If you live or work in Leeds city centre, you can’t fail to have seen or heard about the Extinction Rebellion protest that occupied Victoria Bridge just the other week.
Whether it caused frustration and delays to your daily commute or piqued your interest in peaceful protest, it has undeniably been a success in raising the profile of their cause – the threat of climate change. But long before the big yellow boat or colourful placards arrived, Leeds has been taking this issue seriously.
Back in 2017, the city established the Leeds Climate Commission. In March this year, the city council declared a Climate Emergency. At the start of the summer, schoolchildren in Leeds joined the national protest by taking to the streets to show their dismay at the “continuation of the norm” taking inspiration from climate change activist Greta Thunberg.
Councillors have shown they are listening to their constituents and acknowledging that more needs to be done. But what is happening differently across our built environment to respond to this environmental agenda?
Perhaps the most striking example of Leeds leading by example is Citu’s Climate Innovation District. As the largest sustainability project in the UK, it has been created with every element designed to respond to climate change; the way the buildings are constructed, the materials that are used, the way that drainage is managed, the fact it encourages active travel so that residents are able to own fewer or no cars. The solar panels on the roofs will generate energy for houses and the excess will be sold back to the grid to provide an income for maintenance. It even includes a new pedestrian bridge across the Aire, which means shorter and safer journeys to school for children walking to and from the Ruth Gorse Academy and better connections for communities on both sides of the river.
It really represents a step change in building efficiency, zero-carbon construction and waste reduction and is setting the standard for how these sorts of urban communities can be created in major city centres. The site is pioneering the way towards making Leeds Carbon Neutral by 2030.
Across the city we have the 16.5km District Heating Network that is connecting homes across the city, with Saxton Gardens soon to be plugged into the network. Although the Clean Air Zone has been hit by some delays, this is still expected to come into play in 2020.
Longer term, change is going to have to accelerate if impact is going to be made in the next decade. So in practical terms, what three things can we do in Yorkshire to make a difference?
We all need to reduce waste, and to quote the Civic Engineers company values – we need to reuse not just use. This doesn’t just mean reducing single use plastics but making the most of our buildings and repurposing them to bring our heritage sites back to life. A recent example of this is the Grade II listed former Cookridge Hospital which for many years had been in a poor state of repair having suffered significant fire damage. Instead of tearing the building down, it is being rejuvenated and will be a thriving care community with café, restaurant and amenities for the older generation. Clever engineering means that we can reduce the amount of materials to construct a building, lowering costs, making buildings more energy efficient whilst never compromising on safety. The truth is that more sustainable doesn’t have to mean more expensive.
Councils and developers like Citu are creating spaces which encourage us to ditch the car and use public transport, make the most of the cycle superhighway or get our step count up each day. Leeds City Council is already showing enthusiasm for initiatives like car-free schools and the recently announced £150,000 fund to help employers support sustainable travel and reduce emissions. We can all make a proactive choice to transition to more sustainable transport methods.
There is a real opportunity for businesses to embrace this as an opportunity to do things differently. So next time we have a bit of a grumble about being stuck in traffic due to another protest taking place, let’s take the time to think about what role we can play in creating a cleaner, healthier and happier city, stepping up to the challenge of achieving something remarkable.
Leah Stuart is Associate Director of Leeds-based engineering design organisation Civic Engineers.