far the lowest mark I ever received during my studies, I caught the attention of my economic geography professor who would later become my mentor, as I was one of only three students who passed the course.
Half way through my degree program, I won a scholarship to study at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver (Canada) for one year. During my two semesters there, I mapped and analysed geological landforms along the coast and within the Rocky Mountains and in Washington State in the US. I learned to identify 300 of British Columbia’s endemic plant species and their ecosystems, saw black bears, moose and the famous salmon runs. It was fantastic!

Upon my return to Cologne, I had to take one last course before I was able to move on to my dissertation – a two-week field school. The field schools on offer varied from year to year. I had originally signed up for a hiking trip through central Sweden but wasn’t able to attend due to my studies in Canada. Left with very few options, I signed up for an economic geography fieldtrip to the old-industrial district at the German-French-Luxembourg border. The economic geography professor who had supported my studies since the economic geography course was running the fieldtrip. During the trip my mentor convinced me that studying the environment was fine but that environmental issues could not be fully understood without considering the role of humans. He argued that I would never be fully satisfied focusing simply on geomorphology or plant ecology.
Following field school, my mentor introduced me to a colleague at Yale School of Forestry who was conducting a comparative case study on forest certification schemes. He was looking for a collaborator to conduct a survey on the German wood and paper industry – my MSc dissertation topic. While working on my dissertation, my mentor also introduced me to a Canadian visiting professor named Roger Hayter, who had a similar interest in environmental economic geography. At the time, environmental aspects were rarely taken into consideration within economic geography. Prof. Hayter asked me whether I would be interested in joining a research project on the restructuring of the forest industry and, as I had been considering doing a PhD, I accepted.

Logging operations at Arve Loop, Tasmania, Feb. 2006.
I finished my German degree, spent half a year in South America practicing my Spanish, passed my English language certificate at 4000m in elevation at the British consulate in La Paz, and then left for Vancouver to start a PhD on forest conflicts and the role of environmental activism in the restructuring of the forest industry in Canada and Australia. My PhD research led me to Tasmania where I spent three months in and around the native forests interviewing environmental activists, logging contractors, saw millers and other forest workers, tourism operators, politicians, policy makers, Indigenous representatives and many more to better understand the nature of the forest conflict.  

I have worked on a number of different research projects since, all focused in one way or another on environmental aspects linked to the economy. I have also broadened my interests to aspects of urban and social sustainability. For example, I spent two months in 2013 in Massachusetts studying environmental justice organisations and their campaigns to address environmental, social, and economic inequalities in urban settings. Currently, I am working on a project that explores the role of green building in urban strategies to reduce carbon emissions. The GreenRegio project ( includes not only technological aspects of green building but also policy, institutional and other changes based on case studies in Brisbane, Freiburg, Luxembourg, and Vancouver.

I am an environmental economic geographer.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Freecycle - blurring the analyses of consumption

Guest blog by Sally Eden

Ever eBayed, Freecycled or Shpocked something that you owned but no longer needed? Millions of us have and the fact that the names of these websites/groups are now verbs indicates how common digital practices of selling or exchanging used goods online have become between consumers. I have been giving away and receiving consumer items for free through two of my local Freecycle groups for some years in my spare time. But after twenty years, on and off, of analysing sustainable consumption professionally, I grew more intrigued by whether there was more to Freecycling than avoiding landfill by passing stuff on to others, instead of taking it to the dump (as some Freecyclers like to describe what they do) and wrote a paper about it, which has now been published in the Journal of Consumer Culture.

Why analyse Freecycle? First, Freecyclers do a lot of ‘moral ordering’ in support of sustainable and ethical consumption. That is, their online posts re-value items, changing them from something unwanted by the owner to something useful for someone else. Someone might offer broken paving slabs for crazy paving, used bricks to make someone else a BBQ or even an old washing machine door taken not as a replacement part, but to make a dome-like window in a garden fence so that the new owner’s dog could peek out and see the world, a free alternative to the ‘PetPeek’ window sold online - thanks to Richard Lamin for telling me about that! Freecycling practices thus reimagine and reproduce both products and consumers in sometimes surprising ways.

Freecycling also exposes the problems with three common ‘binaries’ (that is, two-fold oppositions or assumptions) that underlie many analyses of consumption. First is the assumption that consumption is separate from production, whereas in Freecycling, the consumer also offers and describes items online, becoming a sort of producer and retailer. This is even more obvious when spare plants or food from an allotment glut is offered. George Ritzer and others have written about the blurring of consumption with production as ‘prosumption’ – to emphasise that these different practices cannot be easily teased apart – and examples also include a consumer reviewing a book that they have read on a retailer’s website that helps the retailer to sell more books or a consumer who blogs about cosmetic products on YouTube supported by commercial adverts.

Second, Freecycling merges digital and material practices. Often we hear about the rise of online consumption crushing the High Street and other ‘brick and mortar’ stores, but in reality these different spaces are linked. Freecycling uses online systems to connect offerer and receiver, but they usually meet in person to exchange the physical item, similar to the way that some stores now offer ‘Click and Collect’ mode for buying online but collecting in person. In other cases, people ‘window shop’ in bricks-and-mortar stores to choose an item by looking and perhaps trying it on, but ‘Windows shop’ online to compare prices and finally buy it – in some cases, Freecycling offers people the opportunity to try out a product (a breadmaker, a children’s slide) for free but perhaps in a well-used and rather battered form, before deciding to buy themselves one in mint condition.  

Third, Freecycling blurs what is often referred to as ‘alternative’ consumption with the mainstream. Some Freecyclers may feel that they are challenging the wastefulness and built-in obsolescence of mainstream consumer society, but others use Freecycle to ask precisely for desirable consumer items or, when offering them, use hotlinks to chainstore retailers to show what the product looks like when new (and often its original cost) as part of making it look attractive to potential collectors. Freecyclers still draw on the mainstream repertoire of modern consumption, even while aiming to counter the problems they perceive it produces.

For all these reasons, Freecycling shows us how consumption is more blurred, less analytically clean and more circular than is often appreciated. Consumption blurs into production, digital into material, alternative into mainstream, with diverse practices continually being reinvented as well. And it is fun. Now, who would like the tricycle that my son has now grown out of? And who is offering a bike that he might like? 

Eden, S., 2015. Blurring the boundaries: Prosumption, circularity and online sustainable consumption through Freecycle. Journal of Consumer Culture. 0(0) 1-21. DOI: 10.1177/1469540515586871

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Fracking research: the only way is ethics

By Liam Herringshaw (@fossiliam)

Britain for shale? (Image from Wikimedia Commons, via DECC)

If the contentions of the UK government's energy policy are summed up in a single word, it's probably this one: fracking. According to the August 2015 government survey of public opinions about energy, 28% of UK people are opposed to it, 21% of people support it, and 46% neither oppose nor support it (I'm not sure what the other 5% think!).

Originally a shorthand for the process of hydraulically fracturing low permeability rocks – particularly shales – to extract hydrocarbons from them, the term 'fracking' has evolved and mutated. To some, it is a byword for energy independence and prosperity. To others, it is a swear word of greed and pollution. Fracking is now so variously (mis)used and (mis)understood that it's often hard to know exactly what it encompasses.

If fracking has issues of semantics, then the subject has clearly not been communicated very well. This is a consequence of many factors, but two are particularly pertinent: a lack of fundamental research, and a reluctance of experts to speak out about what is correct or incorrect, and what is known or unknown.

The latter is a consequence of the former. Most people – geologists included – know little about shales, or shale gas, or fracking; only recently have they become a focus of much scientific attention. Even if you are an expert, the need to try and bring sense into the debate is often counter-balanced by the chastening experience of sticking your head above the parapet. Nonetheless, we should try to provide information whenever we can.

Carboniferous shales in the Peak District, UK (Photo by Liam Herringshaw / ReFINE)

Despite all the recent hype about Britain's onshore shale gas potential, for example, we actually know very little about the deep geology of the country's shale basins. Only multi-disciplinary investigations, gathering and interpreting large datasets and then communicating the findings to the public, can help address such uncertainties. But how should research into fracking be funded? And what ethical issues are raised?

If you're implacably opposed to shale gas extraction, you might argue that there should be no funding at all. Since the combustion of fossil fuels is a key driver of climate change, using new techniques to extract and burn them is wrong, and shouldn't happen. That argument has been made to me at meetings I've attended.

Most people, however, recognize the need for peer-reviewed scientific research, even if they are opposed to unconventional hydrocarbon extraction. Fracking is already happening, and will continue to happen. Many impacts – positive and negative – have been claimed on its behalf, but few have been proven with empirical data. To properly inform the debate we need more facts about fracks.

ReFINE - Researching Fracking In Europe

To this end, the main project I have been involved with over the last couple of years is ReFINE (Researching Fracking In Europe). Led by Newcastle and Durham universities, with contributions from many other institutions (including GEES at Hull), ReFINE aims to investigate the key topics of public concern and communicate the findings as widely as possible.
As the consortium is part-funded by the hydrocarbon industry, though, there were concerns that the public would see ReFINE as potentially biased. A unique set of ethical procedures were therefore put in place to ensure that funders did not have direct influence over the research outputs. These are:
  • Peer review – all ReFINE papers are submitted to recognized journals for peer review by scholars not involved in the project;
  • Disclosures of interest – all members of the project are required to declare any current or past interests that may compromise their impartiality;
  • Independent Science Board – comprising impartial scientific researchers from across the world, the Independent Science Board (ISB) directs and oversees all ReFINE research, ensuring it is accurate, relevant, and free from industry bias;
  • Offsite archives – correspondence and data relating to the project are recorded using a secure email archive, and made publicly available on request.
No matter how transparent you attempt to be, there will always be those who regard your work with suspicion. Perhaps the best indication of independence is when pro- and anti-fracking groups both perceive your findings as supporting their opponents' position. Having been described as 'frackademics' after publishing one peer-reviewed publication, and then 'nettle wine tasters' after publishing another, members of ReFINE are certainly discovering this.

Ethics are an increasingly important consideration in research projects, particularly those investigating contentious topics. I've not been involved in a project like ReFINE before, with such a detailed ethics policy, but it is surely the right approach. As researchers we need to demonstrate that we are engaging properly with issues of trust and impartiality, especially in relation to funding. As the most recent ReFINE publication has also demonstrated, we must discuss fracking with the public using non-technical language. Only then will people begin to be able to make more informed decisions about the real risks.

ReFINE will be a case study in a future issue of the journal Research Ethics, subject to final approval. To find out more about the project, visit