Trusting in the power of our communities to make change

A year is a long time in environmental politics. Last summer, an unknown school girl was striking outside the Swedish Parliament, frustrated by a lack of action on climate change. Back then no-one would have dared to believe that Greta Thunberg would one day be on the cover of Time magazine or nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. And you would have been very bold to predict that the UK Government would not only declare a climate emergency, but start to legislate for net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

These extraordinary changes are, for me, encapsulated in a quote by writer and activist Rebecca Solnit:

“They will tell you that things can only change in tiny increments, by predictable means. They’re wrong. […] The real lesson of history is that change often comes in unpredictable ways, power can suddenly be in the hands of those who appear out of what seems to the rest of us, like nowhere.”

We are at a tipping point in terms of social action and the public’s expectation of leadership on both climate change and the public health crisis of air pollution. For example, research published last week found that “Nearly 70% of British people want urgent political action to tackle climate change and protect the natural environment.” In addition, Southampton residents continue to report concerns with local air quality.

We need to ride that wave of public opinion and grab the opportunity for long-term and transformative change. So whilst I welcome the introduction of the Green City Charter, I think we must seize this opportunity to be more ambitious.

We need to go further, we need to do it faster and we need to harness and trust in the power of our communities to make it happen.

Could Clean Air Day 2020 be a chance to celebrate major successes rather than just being a single day when we’re reminded to drive a little less?

On Clean Air Day last year I was outside in Guildhall Square asking members of the public to contribute to an air quality map of the city. The question was simple and without preamble: How do you feel about air quality in Southampton? By the end of the day we had a map covered in dots and post it notes – residents are personally affected by dirty air, busy roads and the effects of industry, all across the city.  For the people of Southampton, tackling air pollution is not about achieving some arbitrary legal limit. Annual averages are meaningless for people who are subject to daily spikes in air pollution both at home and on journeys around the city.

Southampton is sometimes described as a collection of villages. Each neighbourhood has a distinct feel and communities proud of where they live. But today these villages have become sacrifice zones, overrun with traffic, few green spaces and subject to increasing levels of noise pollution. Children no longer play outdoors, in some places in the city it takes 7 minutes just to safely cross the road and the peace of residential streets is sacrificed not only to cars but 40 ton lorries.

HGV on Kent Road, St Denys, February 2019

This last example is definitely the case in St Denys, where our Breathing Spaces project is based. St Denys is a neighbourhood next to the River Itchen, which is both bounded and divided by busy main roads. Residents on one street have to deal with over 200 HGV movements per week. This has led to cars being parked on pavements so they don’t get damaged by passing lorries, which has forced parents to push buggies down the middle of the road. In addition, the pre-school and primary school are both located on one of the commuter routes. At peak time, traffic builds up on residential streets, with commuters using them as rat runs.

The Clean Air Zone consultation last year was focused on reducing roadside Nitrogen Dioxide. But levels of PM10 and PM2.5 – those tiny particles that get into the heart, lungs and brain – were then not so well monitored across the city.

As part of the Breathing Spaces project, we have deployed low-cost sensor boxes which monitor these pollutants, in real time, in 6 different locations in and around St Denys, and plan to have 6 more installed before the summer. The initial data have produced important results and are perhaps debunking some assumptions about air quality. As particulate matter is easily dispersed across a wide area, it doesn’t seem to matter if you are on a quiet road with no through traffic or on a busy route through town – you will be breathing in roughly the same levels of fine particles. And you will be subject to the same spikes in air pollution, for example from rush hour traffic, wood burning stoves, or from having a number of cruise ships in port.

The message here seems to be, at least in terms of particulate matter, that in order to have an impact on local air quality, we need to reduce the levels of pollution, from all sources, on a city-wide and even regional scale. This is a massive challenge.

Successful solutions will be found through true collaboration at all levels and across all sectors. On the Breathing Spaces project we are really excited to be working in partnership with both the Universities in Southampton. The aforementioned sensor boxes & sensor data are being provided by a team at the University of Southampton; and academics at both Southampton and Solent University are working on processing and visualising the data. Plus, the Solent University artist-in-residence has created the artwork for the project.

And perhaps most importantly, we are actively engaging local residents through a series of community events.

St Denys Clean Air Café No2 – 27th April 2019

This is because co-production can have a transformative impact on air quality in the city. According to the New Economics Foundation, co-production is:

“The relationship where professionals and citizens share power to design, plan, assess and deliver support together. It recognises that everyone has a vital contribution to make in order to improve quality of life for people and communities.”

A truly co-produced approach can also make for a compelling business case for support and resources. So far our small community project has attracted £85,000 of funding, the majority of which has come from Nesta and central Government.

If we collaborate even more widely and develop further partnerships across the local government, health, arts, research and community sectors, I am sure we can leverage even more funding and investment in order to make transformative change.

We’ve talked about the past and the present. So what about the future? The change that needs to happen is not new or scary. Paul Allen, author of the report Zero Carbon Britain, says that, in relation to climate change,

“We have all the tools and technologies that we need to get to net zero within a couple of decades. We have everything at our disposal, the question is, do we have the will to do it?”

I would add to that, the question of: Do we have the right democratic processes and models in place that can support change?

This begins with us asking ourselves: What is it that we value? What weight is being given to environmental and social concerns when making policy decisions? An often hidden assumption is that continued economic growth will solve all our problems, including the problems caused by economic growth. But it is no longer reasonable to believe we can just outrun the impacts of poor air quality and climate change.

Can we challenge this dominant narrative and develop a new model for a sustainable Southampton? There are many examples in the UK, and globally, which can be drawn upon, such as the Preston model. This focuses on an inclusive economy where wealth is generated ‘by and for all citizens’, and ‘rebuilds wealth from the bottom-up rather than top-down’. Another example of bold economic thinking has been the recent decision of the New Zealand government to make health & wellbeing its guiding principle in national budget decisions and so seek to make people’s lives better. It makes you wonder what other Government budgets are meant to do.

And finally, in terms of really giving the community a voice, citizens’ assemblies can be valuable ways of opening out and strengthening democratic decision making.

I sincerely hope that politicians, decision makers, those pulling the levers within industry, and of course the wider community, will help us transform Southampton into a healthy, vibrant, just and safe city. I would like to ask you to collaborate with us as we explore new ways to change Southampton for the better and to become part of the growing people-powered movement for change. We all have vital contributions to make.


This is the text of the speech given by Mandi Bissett at the launch of Southampton City Council’s Green City Charter on 20th June 2019.

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