The Social Business

Category: Green issues (page 1 of 9)

If David Attenborough came to Leeds, I reckon he’d head straight for Manjit’s Kitchen.

If you live in Leeds, you’ll probably be aware that we’re in week 2 of Leeds Indie Food Festival – a celebration of our city’s amazing independent food and drink businesses.

What I think makes the festival interesting is that it’s all about collaboration. It’s not just about a restaurant or bar putting on an event themselves. It’s much more about local businesses teaming up to run special events – chefs collaborating on one-off menus, that kind of thing. That makes things interesting for customers – but also helps to build the kind of network that makes the local food scene stronger, and Leeds a more interesting place to live in and visit.

And from my perspective, an even more interesting theme this year has been around sustainability.

I was part of a panel discussion at the launch of the Festival, and I was amazed at the level of engagement of people who were there, on issues such as food packaging and food waste. I think if we can act collectively on these issues we can really make progress in Leeds – and the network of food and drink businesses that make up #LIF18 is a great place to start. Through Zero Waste Leeds, we’d love to help wherever we can.

You might have picked up a LIF18 brochure if you’ve been out and about in Leeds. And you may have spotted an article I wrote exploring this issue in a bit more detail. If you haven’t seen it, here it is.

 


 

I’d like to think David Attenborough is a fan of decent street food. And my guess is, if he found himself in Leeds, he’d head straight for Manjit’s Kitchen.

A man so well travelled would instinctively seek out the market. He knows he’d get good value and he knows he’d find local flavour. He’d do right seeking out Manjit.

But there’s probably more to it than that. He’s recently pretty much given up on meat, so he’d be alright there.   And once he’d chosen from the menu, his eye would probably turn to the packaging – was there any sign of plastic?

But he’d be fine there too. Like so many of Leeds’ indie food businesses, Manjit’s on top of this, with compostable straws, cutlery and takeaway packaging. Not to mention the stainless steel thali dishes for your curries, and, of course, proper glasses for your beer.

It’s fair to say David Attenborough is responsible for one of the most dramatic shifts in public opinion that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.

Blue Planet II has brought the issue of plastic packaging waste into the mainstream. Some early adopters – like many in the street food scene – have been on top of this for a few years now. But most people weren’t that bothered. They are now.

This shift presents all sorts of opportunities for Leeds indie businesses. Informed consumers will seek out traders who are doing the right thing – replacing single-use plastics with compostable, biodegradable or recyclable packaging. They’ll stay loyal to people who they see making an effort – and increasingly they’ll avoid those who aren’t.

There are other opportunities too. Refill – a scheme that started in Bristol to encourage cafes to promote the fact they’re happy to fill up your water bottle – is going national this year. We’ve been working with local campaigners Refill Horsforth, and city centre café The Greedy Pig, to get things going in Leeds – so that we can help to cut down on the number of single-use plastic bottles we get through in Leeds.

We’re looking at other ideas too – such as a new initiative called Cup Club – where reusable coffee cups can be used – then dropped back for washing – at various venues across a city.

And of course, packaging waste isn’t the only issue. Food waste is, if anything, an even more pressing concern. Through the pioneering work of The Real Junk Food Project, Leeds can rightly boast of being a city that’s leading the way on tackling food waste. Junk Food Cafes have now sprung up all over the world, and thousands of children, in Leeds and beyond, enjoy free breakfasts every day thanks to Real Junk Food’s sister project Fuel For School.

Needless to say, you can get a taste of all of this during the Festival. The Real Junk Food Emporium supermarket will be in the centre of Leeds throughout May – redistributing on a Pay As You Feel basis food that would otherwise go to waste – and they’re also hosting three 5-course bistro nights.   Meanwhile, Hyde Park Book Club have joined forces with neighbours Rainbow Junktion to explore issues around food waste over bowls of ramen – made – of course – from salvaged ingredients.

If we’re going to tackle social issues as challenging as packaging waste or food waste, we need to get creative. And that’s where the Leeds indie food scene has a vital role to play. People don’t respond well to being lectured, and whilst many may want to consume more responsibly, they’d prefer not to compromise on the quality of the experience that they enjoy.

Indie businesses, working creatively, and engaging their customers in what they’re doing, can lead the way on stuff like this. The Festival gives us a great opportunity to showcase what’s already happening – whilst giving us the chance to think about what more we could do as a city.

 

 

Our plans for Zero Waste Leeds

I’ve written previously about our plans to get involved with local approaches to tackling climate change in Leeds.

You may remember that I  joined Leeds Climate Commission last year, and that the Board of the social enterprise I help to run gave me some time to explore a range of different environmental business ideas – to see if we could identify an opportunity to get involved with tackling an issue locally.

In short, we looked at three ideas – community energy, transport, and waste & recycling.

Whilst we were very interested in community energy, we reached a stage where we needed more money, and greater expertise, to really take things further, so we stopped exploring that before Christmas.  Having said that, we’re always open to ideas – and it may be that this is one we pick up again in the future – perhaps working with other people with greater sector-specific expertise.   Please contact us if you want to chat about opportunities around community energy in Leeds.

Transport is a fascinating one for me personally, as you’ll notice if you scroll through the #LeedsTransport hashtag on Twitter.  I joined the local Transport Consultation Sub-Committee at West Yorkshire Combined Authority, and I work hard in my own time to keep up to speed with interesting ideas around transport & sustainable cities from around the world.

But,  realistically, this was always going to be an issue for us to campaign on, rather than explore from a business perspective.  I’ll keep exploring it, in my own time, including looking at issues around transport poverty with Leeds Poverty Truth Commission.  And if there are pieces of work that people would like our input into, I’d be interested in being involved.

Waste and recycling proved to be an issue with many more opportunities to explore, as I outlined in this post.  Since we met up with over 30 people working on this in January, we’ve continued to explore ideas under the Zero Waste Leeds banner – whilst we’ve also been working hard to build up a following on Twitter and Facebook.

Our plan is to pilot a range of ideas over a nine month period  – around a number of themes – looking at opportunities to help Leeds as a city to waste less, whilst also reusing, repairing and recycling more.

After a funder expressed an interest in what we were doing, we’ve put together a proposal for the pilot, focusing on the following five areas of work:

  • Engaging social enterprises in the Council’s new Waste Strategy
  • Marketing, communications and community engagement
  • Collaboration, business development and innovation
  • Proving social impact
  • Securing long-term investment and funding

We’re keen to chat with other potential funders, sponsors and investors, so if you are interested in our work, or you have ideas on who we should contact, please get in touch.

We’re confident we can make something happen here.  We know how big a social issue this is – and it feels like there’s an opportunity that wasn’t there as recently as six months ago.  The whole Blue Planet II phenomenon – and the interest it’s generated in plastic waste – has raised public consciousness on issues to do with waste.  We want to capitalise on that interest and turn it into a range of practical actions in our city.

We know it won’t be easy, but we’re confident that  the way we work at Social Business Brokers – tirelessly tapping into our networks to explore ways we can collaborate with others  & change things – gives us a good chance to make stuff happen.

We’ve done it before – most successfully with Empty Homes Doctor – which started with a text conversation between me and my social business partner Gill when we were each sat at home watching George Clarke talking about empty homes on Channel 4.  We took an idea – spotted an opportunity – and turned it into a sustainable social business – that, with Leeds City Council support, has brought back into use nearly 300 long-term empty homes in the last five years.

And – working with a wide range of other people – we helped to take Leeds Community Homes from an idea and establish it as one of the UK’s first urban Community Land Trusts – which raised £360,000 through a pioneering community share offer.

We don’t know exactly what will emerge from Zero Waste Leeds, but we’re confident something – or more likely some things – will.  But, to be frank, we’ll need support to get it going.  We’ve funded our work on this so far ourselves, and we can probably only commit to it for a couple of months more.  If we’re not successful in securing some funding or investment for a pilot, Zero Waste Leeds may have to go back on the “nice ideas” shelf.  I for one would be really disappointed if that turned out to be the case.


 

If you’re interested in what we do and may be interested in supporting our work, please get in touch – our contact details are here

Car hire companies: I’m not a cyclist – I’m your regular customer

We’ve not owned a car for around seven years now.  But that’s not to say I never drive – on average we hire a car around once a month.  Sometimes for weekends, often for holidays, and on the odd occasion for work.

It works well for us.  Neither of us routinely needs a car for work – and our journeys to work are pretty easily made on the bike or on the bus.  My son, whose seven years at school have coincided with those seven car free years, walks the 30 minute journey to school.

But a car is there when we need it.  Both for longer hires from car hire firms like Avis and Enterprise, and for shorter rentals, from our local car club – now owned by Enterprise too.

There’s lots that I like about organising how we get around in this way.  I like the fact that, by and large, we choose the most appropriate mode of transport for each journey.  So when walking makes most sense, we walk.  When cycling fits the bill, we get the bikes out.  Heading into town as a family?  The bus, usually.  Longer weekend journeys?  The train when it makes most sense (practically and financially) – and if not, a hire car.  A small, cheap car if it’s just us, and a bigger car or van if we need the extra room for bikes, Christmas presents or camping gear.

Compare that with what tends to happen when you own a car.  It’s sat there on the drive, waiting to be driven (some studies suggest they spend up to 95% of their life doing nothing).  So when you need to go somewhere, the car is the obvious choice.  It appears convenient, and it appears cheap.  £4.30 return for a 2 mile bus journey – or perhaps a notional 20p in fuel to drive?  It’s obvious what choice most people will make – even if the true cost per mile is much higher.

I would say that is one of the main problems with our current ownership model for cars.  Individual ownership makes traveling in a car the default choice for most journeys many of us make in cities – when, for some of those journeys at least, another mode of transport would be better all ways round.

So I’m hopeful that over time we’ll move away from individual ownership of cars – and move more towards a model where we “buy mobility”.  This is the emerging Mobility As A Service model where, easily organised via your phone, it’s easy to jump on the bus, book a taxi, pick up a dockless bike, hire a car for an hour, buy a train ticket – whichever mode of transport makes most sense for that particular journey.  In a small, low-tech, much-more-difficult-than-it-needs-to-be way, that’s what we currently do as a family.  And on balance, I love it.

But today I’m focusing on cars – prompted by a tweet from car hire company Sixt.

I’m not pretending I was “offended” or anything like that.  I just thought it was a poor piece of marketing.  In large part, because of what I’ve outlined above.

I am 100% their target customer.  I don’t own a car and spend over a grand a year on car hire.  And, in their eyes, I’m a “cyclist” – the customer group they’ve clumsily targeted.

But that’s where they’re wrong.  I am not a cyclist.  I am someone who wants to get from A to B, and I choose the most appropriate way to do that.  I mainly cycle precisely because for the majority of my journeys, (peak time commutes in Leeds)  it’s the quickest option.  I want to go faster.   Effortlessly gliding past queues of stationery cars and getting to work on time is the ultimate performance boost.

Yet I do need a car from time to time, and whilst I’m very happy with a lot of the service I get from the hire companies I routinely use (in particular the consistently excellent staff at Avis in Leeds),  it fascinates me that they don’t better serve the regular, “multimodal” hirer.  This clumsy piece of marketing points to a wider inability to make the most of a growing customer group.

For example, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve turned up a car hire places, on my bike, and asked where the bike parking is.   I find it bizarre that they seem surprised that someone, who, by definition, is in need of a car at that precise moment, may have turned up by another mode of transport.

If they thought it through properly, there’d be all sorts of other opportunities too.  More electric and hybrid cars are an obvious thing to think about.  Reviewing the classification of cars – and giving people the option of not having a diesel car (it’s still often sold to you as a premium vehicle – because of better fuel economy) could be good too.  As would not always assuming that an upgrade (to a bigger, more expensive to run car) is what the customer wants.  A bigger car is sometimes handy, but I’m buying mobility, not a mobile status symbol.  And don’t get me started on the hard-sell of Collision Damage Waiver insurance….

I care about this because I can see the enormous potential of easier access to on-demand cars, rather than ownership of them.  Our cities could be transformed if more of us chose the most appropriate mode of transport for our journeys, rather than routinely jumping into the car.  We could also stop wasting so much of our disposable income on an asset that sits idle more than half the time.  And I think there are big business opportunities for the companies that get their heads around this emerging market and serve it well.

Zero Waste Leeds – change begins at home

As I’ve mentioned before, over the last few months I’ve been looking into various ideas broadly around the theme of “local responses to climate change”.

The theme that we’ve made most progress on is around waste and recycling – and we hosted a meeting last week attended by 30 people interested in exploring the idea of “Zero Waste Leeds“.   I’ve just about finished writing up the notes, and I’ll share more on here soon.

One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that with things like this, change begins at home.  To create real change, action pretty quickly needs to expand beyond the home –  at a neighbourhood level, a city level, the country, universe and beyond…. but you can learn a lot by first of all trying to change things that you have direct control over.

I’m also a big fan of counting things, keeping track of things.  That’s where the journey towards going car-free began – making a conscious effort to record each journey over six months – and then reflecting on what we could change.

So,  given that I want 2018 to be the year when we really get stuck in to helping Leeds create less waste, I thought we’d start at home.  On January 1st we agreed (family buy-in is important!) to weigh everything that we were getting rid of – black bin waste, recycling, compostable waste, glass, and donated goods.

And the results are in….

This first table shows everything we’ve “got rid of” – including donations of stuff that’s been sat in the loft for a while. It shows a total 111kg. (click on the table to enlarge it)

Household "waste" during January, including donated goods.

Household “waste” during January, including donated goods.

This second table is without the donated goods (as this might give a better comparison for throughout the year).

This table shows a total of 65kg of household "waste" during January, excluding donated goods.

This table shows a total of 65kg of household “waste” during January, excluding donated goods.

 First of all, a few bits of explanation

And some overall thoughts

It was a really useful exercise – and got us thinking about the amount of waste that we create as a family.   When you weigh it all up, it’s striking how much rubbish you create – 2kg a day – or closer to equivalent of 4kg a day if you include all the stuff we’ve amassed over the years that we’re starting to get rid of.

And although what you might call our “household reuse & recycling rate” is perhaps not that bad – 64% excluding donated goods, 79% including them), it really focused our minds on how much “residual waste” we were creating.  That, as you’d expect, was made up of all sorts of things.  But the amount of non-recyclable plastic packaging was striking.

As was the amount of food waste.   My guess is that relatively speaking weren’t not that bad on food waste – we’re certainly much more on the ball than we were a few years ago.  But there was still too much.  Leftovers that got forgotten in the fridge.  A third of a tub of cream.  A couple of rashers of bacon from no-one could quite remember when.  That kind of thing.   It all went in the bin – and presumably will mostly be burnt at the RERF, just down the road from our office.

On a positive note, it confirmed to us the importance of home composting.  By weight, 8% (excluding donations) of the waste we produced made the journey to the compost bin at the bottom of the garden.  And having emptied some beautifully rich compost from the bin a few months ago, I need no convincing of the value of carrying on doing that.

And then there’s glass.  Talk about recycling with anyone in Leeds and it’s the first thing they’ll mention – why don’t we have kerbside glass collection?  The recent Council report into recycling confirmed how much Leeds glass doesn’t get recycled.  Our month (no Dryanuary in this house) confirmed the obvious – in weight terms at least, glass is significant.  By weight glass accounted for 11% of what we got rid of (excluding donated goods).  And I promise, we don’t drink that much…..

So there you go.  We haven’t quite decided whether we’re going to continue weighing everything (if anyone wants to join us in the experiment let me know – that might help us to maintain the motivation!) but it has been a very useful exercise.

We’ll keep thinking about it, but our main immediate reflections have been:

  • We need to keep doing what we can to buy things with less packaging (and of course, consider alternatives to buying some stuff in the first place).
  • We need to work harder on reducing the amount of food we waste at home.  We didn’t track how much of our residual waste was food waste – but I know it was too much.
  • We’d be interested in knowing how we compare, and in getting other people’s ideas and experiences.  If you’ve done this as a household – or fancy doing it this month – say hello on Twitter and follow #ZeroWasteLeeds.

 

 

How can we help Leeds to become the Best City For Motorists?

There’s an opinion piece in today’s Yorkshire Evening Post on the current state of the transport network in Leeds, written by the Assistant Features Editor Chris Bond.  Chris,  by the sounds of things,  drives four miles into the centre of Leeds to work every day.

The arguments will be familiar to anyone who lives in and travels around Leeds, a city which, as the author suggests, has lots going for it, but has a real issue with traffic congestion, inadequate public transport provision, a lack of high quality cycling infrastructure and, to top it all, issues with poor air quality.

It won’t surprise you to learn that I don’t agree with quite a lot of what’s in the article.  However, I do largely agree with the headline, that Leeds is failing to meet the needs of people who drive.

One of my favourite quotes, from Canadian urbanist Brent Toderian is this one:

“A city built for cars fails for everyone, including those who drive. ”

That’s so true for Leeds.  The arguments are well-rehearsed, and there’s no time to go into them here, but Leeds – Motorway City of The Seventies – is reaping the rewards of that period in which the future appeared destined to revolve around the car.  Efforts to shift that balance (again, well-documented elsewhere) have failed spectacularly over the last 25 years.  So we are where we are – in a city that’s the largest in Europe without a mass transit system.  Where, for many people, for many of their journeys, the car seems like the best bet.

The cause of the near-daily congestion isn’t, as Chris suggests, a car broken down on the inner ring road, or whatever today’s excuse is.  It’s the fact that there are too many people traveling alone in cars, so that when there’s a problem (traffic light failure, collision, broken down car) the system collapses.  There is no resilience – because too many of us are traveling in a way that the system just can’t cope with.

So I agree it’s no fun driving around Leeds.  Where we disagree, by the sounds of things, is around what should be done to sort things out.  Let me pick out a few points where I think we may see things differently.

Parking

It’s a common argument – “It’s so awful driving into Leeds, and when you get there, there aren’t enough parking spaces.  Why don’t they build more?”  As outlined above, the primary cause of congestion is too many people driving into and across the city centre.  Inviting more people in, by making it easier for them to park, will only make the problem worse.  We need to be reducing the amount of city-centre parking, not increasing it.

People, not motorists

The opinion piece is written from the perspective of a “motorist”.  As if we’re defined by one fixed mode of travel.  I don’t think it’s like that.  Most people just want to get from A to B as quickly, comfortably, safely and inexpensively as possible.  We need to stop thinking of people as “motorists” – or “cyclists” for that matter.  We are people trying to get around our city.  The problem is, the more of us who choose to drive, the worse it gets for all of us. 

You’re not in traffic, you are traffic

As is common in articles such as this, the author appears to believe that problems are all to do with other people, and nothing to do with personal choices.  As someone who hasn’t owned a car for seven years, I know the buses aren’t as good as they should be.  I know cycling doesn’t feel as safe as it should. 

But I also know that if I hire a car and drive it into Leeds at 745am, I’m part of the problem.  I am traffic. 

I’d like people to take a bit more responsibility for the impact of their personal choices. I know life’s complicated,  and I don’t expect everyone to rush to the bike shop and suddenly start making all their journeys on two wheels.  But I also don’t buy the common narrative around “no choice”.

Amsterdam wasn’t always like Amsterdam

One thing it sounds like Chris and I can agree on is that Bordeaux is a great place.  I’ve visited twice in the last couple of years and it really is beautiful.  And it’s a great place to get around – when by all accounts a few years ago it certainly wasn’t.

What’s changed?  It’s invested in public transport, cycle infrastructure and decent, pedestrianised public space.  It’s prioritised sustainable forms of travel and made it more difficult to drive into the centre, or park there.  It’s one of the reasons why I want to keep going back.

Similarly Amsterdam was a very different place 40 years ago, dominated by cars.  Years of investment – and prioritisation of sustainable forms of travel over inefficient travel modes like cars, have turned it into the place we know today.  Same for Copenhagen, and, more recently, to a certain extent, for London.

I know that’s not a great deal of use for this afternoon’s commute home, but it’s a reminder that cities can change – but there are choices to be made, priorities to be agreed upon.  Making it easier for people to drive into the city centre and to park isn’t going to help.

A large part of the issue with buses is that they’re stuck behind single-occupancy cars

The best way to make life easier for people who drive around Leeds is to make life easier for people who don’t.  You can do that by, for example, investing in more bus lanes.  By creating a joined-up network of high quality cycle lanes.  And, yes, by taking away road capacity from cars.

As I’ve suggested above, for most of us our travel modes aren’t fixed.  We just want to get from A to B.  Give us a better alternative and we’ll use it.  But that will involve tough choices over limited road space, which will probably upset a lot of people, because they’ll see lanes re-purposed for more efficient modes of transport like cycling and buses.

But if measures like more bus lanes mean that buses don’t get stuck behind big queues of people sat alone in cars, then more people will choose to take public transport, because it will be become relatively more attractive.  This will take cars off the road – leaving road space for those who do drive.

So although it may not like sound like it at times, I do have a lot of sympathy for people like Chris.  It really is not fun driving around Leeds.  So let’s make Leeds the Best City For Motorists.  By making it less attractive to drive.

Could a Latte Levy work for Leeds?

The year is only a few days old and already we’ve had at least two big news stories about waste.

The first concerns plastic – and the possible impact of China’s decision to no longer accept our plastic for re-processing.  Then today we’ve had news of a potential 25p Latte Levy – to “nudge” people into reducing their use of non-recyclable coffee cups.

Waste reduction is an issue that interests me a lot.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve had a bit of time over the last few months, courtesy of the social enterprise that I help to run, to explore “green” business ideas – things we could get involved in locally that would help in one way or another to tackle climate change.

We’ve been looking in particular around community energy, waste, and transport.  Waste and recycling is the one where we’ve made most progress – and I’ll be putting some more time into it over the next few weeks.

We’re interested to see what more could be done to help Leeds as a city create less waste,  and increase the amount of waste materials that gets recycled.

The context is that in Leeds, as elsewhere, recycling rates have stalled in recent years.

Up until recently,  year-on-year progress was impressive – with close to 44% of Leeds household waste recycled in 2013/14 – compared to 22% in 2006/07.  Yet this dropped to 38.5% in 2016/17.

This is pretty consistent with the national picture – as these Government statistics demonstrate.

I’m not sure why we’ve hit this plateau.  My guess would be that years of central Government cuts haven’t helped – and that the continued investment that’s needed to ensure that householders are able to recycle more just hasn’t happened.

On this, it’s interesting to compare what’s happened in Wales – where improvements in recycling rates are much more impressive.  So it would seem that it can be done, if there’s political will and investment.

Locally, Leeds City Council are currently working with WRAP – and are undertaking a review of their Waste and Recycling Strategy this year (see item 17 here).  So it seemed to us that it was timely to explore whether there were any ways we could help to work out how to waste less and recycle more.  I summarised some of the key points in the council report in this thread.

Our starting point has been to chat with the wide range of social enterprises that are active in Leeds on waste and recycling.  There’s loads going on already – with really impressive social enterprises such as SCRAP, Seagulls, and Revive doing loads of good work to make good use of stuff that other people are throwing away.  And, of course, Leeds is the birthplace of the Real Junk Food Project – who through projects including Fuel For School and the Sharehouse have saved tonnes of food from going to waste.

But could we do more?  That’s what we’ll be exploring at a meeting we’re hosting later this month.  We’ve invited the Council along too to chat about the review of their waste strategy  – and to find out more from them about the challenges the city faces around waste & recycling – alongside opportunities to do more.

One really positive thing in Leeds is that a lot of social enterprises already have a strong relationship with the Council – for example Revive has reuse shops at two of the Council’s household waste sites.  And it’s that kind of co-operation that has a big impact.

As today’s focus on coffee cups has illustrated, this is a really complex issue.  There are no easy solutions – and progress will probably come (if it does come) in a range of different ways.  Businesses have a role to play, as do all of us as consumers.  Local and national government will play their part too.

That’s why I think the coffee cup issue is such an interesting one.  I think it’s going to be a really tough one to solve.  As Jo from The Greedy Pig outlined in this Radio Leeds interview, (from 2hrs42min),  the issue of disposable coffee cups is a bit different to plastic bags.  It’s the “on-the-go” consumption that makes it such a difficult issue.

There will be solutions.   But I think we’re going to have to think really creatively.  There are plenty of interesting ideas in this post by Hubbub, who’ve been working a lot on the issue.  I think they’re right that there’s plenty of scope for city-level action – and I’m already talking with a couple of Leeds indie businesses who are up for working out how they can reduce the amount of packaging waste that they create.  Many independent businesses already take a lead on this (eg offering Vegware packaging) – and it’s great to see there’s an appetite for doing more.

There are other interesting ideas out there too – like Cup Club – and again, I’ve been in touch with them to see if there’s scope for trying something out in Leeds.

It’s a massive challenge, but I sense a change in public mood – thanks in no small part to David Attenborough.   There will be things we can do to increase recycling rates – but even more importantly there’ll be ways to reduce the amount of waste we create in the first place.  And the thing that interests me is that I think it’s in cities that we’ll be able to do the collaborative, joined-up work that will help us make progress on this issue.  Starting in Leeds of course….

Ideas to tackle climate change in Leeds – a second update

I’ve written two posts – here and here – over the last couple of months about how I’m keen to get more involved locally in tackling climate change.  I’ve also outlined how the social enterprise I work for has given me a bit of time to explore a few ideas, to see where there is scope for us to get involved with things that are already happening, or set something up ourselves.

Over the last few weeks I’ve spent a bit of time each week exploring a few ideas, so with the launch of the Leeds Climate Commission this evening, I thought it was time to give another update on where we are up to.

Big picture first – talking with people, and reading up on this issue has left me more convinced than ever that this is something I want to focus on over the next few years.  Whilst there are no shortage of issues to worry about in the world right now, I’m convinced that climate change is the biggest threat we face.  So I’m more keen than ever to try to get involved in things locally that could make a difference.

But how do you make a difference?  That’s something I’ve been thinking about a fair bit too.  Rather than just concentrating on social business ideas, I’ve been thinking – what actions are most effective?  When, for example, is it best to focus on lobbying politicians, or campaigning?  When does it make most sense to focus on changing what you do personally – what you eat, how you get around your city, etc?  When should you concentrate on teaming up with neighbours and friends to do things locally?  And when might it make sense  – in our case – for us to set up a new social business?

It won’t surprise you that I haven’t come to any conclusions on all of that, other than to confirm that all of the above are important!  But I think it’s a useful starting point – a reminder that making progress on such a big issue will require a whole host of approaches – whether that’s at a global scale, or at the scale we’re focusing on primarily – Leeds.

That said, our Board will be expecting an update next month.  So is anything emerging around the themes I explored in previous posts?

Energy remains the topic where there’s most, well, energy.  Most conversations have included discussion of opportunities to generate more renewable energy locally, and to involve local people in financing this activity – through for example community shares.

Given our recent experience with Leeds Community Homes and #PeoplePoweredHomes, this is clearly an opportunity that interests us a lot.  And, in summary, at the moment it’s definitely the main avenue we’re exploring.  But we’ve also been given plenty of advice to tread carefully – given that the business models for community energy have become more difficult to sustain, due to reductions in incentives like Feed in Tariffs.  It would have been an obvious one to explore five years ago when the policy environment was very different – but it’s a little more difficult now.

Our next steps around energy are to continue to look in more detail at other community energy schemes around the country, and also talk with Leeds City Council (we have a meeting on Monday) to see if they would be interested in partnering up with us in some way – eg on a rooftop solar scheme.

We’re also looking into insulation – in the news again this week.  Given that it makes so much sense  – and brings all sorts of benefits – is there more we could be doing in Leeds to insulate more homes?   For example some of the empty homes social enterprises we’ve worked with have developed expertise in insulation hard-to-heat homes – could we help them to do more?

Waste remains an interesting topic too – and as I suggested in the two previous posts it’s an area where as a city we’re pretty strong, in terms of having a whole host of social enterprises turning “waste” into useful resources – including of course the Revive re-use shops at 2 household waste sites.

This is one where it feels like if there is an opportunity, it is in supporting the organisations already doing good stuff in Leeds to do more.

As I’m reminded every time I look in a skip on our street, plenty of good stuff still gets thrown away.  That costs us all in a whole range of ways.   How could we make it easier for more people to reuse more useful goods, instead of throwing them away?  I’d be interested in chatting more with the Council and others on that one, as it’s an interesting problem to explore, around behaviour change and effective marketing.

Transport is another key theme – particularly so in a city like Leeds with public transport provision which is nowhere near good enough.  Reading up on things over the last few weeks has confirmed to me that, personally, this is the particular issue that interests me most.  It’s such a crucial issue for so many reasons – carbon emissions, pollution, economic growth, making the city child-friendly etc etc.

Yet, from a social business start-up perspective, opportunities are probably limited.  It might be one where we focus more on lobbying and working with others to make the case for significant investment in public transport and active travel.  I’ll hopefully be able to use my membership of Leeds Climate Commission to continue to get up to speed with the issues, and also influence the debate around transport in Leeds.

So that’s a quick update.  There have been plenty more conversations which I haven’t got time to share now but hopefully that gives you a bit of a feel of where we’re up to.  There’s a fair bit of detail for me to keep exploring over the next few weeks – to then discuss with our Board in October.

As always, we’re keen to chat with people who’d like to work with us on this – so if you’re interested in exploring how we could work together in Leeds to come up with practical ways to tackle climate change, please get in touch.  And don’t forget to follow the Leeds Climate Commission launch on #LeedsClimate.

 

Leeds needs to decide what kind of city it wants to be

Leeds has had better weeks. Thursday saw the rejection by Government of plans for a Trolleybus – 25 years since more ambitious plans for a tram system were first developed. And on the same day, the World Health Organisation confirmed what we knew already – we have a serious air pollution problem.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know transport is probably the thing I talk about most. It shouldn’t be this way. Getting around your city should be one of those things that are incidental to far more important things that you get up to in life. But whether you’re sat in a daily traffic jam, making the best of mediocre infrastructure on your bike, or stuck behind a load of cars on the bus, getting around Leeds feels like a big deal. That’s not good enough for a city with the ambitions that our city clearly has.

I’m interested in transport for all sorts of reasons. That interest grew in 2011 when we got rid of our car – and as a family we started getting around more by bus, on foot and on bikes. What I’d been aware of before suddenly hit me in the face – Leeds, Motorway City of the 70s, is built around the car – and it works for no-one – including people who drive around our city.

I’m interested in this for a number of reasons. The first is environmental – as a city we need to reduce our carbon emissions – and we need to sort out a pretty serious issue that we’ve got with air pollution. It’s no coincidence that a city with poor public transport options – we’re the biggest city in Europe without a mass transit system – also has serious congestion, and poor air quality.

I’m also interested from a social justice angle. Car-centric cities don’t work for people in poverty. Many people in poverty in our city don’t have access to a car – and, crucially, their public transport options are often limited too. That has an impact on quality of life – and, importantly, on the ability people have to access jobs.

I’m interested because I want Leeds to be a child-friendly city. Cities with decent public transport are better for kids – and can help them to become more independent by making it easier for them to travel around their city on their own. And it’s pretty clear cities with polluted air aren’t so good for kids.

And I’m interested because I love cities. At least I love them when they work well. When you can live well. When streets feel like places to linger in, not places to escape from as quickly as you can, because the air is thick with diesel fumes and you can’t hear yourself think over the traffic noise.

Leeds has to decide what kind of city it wants to be. And that goes beyond whether we get a tram-train or a Monorail powered by waste energy from the new incinerator. We’ve got to think bigger than that. How do we build a city that works for people? A place that is good to walk around. Streets that are places where you want to hang around. Decent public spaces.

We need to be bold. It won’t surprise you to learn that I think we need to rethink the city and design out the dominance of the car. It’s clearly not working. We need to make active travel more attractive – so short journeys, so often taken in a car – feel like they can realistically, enjoyably, be walked or cycled. That means taking roadspace away from cars, and building high quality, protected bike lanes. Because everyone benefits when more people cycle – not just the “cyclists”.

Am I hopeful? I have mixed feelings. It can feel like a cheap shot to keep banging on about Leeds still being the Motorway City of The Seventies at heart. But anyone who knows this city well will recognise how that culture still lives on. I’ve had a fair few interactions with the Highways Department (the name of the department tells you all you need to know) – and I can’t tell you how difficult it is to try to influence something as simple as the wait-time for pedestrians at a pelican crossing, or to ask for a pedestrian crossing to access one of our main civic spaces. If we can’t change things like that, what hope have we got of making the big changes that we need?

But there is hope. The Council recently produced a document looking at a future transport strategy, which also looked more broadly at changes that could be made to the city’s streets. Some of it is really good – and there are ambitions to make changes that will result in a more people-friendly city centre – like the closure of City Square to most traffic.

So as we chew over what comes next for the city, let’s not forget that it’s not just about trams, light rail, or electric buses. It’s about the kind of city we want to be. As Janette Sadik Khan suggests, we need to fight for our city’s streets – and for the future of our city as a great place to live.

What can Leeds learn from a New York City streetfight?

I’ve just finished reading Streetfight – Handbook For An Urban Revolution – by ex New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.  It documents her seven years in the role – making massive changes to the city’s streets, including creating over 400 miles of new bike lanes and more than sixty new public spaces.

I’m fascinated by how we can make our cities better places to live.  In particular, I’m interested in how we all get around our cities – and the problems many of us face in places where motor traffic dominates.  My city, Leeds, regularly grinds to a halt – and has some of the worst air pollution in the country.  And it’s certainly not a city where cycling feels like an easy, or particularly safe, option.

Whilst every city is different – and will have its own challenges, there’s loads we can learn from places that have begun to deal with the issues many of our cities face – primarily how to enable lots of people to get from A to B – and how to make our streets places where people want to linger, chat, and, of course, spend the money that keeps the city going.

There’s so much in the book – and it’ll take me a while to digest it all – but I’ve tried to pick out a few key themes – in particular ones that I think are relevant to the city I live in.

It’s not just about bike lanes – it’s about the kind of city we want

When I first heard about Janette Sadik-Khan’s work (via Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat’s Twitter feed) I focussed immediately on the work she’d done to create hundreds of miles more bike lanes in New York.   As someone who makes most journeys in my city by bike, I liked the sound of that – particularly as I imagine New York to be a city where the automobile rules.

And that’s still the bit I’m most excited about, as I can see how everyone in our city could benefit if 10-20% of us regularly got around by bike.  But in the book there’s as much talk about creating public space as there is about creating safer routes for people on bikes.  Under her leadership the city created over sixty new public spaces – taking space from cars and providing people with the opportunity to sit, eat, think, drink, spend.

Creating more people-friendly cities isn’t just about how we get around – it’s also about creating better public spaces.  What Brent Toderian would call sticky streets – places where people want to hang out.  Places that are safer.  Places where people linger – and spend money.

The benefits of acting quickly and cheaply

It feels like change can take forever.  Just look at Leeds.  There’s been talk of a tram system in the city ever since I came here in 1991.  And  changes to the City Centre Loop (such as closing City Square to traffic) may have been announced last year, but won’t happen for a good few years yet.

Why do things have to take so long?  Budgets, consultations, planning – all important stuff.  But what might we gain if just tried a few things out?  A common theme in the book is of New York’s Transportation Department trying things out quickly and cheaply – a lick of paint to designate a new public space – filled with a couple of hundred $10 chairs from a hardware store.

Could we do more of this here?  Yes, consultation matters.  Yes, we need to spend public money wisely.  But what if we just tried things a few things out?  Put a few cheap chairs outside the Town Hall and watched what happened?  Or created a temporary bike lane, with temporary barriers, on a few city centre streets in August for a few weeks?  Trying things out – and helping people to visualise how our city could be different – might just work.

2016 will be the year of the bikelash in Leeds

The clue’s in the name of the book.  It’s not “How we found a comfortable middle ground that everyone in the city was happy with”.  It was a fight – and it still is.  There was lots of opposition – to creating new bike lanes, to taking parking spaces away, to creating new mini public squares.

Congestion will get worse.  Pollution will get worse.  Shops will lose trade.  Pretty much all the arguments you’re hearing in London right now, as they expand their cycle superhighway network.  And, arguments that you’re hearing in my city – and which will increase in volume once the City Connect route opens later this year.

I don’t know whether City Connect will be a success – I trust it will be – and I hope it will be.  But one thing’s for sure – within days of it opening there will be countless people on social media and in the local media telling us how much of a waste of money it is.  And you won’t be able to move for tweeted photos of empty bike lanes, next to gridlocked traffic.  Those of us who think that City Connect has to be the first part of a city-wide network of protected bike lanes need to be ready to fight – and to make the case that better designed streets – and more space for cycling and walking – will benefit all of us, however we get around.

More analysis, fewer anecdotes.

Sadik-Khan’s boss was Mayor Bloomberg – a man known for many things, including the phrase: In God we trust. Everyone else bring data.

One of the things I found most interesting in the book was the emphasis on data – in particular to help them to analyse the impact of the changes they were implementing.  It would seem – and others have said the same – that our methods for measuring what happens on our streets is often inadequate.  Mostly, what is counted is traffic – the number of cars.  And even when we do collect other data – collision data for example – the data isn’t rich enough for us to analyse (or we just don’t bother analysing it).

In New York they put a lot of effort into coming up with new ways to “measure their streets”.  So anecdotes (“the traffic has slowed; more people are riding bikes on pavements; shops have lost trade”) were replaced with data.  And, (unsurprisingly to those of us who follow this stuff) the data mainly told good stories.  Fewer road casualties.  More trade for local businesses. Improved traffic flow.  Data that built the case for the next plaza, the next bike lane – and crucially – got local people  requesting infrastructure improvements in their neighbourhoods.  There’s lots of good work happening on data in Leeds – by people like Leeds Data Mill and ODI Leeds.  What data could we collect and analyse to make our city streets work better?

So they’re my immediate thoughts.  Like a lot of people who care about this kind of thing, I get a bit worn down at times, constantly having the same arguments, regularly being told “that’s all very well, but it really isn’t possible.”  But having read this book, I feel like I’m ready to fight for better streets again.

 

 

How can we improve recycling rates in Leeds?

I’d never been to a hack before – and then I’ve ended up at two in the last week.

I spoke at an event on Friday which is exploring how to improve mapping of cycle routes in Leeds.  There are two more “warm-ups” and then the Hack My Route event itself – in the next few weeks.  There’s £4500 up for grabs for whoever comes up with the winning prototype.

Yesterday I went to what was termed a Recycle Hack – a Leeds City Council event, facilitated by Abhay Adhikari,  looking at how we can improve how we deal with domestic waste in our city.  Attendees were primarily council staff – plus a few people who do clever stuff with data, and a couple of interested observers, including me.

There’s a lot going on in Leeds with regards to sharing data more openly – and that was the starting point yesterday too.  The council have gathered together a range of data relating to domestic waste, including:

  • Bottle banks – locations and amounts of glass collected, by colour
  • Amounts of different types of waste collected at Household Refuse Sites
  • Information on bin wagon routes
  • Data on amount of waste collected on each household waste collection day
  • Information on contamination of recyclable waste

The data doesn’t seem to be online yet but I assume it’ll be published soon on Leeds Data Mill.

After a brief run through of the data (more about what data there was, rather than what it showed) we split into groups and began to explore what we might try to do with the information in the spreadsheets – with a focus on working out ways to improve how the city deals with its waste.

Our group focused on what information we thought it might be interesting to study in greater detail.  Pretty obvious things – like how different bin routes compare in terms of amount of waste collected, and percentage of waste sent for recycling.

We’d learnt earlier in the morning that all Leeds’ recyclable waste is sent for manual sorting to a privately run facility in Beeston, south Leeds.  One data set relates to the level of contamination of recyclable waste – for example by people putting general waste in their green bin – which (if I understood things correctly) in extreme cases can mean that a whole wagon-load of recyclable waste can be rejected and sent to landfill.  I left wanting to understand this more.  On which routes is there more contaminated waste?  Does “contaminated” mean “dirty” or does it mean “too much of the wrong sort of non-recyclable plastic”?  How is this dealt with?  What solutions might there be?

Another set of data I’d be interested in looking at more relates to areas of Leeds (around Rothwell) where households get food-waste collections. I’d be interested to see what impact that has had on recycling rates – and the amount of non-recyclable waste that’s collected.

In truth we didn’t have loads of time to explore things before we broke for lunch.  But we worked with one of the developers, Nick Jackson, (who’s also working with Leeds Empties on this open data project) to explore a few ideas – including improving the page on the Leeds Council website which lets people know when their bins are collected.  Apparently 40,000 people visit that page every month – so that’s a significant audience – potentially for information that may encourage people to recycle more.

As you’d expect, as you start to get into detail you realise that there are limitations to the data too.  There’s a natural desire to compare performance across the city – how does the prosperous suburb of Adel compare with inner-city Cross Green?  But in reality it’s more difficult – as the data gathered about waste collection relates to routes – which take in a number of neighbourhoods.  But as the data is explored in more detail other possibilities for better analysis may become apparent.  And, with time, there may be possibilities to gather data in different ways.

After the event I got into a few interesting conversations online.  I tweeted a picture of a leaflet that we’ve got on our fridge.

 

 

The leaflet was produced by Leeds University Union – and is aimed primarily at students in the city.  The issue that I mentioned before – about green bins being contaminated with non-recyclable waste – is a particular problem in student areas.  The leaflet shares information – in an engaging way – about what can and can’t be recycled in Leeds.

I learnt a lot myself – I now know that plastics with numbers 1 2 and 4 on them can be recycled in Leeds – but not others.  So, for example, most yoghurt pots can’t go in your green bin, whilst a lot of bottles can – but lots of bottle tops can’t.

Response to the leaflet on Twitter suggested that I’m not alone in being a bit confused about what you can and can’t recycle.  So maybe amidst all the talk of data we’ve found one low-tech solution – better information shared with all households.  A couple of local councillors picked up on the tweet so it’ll be interesting to see what happens there.

So it was an interesting day.  My main interest in this is environmental – but there could be clear financial benefits for the city too.  I don’t know the exact figures but dealing with the city’s waste clearly costs council tax payers a lot of money – at a time when the council’s budgets are under severe pressure.  So reducing the amount of waste we produce – and recycling more of it – makes sense for all sorts of reasons.

When I get more information about next steps – and when the data is shared – I’ll share it here and on Twitter.

 

 

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