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Where are we on the journey towards a sustainable future? Thoughts from Associate Director Marcel Ridyard

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A large part of my role at AFL and as an architect in general is understanding the bigger picture of the built environment, the challenges for each region, each project and even that each building holds. And discussing with other stakeholders within the industry the solutions to how we overcome some of these challenges.

So, it was great to be out and about over the last few weeks discussing one of the greatest built environment challenges we have within the North West, in the UK and of course globally – the sustainability agenda. And what we are doing towards designing and creating a more sustainable future and what else still needs to be done.

It was with this in mind that I attended both the Greater Manchester Green Summit 2022 and Elevate’s Ultra low emissions roundtable hosted by Addleshaw Goddard and sponsored by Enspec Power. Although across different regions and with different speakers, the message from both was loud and clear – although we are on our journey towards sustainability, we are not doing enough and not quickly enough.

Progress is being made

As Andy Burnham outlined in the Greater Manchester Green Summit with his traffic light analogy of red, amber and green – there is no doubt that work is being undertaken to make Greater Manchester a more sustainable region. From the £ 5m IGNITION programme to develop innovative financing investment in GMCA’s natural environment, something that AFL was a contributor to, to the new fleet of electric buses that are being launched in Autumn next year, as part of Manchester’s new integrated Bee Network, and the 36,000 new houses that are planned to be built by 2023[1], there is positive action happening to make the region a more sustainable place.

However, there are still larger challenges at play. While Greater Manchester Bee Network will help ease the carbon emissions in the city and create a fairer pricing structure, we still need to ensure that the proposed cross rail network in the NW (Northern Powerhouse Rail) is designed and funded appropriately and built sooner than currently slated. The wider region must have a fast, convenient, and affordable system, comparable to London’s new Crossrail. Obviously, this isn’t solely in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s jurisdiction but until we get that part of the puzzle sorted, the drive to make the region more sustainable will be city centre focused alone.

Furthermore, while creating a retrofit taskforce and planning to build new low energy houses in the region is progress, how simple will the task of retrofitting thousands of privately owned houses really be to achieve?

Meanwhile at the Ultra-Low Emissions roundtable it was interesting to hear Jennifer Kelly, Head of Sustainability at Chester Zoo, talk about how although many assume that the zoo must be sustainable, yet with the zoo being established in 1931, the team is having to constantly rethink how they operate their old infrastructure efficiently and embrace different ways of operating. How can they shift cultural ways of thinking when it comes to their operations. Something the sponsors of the roundtable – Enspec Power – support organisations to do by looking at how they generate their own energy, connect this back into the national power grid and generally distribute their own power better to make it more sustainable.

All these discussions were incredibly insightful and help us at AFL understand more fully the environments we are designing within and likewise bring design to the forefront of how we can help towards solving these challenges.

As with all discussions, it raised more questions for us as an industry to think about - like as Carly McLachlan from the Tyndall Centre at the University of Manchester highlighted how we need to ensure that activity we are undertaking towards driving a sustainable future, isn’t actually impacting another area negatively at the same time. Or as she said, “There is no point actioning shiny green activities if other related effects end up working against climate change.” We need collaboration to ensure we are all on the right path together. Working individually in silos is not how we create a “fairer, greener city region” but instead local organisations understanding what is needed to be achieved in their area (as each region has different priorities and different challenges) and working collectively to achieve this goal is far more effective.

And finally, on a personal note, it was great to hear than the Jason Williams aka @CloudGardenerUK now has over 20,000 YouTube followers for his balcony garden, showing how even the smallest spaces in an urban environment can make a difference to biodiversity and mental health. And that my local park, Reddish Vale has been granted funding from the GM Green Spaces initiative. Progress is being made, but we need to keep the momentum going.