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Sustainable cities: setting an example

Just over a month ago, Bristol was named European Green Capital for 2015, beating Brussels, Glasgow and Ljubljana.

Some might say this is a culmination of work in a city that has always been seen as forward-looking in terms of the environmental agenda; the key hub in a part of the UK that’s trying to make the most of its geographical and climactic advantages.

Sustainable employment, energy performance, and, very pertinently considering our Foundation’s very recent At Home with Water report, water consumption were big considerations in the judging.

Accolades are great of course, but it’s more pleasing to note that Bristol is a small part of a bigger picture nationally.

Greater Manchester, for example, is firmly on the road to more sustainable choices at infrastructure, business and personal levels. The area’s Low Carbon Hub aims to stimulate investment and ensure quality design of energy schemes. Like Bristol, it's a city that can build on a rich industrial heritage in a modern way.

Solar installations en-masse, switching schemes and a full house retrofit programme modelled on Green Deal are just a few of the works in progress. Partners are diverse, from Electricity North West working on releasing grid capacity, to collaboration with Japanese experts in a low-carbon heating/ localised smart grid scheme involving hundreds of social-rented properties.

Local authorities are often talking about ‘building strong relationships’ and suchlike, but this is where the big test will be. A truly ‘sustainable city’ cannot be so without public buy-in, and not only that but behaviour change too, not just for show but behind closed doors. Clear communication of what this means to the person on the street, and not just to an enthusiastic business community is key. Luckily, Manchester City Council is setting a good local example by reducing its own carbon emissions by 14 per cent since 2010.

Perhaps the most ambitious city of all, though, appears to be Cambridge. They are aiming to become the first UK city to hit the 2050 80 per cent carbon reduction target. This involves a monster of a retrofit vision: tackling the energy efficiency of 20,000 residential and 20,000 non-residential properties, the latter including buildings of the city’s famous (and 804 year-old) university. Professor Douglas Crawford-Brown, director of the Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research, brings the fighting talk:

Other attempts at initiatives like this have tended to work on the assumption that if a programme to make large-scale changes like this is created, people will use it. Our view is that you don’t start supplying until you’ve got the demand. Our first objective is to get big estate-holders involved.” “Our approach is that we’re not here to save your soul and we don’t care why you’re doing it, so long as you’re doing what needs to be done.”

Strong words indeed. What all these cities, and plenty of others that we didn't have space to mention here (sorry), show is that there is a firm consensus now that driving the heralded ‘green economy’ is a realistic thing at regional level. Translating that consensus to hard results will be the biggest leap. But it’d be wrong to say the hard work starts now – it’s already happening.

Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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