Urban Futures Salford Manchester. Research in the City

From litter-ati to liter-ati: the challenge of a low carbon culture?

In 2009 Manchester developed its first stakeholder Climate Change strategy. Engaging with different stakeholders and communities to develop the plan, two objectives underpin this approach: to reduce the city of Manchester’s carbon emissions by 2020 from 2050 levels and to engage all individuals in a process of cultural change that embeds ‘low carbon thinking’ into the lifestyles and operations of the city.

Next came the GM Climate Change strategy, stating that 1) the city-region will make a transition to a low carbon economy 2) collective carbon emissions will have been reduced by 30% - 50% 3) Greater Manchester will be prepared for and actively adapt to a rapidly changing climate and 4) ‘carbon literacy’ will have become embedded into the culture of GM organisations, lifestyles and behaviours.

The last objective gives pause for thought. Carbon literacy to build a low carbon culture? Underpinning this aim is the vision of a new generation of carbon literati, a world in which all GM residents and workers understand and can articulate the challenges of carbon reduction, broadening the debate beyond the narrow existing interests that are already actively engaged in adapting to and mitigating climate change.

An easy conclusion to draw from this is that there is a gulf – between the carbon literate and, its supposed opposite, the illiterate. For many people, everyday sustainability is about litter, poo and parks.

The image provoked is one of a small, engaged, carbon literate elite that stands enlightened compared with the mass of ‘litter-ati’ in the rest of Greater Manchester. If knowledge is power, so one might argue, then education is a critical foundation upon which future climate change action can be promoted.

Is the picture really this clear cut? Pilot work carried out in 2012 by the Mistra Urban Futures Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform with the Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures, Seedley and Langworthy Trust and a group of Community Researchers suggests a more complex picture. The Mapping the Urban Knowledge Arena project involved a workshop with community researchers, fieldwork in their local communities and a questionnaire conducted at the Sustainable Stories exhibition in November 2012.

What did we find? Whilst litter, poo and parks were indeed important aspects of how people understood sustainability, an integrated and holistic conception prevailed. The work revealed a set of common themes and aspirations that evoke the concept of a sustainable community – equality and justice, decision-making, longevity, care for the environment, community involvement, growth, individual development, cohesion, safety, cleanliness and transport. Despite the Community Researchers initial lack of confidence about the language of ‘sustainability’, the fieldwork was rich and showed deep engagement with the critical urban issues.

Perspectives on sustainability from those living and working in the city both reinforced and challenged policy-makers, politicians and academics to take more account of grassroots actions and views. Most people associated sustainability with making better use of the planet’s resources over the long-term, so that we can sustain our future.  Many of the community researchers highlighted the difficulties for local people in thinking about sustainability, when their daily decisions are about where money or food might come from.

The community researchers went into their neighbourhoods to conduct some initial fieldwork, drawing on their own involvement with local communities:

  • Ann Walters, a community activist who has worked part-time as a Community Researcher since 2010, developed a profile of Winton, highlighting significant institutions in the lives of the community, such as the schools, churches and library, and the importance of green space.
  • Emily Mmbololo, Chair of Women of the World in Broughton with a Level 3 in Community Research Skills, did fieldwork comprised of an open discussion with the Women of the World group around the meaning and relevance of sustainability. Education was a key theme, particularly for multi-cultural communities, as well as safety, equity and diversity.
  • Sarah Whitehead drew on her involvement with Weaste Area Forum to explore the Weaste area through the lenses of Fair, Green and Dense cities. Key themes were the importance of community hubs and informal spaces to meet; community growing and gated alleyways; and the relationship between fairness and community participation in local decision-making.
  • Sian Lucas, a student at the University of Salford, explored the campus from the perspectives of fair, green and dense. This raised a number of issues relating to the physical boundaries of the campus, enclosed spaces and eligibility of different people to be on campus.
  • Steve Cunio, a resident of Seedley and Langworthy, undertook a multi-media approach and brought together personal reflections and historical examples with contemporary case studies. Steve highlighted the role of historical figures such as Joseph Brotherton and Shelagh Delaney in engaging with communities and examples of practice from today, such as Social adVentures. He highlighted the need to think about more cooperative forms of working and living in communities.
  • Wilson Nkurunziza, Chair of Salford Refugees and Asylum Seekers and also with a Level 3 in Community Research Skills, collected stories from Pendleton Residents and highlighted critical issues in the area, including unemployment, cycles of poverty, low social infrastructure, the importance of well-being, the inadequacy of existing high-density housing and the centrality of consultation and cooperation in sustainable communities.

Across the fieldwork and the questionnaire, sustainability at a local level meant balancing the concern with global environmental and economic considerations with action to address the quality of life in local communities. In practical terms, this meant making more efficient use of energy and minimising waste to landfill, growing your own food, being self-sufficient (including using local hydro-power and community energy networks) and living minimally.

Other issues included making the local area clean and safe; more facilities (local schools, local shops, community hubs, sports facilities); more social and private housing; cheaper housing (e.g. lower rents); better transport links; better use of land, including less divisive use of land, e.g. gentrification.  Respecting social and cultural diversity and other people were also seen as critical, along with distributing resources and opportunities fairly and equitably, including more and better employment and training opportunities and better health care.  In general, the overriding concern was with people and their interaction; with promoting a sense of belonging to a healthy, cohesive community.  In this regard, sustainability from the grassroots was seen to involve balancing social, environmental and economic values. 

A common concern through the questionnaires and fieldwork related to community participation. When asked what could be done to improve life in their area, most people called for greater involvement of local communities in identifying issues, developing a shared vision, making decisions and taking action, either with or without the support of local and national government.  They suggested that the public sector, private sector and third sector could help by supporting education for sustainability, building capacity for community action, and engaging with the community as partners. Examples of community participation ranged from being involved in local government planning and regeneration processes, to simply participating in community activities as a means to improve community spirit, e.g. gardening projects.  Yet multiple barriers were described, including existing governance structures, economic policies and various conflicts of value and interest. 

A more complex picture therefore emerges. In the pilot work, ‘carbon’ was not widely used as a term, whilst a vision of more sustainable communities was commonly articulated. This raises a fundamental question: how well does the language of carbon reduction connect with people’s actually existing everyday concerns?

The pilot work would suggest that, whilst perhaps not carbon literate, citizens are not sustainability illiterate.  Juxtaposing the carbon literati with a popular litterati seems to conflate multiple issues around information, knowledge and action. Importantly, this points to the need to avoid condescension and work with people at different stages of change. The work of climate activists is pivotal in drawing attention to the urgency of the problems we face, but citizens are at different points in the journey from acknowledgement, acceptance, empowerment and action. Carbon literacy is an important first step in this journey, but is part of a broader agenda.

What does and could a ‘low carbon culture’ mean? Broadening the coalition of ‘carbon literate’ in Greater Manchester is an important aim, but there is no zero starting point. Communities need to be active participants and not only targets of policy initiatives. Knowledge is not owned by the few, but the many. Connecting with people’s everyday sustainability concerns, through subjects such as food or cooking, is as important a trajectory - arguably more so - than creating green jobs and supply chains. People matter, but responsibilities for action need to be equitable.  Low carbon culture is also about mass behavioural change through the organisations of the city-region.  Engaging workers through their employment status – organisations, from universities, to public sector bodies to businesses of different shapes and sizes – is an essential step in creating low carbon cultures in the workplace.

And what of cultural and creative organisations?  A corollary to low carbon culture is to ask what the contributions of the creative city and the cultural and creative industries, from Media City to small digital companies, to a more sustainable Greater Manchester might be?

And, from a community perspective, what can we gain from cultural and creative engagement around issues of sustainability? Rather than carrots or sticks greater attention needs to be given to creativity and inspiration, linked to people’s everyday realities and knowledge, as a precondition for a low carbon culture.

These themes are being examined in a project developed for the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform for Sustainability, Mistra Urban Futures, a project led locally by the SURF Centre at the University of Salford. Creative Urban Environments is in its early stages of a three-year process that starts with understanding the variety of perspectives and activities on creativity, culture and sustainability in Greater Manchester and elsewhere.

GM LIP_Poster.pdf [PDF, 2.23Mb]
GM Climate Change Strategy.pdf [PDF, 2.03Mb]
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