What would “Retrofitting your town/city” courses and workshops be like in practice?

Above – from a workshop run by Cambridge Carbon Footprint. Following what must have been Cambridge’s second hottest day ever, will we see a sea-change in public opinion on the climate emergency – and on what to do about it?

Have your say below!

And this one is not the same as 1976 as BBC’s Ros Atkins explains.

So the first day of monster hotwave has happened – or #Heatwave2022 if you want to see what random people and bots are posting. I stayed in for nearly all of it, only venturing outside to move portable solar panels (designed for camping). It could be a new record breaker tomorrow.

The colour shading looks frightening.

The Prime Minister hardly covered himself in glory in what was a despicable and possible final speech of his premiership. The empty green benches behind him spoke volumes.

Above – from Parliament TV 18 July 2022. The Leader of the Opposition responding to a motion from the Prime Minister agreeing that the Commons has confidence in the government.

Speeches that followed (one from each main party) included:

See https://goodlawproject.org/news/we-won-net-zero/

Prior to this, Mr Speaker admonished ministers (again) for failing to come forward with a ministerial statement on the Heatwavehave a listen to him here. Which only made things worse for them because Caroline Lucas (pictured below with Puffles) tabled an Urgent Question which he granted. Urgent questions grant MPs more time to question ministers than ministerial statements.

Above – Caroline Lucas MP with Puffles outside Cambridge Guildhall from May 2019

The question Ms Lucas tabled was to ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office to make a statement on the preparedness of the Government for the extreme heat in the UK (you can watch the Minister’s response – and the follow-up questions from MPs here).

Ms Lucas mentioned the adaptation reports from the UK Climate Change Committee in her reply to The Minister – you can view the UKCCC’s publications here, pick your area of choice and come to your own conclusion on to what extent ministers were prepared for this. I’ve already written what I have to write in my most recent blogposts so won’t repeat myself. Between now and the general election, what can we do locally?

This is where another publication from the New Local think tank comes in – this one from 2021 on community action vs climate change here.

Above – Communities vs Climate Change from 2021

This blogpost follows from my previous one asking about how towns and cities can respond to the climate emergency in the face of hardly anything coming from central government. In one sense we’ve become too used to asking and waiting for ministers to do stuff. That’s both a product of inertia – the growth of the big state in providing essential public services, which was more than understandable when you think of the grinding poverty of the 1930s and the sheer destruction and loss of life in wars that reflected the longer term foreign policy failures of ministers amongst other things. Which is why the Penguin Specials from previous generations are so interesting for me as they cover so many similar public policy problems that sound very similar to today. (See my earlier blogpost here).

“How do you retrofit and renovate an entire city?”

Amongst the many things we will need include:

  1. A knowledgeable population able to ask the right questions and able to learn what changes they will need to make to their homes and lifestyles
  2. A willingness of that population – or at least a critical mass of them/us to make those changes – which also involves political legitimacy
  3. A skilled workforce to do the practical work – even if it involves a fair amount of DIY or co-working with installers
  4. Experts to train the trainers – and trainers to up-skill the workforce and residents
  5. Suitable, affordable, and accessible venues where at least some of the practical training can take place
  6. Someone to co-ordinate this work and keep the city informed – learning the lessons from the Greater Cambridge Partnership
  7. Funding
  8. Enthusiastic co-operation from property owners and businesses
  9. Enthusiastic co-operation from public sector organisations – even though it feels like continual fire-fighting for them
  10. A culture of collective learning ( – and accepting that we’re all starting from different points), doing, evaluating, and improving across our city so no one is left out.

Because this involves us all.

I should add that our fire and rescue services should also be at the heart of designing out the risks given what they are learning in dealing with climate-related wildfires and urban fires.

Let’s take some examples we could take up:

Starting smallish scale on solar

– some of you may be familiar with my previous blogposts on this. Basically I burnt a big hole in my wallet to pay for some large but portable solar panels to charge a large battery/power pack, and then use that power pack to run my laptop.

Above – Jackery panels and powerpacks – which I got from here.

Now, I have not done the calculations on whether this makes financial sense or how long it might take before the amount of money my parents were spending on electricity bills is saved by the electricity now generated by the panels and used by both my laptop and phone. But beyond that, it not only reduces my carbon emissions but I have learnt more than I knew before about the intricacies of solar and battery technology that I wasn’t aware of before. And these are the sorts of things that might be suitable for a community workshop or as part of a course for people to see for themselves. When you recall the epidemic of loneliness that we have across the country, the ability to bring people together regularly for a shared purpose that is also in our shared interest to solve shared problems…you have the chance of taking on more than one social challenge.

Watering plants and trees in a drought

Cambridge City Council has asked us to water the trees.

In normal times this is something the council would be able to pay permanent employees to do – which would also enable them to check on the health of the trees. But 12 years of austerity…exactly.

So are there technologies that enable heavy rainfall to be stored and slowly released to water plants and trees? Yes there is.

Soakaways and attenuation tanks

I found this explanation on soakaways from JDP here

And the crates look/feel sort of familiar with some of the recent developments I’ve seen in and around Cambridge. But we are a very long way from the standards they have on sustainable urban drainage systems that I saw in Cambourne last week, when local councillor Cllr Helene Leeming (LibDems – Cambourne) of South Cambridgeshire District Council took me on a tour to show what progress had been made since I was last there pre-CV19.

“Soakaway crates act as a more advanced form of an old-fashioned ditch or pit. These were traditionally filled with gravel and used as a place for storm water and excess surface water to soak into. This method can still be used but it comes with some problems. The main problem being that, inevitably, the pit gathers soil and debris which fill up the empty space in the ditch giving the water nowhere to run into, rendering the pit useless after time.”

JDP at https://www.jdpipes.co.uk/knowledge/stormwater/how-do-soakaways-work.html

On attenuation systems, this is something that is now incorporated into the town planning framework as a condition for planning permission for medium and large developments.

“Attenuation means to temporarily store storm water for a period of time, to then release back into a watercourse or sewer network. The storm water is collected and routed into the sewer the normal way but with the use of flow controls”

JDP at https://www.jdpipes.co.uk/knowledge/stormwater/soakaway-and-attenuation.html

One of the things that has become more clear to me the older I have become is the more complex the technology has become on how our cities function – to the extent that knowing how a house functions requires a greater amount of technical knowledge than running a house build say in the interwar period – which the house I live in dates from.

“Is this something a renaissance in adult education and lifelong learning could help with?”

A rhetorical question perhaps – but the old British Institute for Adult Education morphed into the Learning and Work Institute. The latter’s title doesn’t feel like it incorporates a culture of learning for leisure, learning for pleasure, or learning because the collective futures of where a learner lives might be on the line if they don’t read up!

Which is why when designing and locating new adult education centres, a whole host of considerations need to be addressed. It cannot be identical to building a school – not least because of the traumatic experiences people do have in compulsory education irrespective of their generation. And they may be a priority target audience, in which case you don’t want to build something that looks like the sort of place they would rather forget.

Then there are things like designs of workshops, communal areas, lecture halls, laboratories, seminar rooms – and yes, even class rooms. And that’s just with one centre.

One single centre or facilities dispersed throughout a settlement?

That is ultimately a political decision to make – not a party political one, but one based on the judgement of elected politicians based on the feedback they get from their constituents. Because some towns might have superb public transport systems and a network of segregated cycleways that enables having a buzzing, thriving centre with hundreds of people there during the day which serves a wider geographical area. Other areas might not have those systems in place, in which case a larger number of smaller, more localised centres – perhaps based in existing facilities where money can be spent upgrading them, might be more suitable.

What sort of courses would be on offer and over what area?

I’ve mentioned the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales. Would any of the courses involve short but intensive study with overnight/week long stays? Would they be aimed at the local community/neighbourhood or a wider geographical area? Perhaps a part of a city, or an entire city, or even a city region? Finally, should accreditation be offered? (i.e. exams) or should this be something that people can learn and run with themselves without having someone marking their ‘work’?

Could sustainable living modules be offered as part of a wider general education that enables adults to learn things that they never had the chance to at school?

This brings us back to the old schemes of study of previous generations of adult schools, such as the example from 1936 below.

Above – the Adult School Lesson Handbook – Scheme of Study 1936

You could say it’s a curriculum in ‘church and citizenship’ that covers a whole host of topics that were designed to be discussed rather than rote-learnt. Although the sequencing seems to be all over the shop. i.e. switching from learning about religious figures from over 2,000 years ago in one module which is then followed by another module all about debating modern media and the role of press and advertising. It doesn’t flow.

A similar risk applies with what might effectively be a ‘general studies’ course where one module is all about covering all things renewable electricity, followed by a module on international politics and what improvements are needed to international institutions to take on global problems – or whether they should be dissolved and left to nation states to deal with individually. How do you ensure there is some sort of co-ordination and that learners come away with a rounded education (if offering such a range) rather than a disconnected set of modules that don’t sit well together?

It is something that we need to discuss and politicians need to debate collectively because we’re going to have more of these extreme heatwaves in the future.

Food for thought?

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