SECURE: SElf Conserving URban Environments

SECURE: SElf Conserving URban Environments

In early May, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Professor Margaret Carol Bell CBE, Science City Professor of Transport and the Environment at Newcastle’s School of Engineering, to discuss her work on SECURE: SElf Conserving URban Environments. This project explored interactions within cities and their surrounding areas with the aim of understanding how demands on infrastructure, including housing, energy, transportation, ecosystem services and waste treatment and disposal, in the context of increased urbanization and population growth, will impact how we live in cities. This project was funded by EPSRC, and was accredited as a Global Uncertainties Project under the “competition for natural resources” and “threats to infrastructure” themes.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today. Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about what did this project involved?

Professor Margaret Bell: This project was a collaboration between investigators based in various research groups at the Universities of Sheffield, Exeter, Loughborough, and Newcastle. Our approach involved looking holistically at carbon sequestration, buildings and transportation across the North East (NE).

Here at Newcastle, we mainly led the transport, waste and brown field gardens sections of the study, which focused on the Region from the Tees to the Tweed. That work involved an examination of transport and the impact of all the services that are needed for a good quality of life. We wanted to build a picture of how much carbon we were emitting, how much carbon could be sequestered, and what interventions could be implemented to achieve our carbon emission reduction targets.

Another study showed that kerbside collection of waste food, if anaerobically digested could provide enough fuel to operate refuse collection per se.

Loughborough researchers looked at every building, including businesses and domestic, in the Northeast to understand how much carbon was saved if every house had the top standard of environmentally friendly home improvements, including high quality insulation, double glazing, and low powered lights, etc. Their research showed that even if every home met these standards, we still would not achieve the UK Government’s carbon targets for 2050. I think that was an impactful output, because essentially, we were able to conclude that the only way to meet our carbon targets for buildings is to decarbonize the grid.

Sheffield and Exeter led on examining ecosystems services. Exeter mapped open spaces defined from Google maps to estimate carbon capture. The Sheffield group examined allotments and found that the current allocation systems that are used are not very efficient. If allotment land in the NE was fully cultivated  27 000 people could be fed from them. Whilst there are waiting lists in most councils, 37% of land in these allotments is lying fallow. One important follow-up finding was that in the NE area, 70% of people were happy to split their allotments. That had the benefit of resulting in further cultivation of the land, and reduced emissions because folks who had moved house had been travelling by car to allotments a few miles away while sitting for years on a waiting list for an allotment within walking distance. By looking at the microscale of allotments, housing, and transport, we were able to figure out where the big winners were locally. For example, using allotments more efficiently both delivers extra food and contributes to reduced transport emissions and food miles.

I think what was unique and quite fascinating about our project was that we worked from the bottom up and top down – we were able to develop actions based on our early findings, then model them at a higher level to see what the impact would be across the Region. For example, we started looking at car commuter trips into Newcastle, and we found that the biggest gains for carbon emission reduction came from encouraging people who were commuting longer distances – in those cases travelling more than 100km daily – to take multiple forms of public and active transport, even if it involved cycling to a train link and interchanging with the metro. Convincing the 2% of commuters who travelled the furthest each day to switch to more environmentally friendly approaches would reduce emissions by 27%. That drops by about 4% if you assume that you will need to increase bus and train services to meet increased demand. However, that’s still a large potential win relative to the less than 4% reduction of emissions if 25% of trips less than 5km shifted to walk and cycling. No matter how you look at it, reducing vehicle kilometres travelled is the best way to reduce emissions. We also found that there was up to a 7% emissions reduction in some areas (without considering the reduction of time limited pollution hotspot caused today in the vicinity of those schools) if you send children to their closest neighbourhood schools, so that they can walk or take public transport to get there, and that using communal bins in terraced neighbourhoods can reduce the emissions involved in refuse collection.  However, we also learned that when you’re developing targeted solutions you need to be mindful of the deprivation index. It’s important that the solutions you develop are context sensitive.

In addition to working across universities, my understanding is that SECURE involved a lot of collaboration across disciplines and with individuals and organizations in sectors outside of academia – particularly government and civil society. What was that experience like?

 The consortium that worked together on SECURE had also worked together on a previous project (4M funded by the EPSRC) which did a lot of the groundwork for this project. As a consortium, we knew that we needed each other to succeed in developing mitigation measures- Activities which generate carbon emissions and the need for transport involves studying a whole host of different things– ranging from gas and electricity use, how waste is treated and disposed of, where vegetables are sourced and potential to be grown locally, to how soil types affected carbon sequestration in gardens, to modelling the impact of insulating buildings, electrical vehicle uptake and active travel, etcetera – which required drawing upon different disciplinary understandings and perspectives.

Our work ended up showing that a lot of activities and carbon emissions in cities like Leicester or Newcastle also require understandings of the interaction with satellite towns and villages which rely on that city for things like jobs, hospitals, clinics, and shopping. We needed to understand not just the interactions in a single city, rather we needed to understand an entire region. That necessitated widespread stakeholder engagement. When we started researching household activity in the Newcastle area, we involved all of the district councils in the Northeast – Tyneside, Gateshead, Sunderland, Northumberland, Durham and Tees Valley, as we looked at transport, buildings, waste, water treatment, and gardens within this system. We built relationships with the North East water authorities, consultants, involved several different people within the councils, and collaborated with people who worked in sustainability and recycling. At multiple key points in the project, we hosted workshops which brought all those people together. They were big events, with research updates, activity groups, and two-way dialogues which sought to develop spin-offs and solutions to problems. Councils and bus operators became crucial partners in getting us the data we needed, and at the other end, we needed to work with stakeholders to determine where and how our knowledge could be implemented.

What have you been working on since SECURE finished?

My work on SECURE made it very clear that we have a good idea of what’s needed to meet our carbon reduction targets, including the need to decarbonise the grid, use  cars less and finding innovative ways to get people to cycle and use public transport more. However, while the actual engineering solutions are fairly straight forward, achieving our goals are difficult because we need to change human behaviour. Through SECURE we also funded a PhD student who examined air quality and environmental justice, who explored the relationships between local air quality and neighbourhood deprivation levels. It brought home the fact that you really need a triple win: to improve air quality, reduce carbon emissions, and to have a positive health impact. But getting there is tough. So, my work now focuses on understanding people’s behaviour, looking at which population characteristics make people more likely to shift from cars to active travel so that we can target those groups in particular areas of the city, with interventions such as local shared bicycles that they’re likely to actually use.

During the five years I’ve been in flexible retirement, I’ve also supported colleagues and worked with PhD students exploring health impacts, measuring pollution indoors and outdoors and trying to understand what your total pollution exposure is – so, for example cyclists take more air into their lungs, which makes it harmful to health when cycling in high pollutant areas. That means we need to develop cycle routes that are not on main roads and  therefore have cleaner environments and are indeed safer, and then we need to figure out how to deliver on that.

How has covid-19 impacted the way you think about your work?

One of the big questions we face is, during the age of covid-19 and social distancing, will people want to travel by public transport? If we end up with more trips by car during this period it will be detrimental to our health and the environment. While one recent study saw a fifth of motorists claim they’ll use their car less after covid-19, that might be because they’re planning on working from home more, but we increase our carbon if we all work at home because we use more carbon-emitting heating and cooling. Targeting commuters with daily trips over 100km to work in local coffee shops will have bigger impacts on improving the environment.  Meanwhile, you need at least 13 parcel deliveries on the same round trip route of 26 kilometres of a delivery van to have lower emissions than having people go to a local shop to collect items. So, there are trade-offs which we need to step back and examine in a more holistic way to understand the interactions between these things, and we’ve done a lot of research on understanding these interactions, understanding the problems, and coming up with solutions. But, delivering solutions is tough, because it requires radical shifts to the way we live. Is covid-19 a time to capitalize on this opportunity to make changes? If so, we need to think carefully about what those changes might be and how we can get there.

Photo by Dan Roizer on Unsplash