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Glass-House Chats: Building Equitable Green Futures

Posted on 23 May 2023

Written by:

Elly Mead

This month’s Glass-House Chat, Building Equitable Green Futures, welcomed participants from across the placemaking sector, including researchers, architects and urban designers, students, housing association professionals and community members and coordinators. Together, we dived into an exploration of what we mean by green equitable futures, discussing how different sectors, groups and individuals can feed into our shared places whilst using design to co-create sustainable solutions for both existing and future communities and ecosystems.

Key Themes 

We started this month’s Chat by asking our participants, what we mean by equitable green futures? What do we need, both in our places and processes, to create the pathway to a sustainable future? We touched on how green futures need to be centred around people, and how we educate people (from our children all the way up to our policy-makers and politicians) about creating the conditions for equitable and sustainable living. 

We acknowledged the need to look beyond the political or project-based boundaries of our places, to bridge the gaps in thinking and link together resources and approaches to work with, rather than against, each other and our environment. We spoke about the need to take further inspiration from nature when thinking about how we create human-centric sustainable systems and considered the importance of cross-sector and collaborative approaches, bringing together artists and data-analytics, to co-create innovative new approaches that capture the imagination and  make sustainable living feel more accessible, engaging and fun.

Joining Up Thinking Between Projects, and Across Sectors

Often in built environment projects, places are thought about within red-line boundaries that denote the legal area considered within a planning application or policy area. Political boundaries, made up of strategic sites, boroughs and wards, dominate not only how we think about places, but often also how budgets and spending are applied to or distributed  within an area. One participant spoke about how often land owners consider the red line boundary as the limit of their intervention, their responsibility. But, of course, our ecosystems cross such boundaries. 

We agreed that we need to champion a more joined-up approach to both placemaking and our environment, not just across projects but within organisations (such as councils and housing associations), and across different sectors. By thinking creatively alongside colleagues and communities on the ground and by bringing together different perspectives and knowledge-bases, we can better share ideas and resources across places instead of just within the boundaries of a development site or political territory. The end result? A joined-up approach that brings in multi-faceted expertise and resources to create holistic, equitable and sustainable places. 

We acknowledged that achieving this requires good communication and the willingness to do things differently. The responsibility to champion a collaborative approach sits with designers working with landowners, local authorities and elected members, project leaders, those who are commissioning work, and all of us as citizens to think outside of our red lines and silos. 

Our lives and our spaces, towns and cities are all interconnected, and we need to stop putting them into neat boxes at the expense of our communities and our planet. By joining up our thinking and ambitions, can we leave behind better, more sustainable and equitable places for future generations?

Creative Approaches to Difficult Subjects

We acknowledged that some of the topics within building green equitable futures can feel a bit heavy and overwhelming. Climate change, reducing our consumption and waste, environmental pollution and habitat destruction, to name but a few of the looming issues facing our societies, can be hard to grasp and a lot to tackle. The need to reconfigure existing ways of doing things to create more sustainable patterns for the future is full of difficult conversations, and people may sometimes turn away due to the enormity of it all.

With a change in approach, can we flip these perceived challenges on their head and make them feel more manageable? Within every problem is an opportunity to creatively reimagine our existing ways of doing things. We felt that creativity was at the heart of engaging people further to address issues facing achieving a green equitable future, and using accessible and engaging approaches can not only make it easier to get people involved, but can also help them enjoy taking action.  

One example we touched on was food. Can we think creatively about food, beyond just considering it as something to sustain us, to instead see it as a social network? People can be creatively involved in all stages of food growing and production; from reclaiming underused spaces to nurturing soil and plant life, to growing varieties of fruits and vegetables from across the diverse cultures in our communities, to coming together to share recipes and to cook and finally, eat together. Turning the issue of food procurement on its head, creating space for connection with growing and with each other, we can bring people into many different facets of conversations about building green equitable futures through collaborative action and social interaction.

Working with Nature, Not Against It

Throughout our conversation, our Chat participants shared an amazing array of projects and initiatives from across the UK, including local authority-led programmes, funded and commissioned projects as well as community-led and grassroots initiatives. A key component across all of them? They worked with natural cycles, resources and processes to enhance what already exists in nature, rather than working against it. 

One example was a local authority collecting food waste, composting at scale, and then making the compost they produced available to citizens for gardening. Another, shared by one of our Chat participants, is R-Urban, a social hub on the Teviot Estate in London, which is  exploring local, decentralised, productive food growing and waste management, whilst being a testbed for circular economy models. The site sits on a disused car park, and contains a collection of prototype infrastructures looking at developing resilient urban systems. One of their development projects involves a composter and anaerobic digester (both harnessed natural processes), which produces nutrient rich fertilisers from collecting local green and brown waste. 

We also spoke about how to be less invasive and disruptive to our local environments, adopting no-dig gardening, and allowing weeds and indigenous plant life to nurture our ecosystems.  

We need to create the ground for more exploratory, nature-led processes to pave the way for a green equitable future.

Wrapping Up

May’s Chat was full of ideas, inspirational projects and sharing amongst our participants. We explored the building blocks of green equitable futures, the roles we each must play and how we can disrupt and subvert current systems to get there. To create an equitable future, we need to bring everyone with us in changing how we design, build, manage and live in places. To bring a greener approach into our places and spaces, we need to use collaborative thinking to challenge existing non-sustainable processes, to bring together varied people, knowledge-bases and experiences to create regenerative, new ways of doing things.