Climate change is a pressing issue facing urban communities, and yet there are few places where people can go to learn about sustainable living and its wellbeing co-benefits. With a blueprint for creating community sustainability hubs across UK town centres, charity Greener & Cleaner is hoping to change that.
On November 22nd, PX Conversations brought together five stakeholders with a shared passion for enabling communities to live more sustainably.
Parisa Wright and Clare Searle joined us from the community-focused peer-to-peer sustainable living charity Greener & Cleaner, bringing along Gemma Smith, a local volunteer from the charity’s community hub in Bromley (‘The Hub’).
Additionally, we were joined by Greener & Cleaner’s research partner Dr Richard Carmichael of Imperial College London, and John Taylor, Energy Projects Manager at the Greater South East Net Zero Hub, a public organisation set up to support local net zero projects, such as The Hub.
Parisa kicked off the conversation with an introduction to Greener & Cleaner’s core mission: to help ordinary people take steps towards living more sustainably together with their local community. With a model built around peer-to-peer learning and engagement, the initiative aims to create an inclusive and accessible gateway for people to begin their sustainability journey.
Greener & Cleaner was set up early in 2019, converted from a CIC to charity status last year and, in March 2022, found its first “real world” home in The Glades shopping centre in Bromley. Both the space and its location were important factors for reaching a diverse audience.
“We needed a hub that was in a mainstream, prominent setting. We needed it to be done out to a commercial standard to support normalisation and popularisation. We needed it to be physically and socio-economically accessible. And we needed it to be open most days of the week.”Parisa Wright, Founder & CEO, Greener & Cleaner
As a regular volunteer at The Hub, Gemma understands better than most the opportunities that come from having a presence in the local shopping centre. “It’s a vital position because it means we can inform and involve the entire community,” she recounts. People who would initially visit The Glades for the shopping experience have been pleasantly surprised by the opportunities offered at the Hub, whether stopping by for a 5-minute chat, to borrow something from the Library of Things, or through joining one of the many skills workshops on offer. And now word is spreading.
“There are days and times of the week when we’re really busy,” says Parisa. “We’re trying to work out how to make the most of our space during those times.”
Talking about making the most of the space naturally brings Clare into the conversation. As Chief Strategy Officer, Clare was instrumental to securing The Hub and negotiating the charity’s lease terms. It all started when Clare crossed paths with the overall manager of The Glades at their Sustainability Festival which the charity ended up supporting with workshop video content.
“There were quite a few things that fortuitously came together,” she recalls, referring to the alignment of Greener & Cleaner’s spatial needs and The Glades’ sustainability agenda. Raising money through crowdfunding within the local community, the charity was able to progress to negotiating lease terms. Later on, a grant from a COVID-19 recovery fund and a long list of committed volunteers further helped to raise the team’s ambitions.
“There were a lot of negotiations about cost and lease terms. We didn’t want to be limited to what we could do by a legal document that we had signed, but at the same time, we were asking for a lot of things to be done differently to what The Glades was used to.”Clare Searle, CSO, Greener & Cleaner
Clare highlighted the importance of persistence, courage, and a supportive community to getting The Hub off the ground: persistence from the team who kept trying to find a way to a mutually acceptable agreement; courage from the owners and managers of the unit to try out new things; and a supportive community ready to volunteer to guarantee a minimum regular number of workshops, advice and other support would be available from the Hub.
Luckily, all of these factors did come together to enable The Hub to launch, facilitating the next step of Greener & Cleaner’s ambitious journey.
For the next step, Dr Richard Carmichael will be key.
“Policymakers want evidence-based policy,” Richard tells us. “This initiative helps them to understand that people do want to change and what approaches might be most effective for different groups and demographics.” As co-leader of the Behaviour change in Energy and Environment Policy (‘BEEP’) Research Network, Richard is working with Greener & Cleaner to map how different activities, messages, and tools resonate with different communities who become engaged by The Hub. His research will help inform a blueprint to scale up the initiative across the country.
John is also keenly interested in this mission. At the Greater South East Net Zero Hub, John works on a number of decarbonisation initiatives, but few are as well-embedded within the local community as The Hub.
“I think we underestimate how much other people care about climate change and environmental issues. It’s vital that the sustainable living conversation becomes part of people’s day-to-day experience.”John Taylor, Greater South East Net Zero Hub
With links to the national governmental Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), John is ready to help capture and scale up any lessons learned, particularly as the proof of concept becomes further established over the coming year, and Greener and Cleaner pull together their Community Hub blueprint to help others benefit from their experience.
So, with everyone seemingly supportive of Greener & Cleaner’s mission, what’s stopping Parisa and her team from opening Hubs in every town centre?
The short answer is money.
“I think that one of the things that people assume is that if they help us find a space for free, they can get an amazing community support hub,” Parisa cautions. “Unfortunately, that is not the case.”
For the past 8 months, The Hub has largely been fuelled by a hard-working core skeleton staff and the goodwill of the volunteers, who have helped to keep the venue open, deliver classes, and maintain the space. 70% of workshops are delivered by people volunteering their valuable skills for free, which puts an incredible amount of pressure on individuals whose competencies are clearly in high demand. Furthermore, with a lack of funding to cover more hours and roles in the charity, and specifically the Hub’s core team and community-based workshop leaders and assistants, individuals from lower income or more geographically dispersed communities may be prevented from engaging with and supporting their community as much as they, or the charity, would like, as they could not afford to get involved.
Considering the value that The Hub brings across economic, social, and environmental parameters, the team is hoping to partner with both public and private organisations to secure long-term financial backing. In the meantime, The Hub in Bromley is open to anyone and everyone who is interested in sustainable living no matter how much or little they already know, and new volunteers are always welcomed.
Five key takeaways
- Living sustainably is a common challenge that should be addressed in common spaces. The cost savings and wellbeing co-benefits of sustainable living are too frequently forgotten by developers, urban designers, and the general public alike.
- Physical and socio-economic accessibility to community-oriented initiatives is not a given but a privilege that must be deliberately facilitated and funded.
- There is currently a lack of detailed evidence to clarify which community-oriented sustainable living approaches can engage and support different groups and demographics the best.
- Spatial costs are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what organisations must consider in order to deliver alternative uses in traditional commercial environments.
- Sometimes projects move forward due to serendipity (such as meeting the right person with the right space at the right time), but most times progress is secured by the sheer determination of a relatively small team with incredible levels of resolve and resilience.
We’d like to thank Parisa, Clare, Gemma, Richard and John for taking part in the conversation and sharing their insights with us.
To learn more about Greener & Cleaner and The Hub, visit greenerandcleaner.org.uk
- Parisa Wright, Greener & Cleaner
- Clare Searle, Greener & Cleaner
- John Taylor, Greater South East Net Zero Hub
- Dr Richard Carmichael, Imperial College London
- Gemma Smith, Volunteer at The Hub
- Camilla Siggaard Andersen, Hassell & Property X-Change