“It is particularly ironic that the battle to save the world's remaining healthy ecosystems will be won or lost not in tropical forests or coral reefs that are threatened but on the streets of the most unnatural landscapes on the planet.”- Worldwatch Institute. 2007

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Media City, Salford

I’m not for an instant suggesting that Northern Europe is the only place with cool new interesting regeneration developments that consider sustainability. But I would have been struggling to convince CIBSE that I needed a bursary to visit Salford Quays as it’s only a mile from my house. It was written about recently in the guardian at www.guardian.co.uk/money/2010/aug/07/move-to-central-salford-salford-quays. In an article which would have been better titled ‘Let’s NOT move to...’, it describes it as “ballooning with apartment towers in anticipation of the BBC's arrival next year at the gruesomely named MediaCityUK ... an Alphaville of steel, glass, lobbies and "hubs”’

I was relieved to note that most of the comments came from people who do like Salford Quays and remember it for the hole it used to be a couple of decades ago. I’m not saying it’s perfect in any way but what I am saying is that it is a LOT better in every regard than it was. It also shows the development of development in that the first buildings to go up were mostly offices and then retail and now with Media City we’re now seeing real mixed use development where people can live and work without long commutes, with a provision of public spaces. There’s a Salford University building to tie in their media courses with the new BBC (if any of them condescend to move up North to work – I understand it’s not a popular move). New tram stops have been built improving connection to the city centre and the waterfront of the Manchester ship canal is now a car-free promenade lined with trees. Sailing clubs use the water and they even allow open air swimming there (although I haven’t been tempted as yet). It’s great to cycle round too.

The really interesting thing about Media City from my point of view is that it was a pilot study for BREEAM Communities. BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) was designed to assess buildings for overall sustainability (energy, water, ecology, waste, transport and so on). It comes under some flak for being a ‘box ticking exercise’ and sometimes that is what it becomes when people don’t use it properly but I’ve been working with it for a few years now and you know what? It works. It’s making design teams automatically consider a lot of things that would never have been included before on even the most mainstream of buildings. It’s making engineers and architects, planners and ecologists aware of each other’s roles and concerns which in turn leads to more integrated design (otherwise known as the left arm knowling what the right one is doing).

The Communities scheme takes it a step further and looks at entire developments at master planning stage. As with the individual building schemes energy is heavily weighted and Media City has a tri-generation plant which provides electricity, heating and cooling. Canal water is drawn from the ship canal for cooling and cleaned before being put back (so give it a year or so and I might try the swimming). Heat is delivered around site via a heat main and this has saved on plant space in the individual buildings. The central plant is located in the carpark (where everyone has to leave their cars before they walk around the pedestrianised site) and although gas was chosen as the most suitable fuel for now sufficient space has been provided for a future shift to biomass or biogas (or small scale nuclear fusion plant – who knows what is around the corner?). Services have been planned for the future and sized appropriately so that they don’t have to be dug-up when a new phase is built because, amazingly, that’s what usually happens.

So this evening I’m going to visit MediaCityUK to talk to the community there and find out if it is, as the guardian claims, all “people-less streets, loft apartments and mochafrappelatteccinos.”

Friday, 13 August 2010

On Cities

In 1800 only 3% of us lived in cities but in 2008, for the first time in human history, that had risen to over half. By 2030 it will be more likely 80%. Globally there are 468 cities of over one million people, and 19 of those are ‘megacities’ with over 10 million inhabitants.

I used to hate cities and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would choose to live in one. I thought they were dirty and dangerous, crowded and impersonal. But now that I do live in one (Manchester) I can see that this is just one side of the coin. Although the danger and dirt are maybe greater it’s in no way a proportional increase to the number of people that they home and there are benefits.

The opportunities for learning and entertainment in cities vastly outstrip the countryside and whilst I love sitting round a fire on a beach with a guitar as much as the next person I do also appreciate living somewhere I can see world class theatre, film and music any day of the week and join classes to learn anything from Capoirea to Cantonese. The impersonality which used to bother me I now appreciate. Having grown up in a small village where everyone knew everything about you it’s kind of nice to have the privacy that several social circles allow. There is a community that I am a part of for everything that interests me.

Sustainable travel is infinitely more possible in a good urban environment. Potentially everything we want – be it work, home or leisure can be accessible by foot, pedal power or public transport, saving us time and money, reducing pollution and making us fitter into the bargain. Manchester doesn’t have a great cycle network but it has a great grassroots cycling community. I’m really interested to see how a place like Copenhagen, where 55% of all journeys in the inner city are by bike, works and feels from a cyclists viewpoint.

Although cities are not renowned for their biodiversity they are improving and the benefit of green spaces and the possibilities of green corridors through them are being recognised and developed. Although cities will always be reliant upon their rural hinterlands for a large proportion of their water, food and energy they cover only 3% of the planet’s land area.That’s a lot of space left for everything else we share the planet with.

75% of human energy consumption is directly related to cities but there are opportunities to reduce this and this is one of the things that I hope to discover more about on this trip. Back in the oil shocks of the 70’s there was a real drive to reduce energy use and find alternative sources. The UK pretty much gave up on this with the discovery of oil in the North Sea but our neighbours weren’t so (apparently) lucky and instead were driven to develop very high building standards and renewable energy schemes. Now with the pressure of reducing oil reserves, energy security and climate change we’re starting to wake up to the possibilities. But there lies a steep learning curve ahead of us and the more knowledge we can glean from those who have gone before us the better.

I’m going to be visiting a number of places that have taken a forward thinking approach to energy and see what lessons I can learn from them. At the same time I’m going to try looking at how they approach holistic sustainability – from placemaking and social cohesion to transport and waste. Some of them are cities and some are more rural but all of them have considered energy provision on a local level rather than just expecting it to be piped in from far away.

And I go in one month time.

Mucho excitomundo.

Thursday, 12 August 2010


I have a newbike. Look – look at it.

It is a Montague Boston from Swissbike and has a flip flop rear wheel which means it can be either single speed or fixed gear which means it is cool. I have yet to try riding it fixt but in the meantime am practising keeping the pedals moving all the time so that it looks as if I am riding fixt (until the day someone shouts ‘do a skid’ at me and I can’t).

I think it may be the most beautiful thing I have ever owned. Not only is it cool and beautiful but it has a special trick.
…it folds!
And goes in a bag.
…Bike? What bike?
At last Richard Branson can drop his long standing vendetta against me for trying to (cheek of it!) travel on the train with a bike, because it’s not a bike – it’s a bag!

But the newbike is not the most exciting thing in my life, oh no. This is…
After applying and failing in 2009 and applying again in 2010, (and getting through the entire interview without using the words ‘free holiday’) I have been awarded the Ken Dale travel bursary from the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers, (CIBSE).

Building Services Engineers (of which I am one) are the people who make buildings work. We are the people who make sure that you’re not too hot, or too cold, that the air is fresh, that you have light and power, water and drainage. Without us buildings would be cold empty shells. Nowadays we’re also responsible for ensuring that buildings use as little energy as possible and that they use the energy they do use efficiently. And by 2016 we’ll be the ones making sure that all new homes are zero carbon, that by 2018 all public buildings are too and that by 2019 all new buildings are. We don’t quite know how yet, or even exactly what we mean by zero-carbon but we’ll do it. We are the unsung heroes of construction because when we do our job right, nobody notices.

The Ken Dale bursary allows an engineer to spend up to a month travelling outside their home country to research a topic of importance to themselves, their employers, the industry and the environment. And this year I have won it (did I mention that yet?). So this September that means I get to spend a month travelling, on trains and with the newbike, around some great places looking at some interesting things, meeting clever people and working very very hard indeed and not being on holiday at all.

Thanks for joining me.