Platform. The everyday portal for sharing knowledge and intelligence on sustainability across Greater Manchester.

Perspectives Essay: Knowledge for Sustainability


Sustainability in Greater Manchester could be achieved by the rethinking and restructuring of a number of key economic, political, social, cultural and environmental functions; however to be truly sustainable they cannot exist in isolation and would need to be supported by similar functions delivered nationally and internationally. What we need is a sustainable global society, founded on a one-planet ideology, including respect for nature, universal human and non-human rights, economic justice and a culture of peace.

I believe that climate change is the greatest threat that we face; the reframing that I suggest could produce sustainability strategies, with a series of mitigation policies and adaptation measures that would deliver sustainable cities, as well as addressing our continued existence on a changing world.

The Manchester Environmental Resource Centre Initiative (MERCi) rebuilt and refurbished Bridge 5 Mill using many of the key requirements of sustainability outlined in this essay and we continue to try to operate as sustainably as possible, whilst challenging un-sustainable behaviour, and delivering support and services to help others to become sustainable. Whilst this essay reflects many of the values of MERCi and the central themes of our work, the essay is my own interpretation of what I believe to be required for sustainable cities.

It will require a rethinking and restructuring on a level unknown since the World Wars to implement these ideas and strategies globally, but as a first step it  would be good to see Manchester, or any or all of the other Greater Manchester boroughs,being brave enough to actively engage in a sustainability agenda that challenges economic growth.

What do I understand sustainability to mean in Greater Manchester?

Greater Manchester does not and cannot exist in isolation, although initiatives put in place now would give Greater Manchester an advantage in tackling the inevitable challenges a changing climate will bring. These initiatives need to be prioritised (and not just by economists and politicians) and be implemented within a relatively short time frame; otherwise the financial cost of mitigation and the extent of adaptation will be even higher.

These measures will require the involvement of all society, but perhaps the greatest challenge is for those that live a carbon-rich lifestyle, who consume resources with little thought of others or future generations,to change their behaviours – as Mahatma Ghandi said ‘to live simply so that others can simply live’. However, living simply does not imply a return to the dark ages, but does entailliving a consciously sustainable life.

My understanding about sustainability, my ideas about what success looks like, who should be involved and why, are contained within the following sustainability scenarios.

"On our current path of unrestrained economic growth, refusal to accept natural limits, excessive consumption, blind faith in technological fixes and values based on exploitation and profit, we are a global civilisation headed for annihilation."

Politics and Governance

In-depth analysis is beyond the scope of this essay but suffice to say that sustainability needs to be set within a global governance structure and adequately monitored and enforced – a UN with ‘teeth’ perhaps! Within this governance system there needs to be the implementation of strong policies and proper enforcement, and also reflective practices that encompass opportunities for learning, challenges and change.

Local Authorities have devolved power down to smaller units (permaculture recommends that a functional community size is between 2-7,000 people). Localism and subsidiarity are key requirements of a sustainable society; with decisions that affect local areas being made by well-informed and engaged local people, and the means by which to implement these decisions being in their hands.These small community councils, made up of representatives from key sectors, develop action plans and manage the budget for their areas.These plans are based within an overall strategic plan for the boroughs and integrated into the Greater Manchester and National Plans.

Services are either delivered in-house (where appropriate) or commissioned and developed cooperatively in partnership with social enterprises, voluntary groups or the private sector. Whilst ‘best value’ is still a criterion for awarding contracts this is within an overarching sustainability framework incorporating social value, ethics and environmental sustainability and this is used for both service delivery and purchasing and procurement.

Each Local Authority is still linked to other authorities and into other bodies such as health, education, police, etc. who now share informationin a much more systematic way and collaborate on trans and inter-organisational programmes. Representatives from these bodies sit on the highest regional decision-making body, the Greater Manchester Sustainability Partnership. Unlike previous regional decision-making bodies it is not dominated by men from the private and public sectors; this body is made up of representatives from the voluntary, community, faith, social enterprise, private and public sectors, and from a wide range of disciplines and ages, and gender and disability discriminations are no longer an issue. It monitors and evaluates progresson agreed sustainability targets and makes recommendations on strategy and policies.


All formal, non-formal and informal learning incorporates Education for Sustainability (EfS), not Education for Sustainable Development, which relies too heavily on an economic growth model. EfS is central to pre-school learning, Initial Teacher Training and is also an essential part of Continuing Professional Development for all professions, not just the education sector.

Schools, Colleges and Universities have returned to the Sustainable Schools framework of Curriculum, Campus and Community. At Primary and Secondary level EfS is taught through the core subjects and the wider curriculum includes lessons in economics, ethics and philosophy, as well as teaching young people practical skills, such as gardening, energy generation, cooking, wood working, knitting and sewing. Climate change, the history and the science behind it, and mitigation, adaptation and innovation measures, are also key learning requirements.

Pupil-centred and self-directed learning is central to the curriculum and teachers are assisted by skill-sharing adults from the local community. Schools are opened up as learning hubs for the whole community.There are outside natural areas set aside for food growing, forest gardening and wildlife as well as recreation and sport. Where space is at a premium vertical and roof gardens have been incorporated into the school structures.  Many lessons are taught outside in the natural environment; encouraging an understanding and respect for the natural world. All new build schools must be sustainable; from being fully accessible to being zero carbon, and older schools have to retrofit and reduce their carbon footprint to an agreed level.

Specialism and focused research are still supported at further and higher education levels, as well as study and research on holistic, systems thinking.There is an inter-university platform where the main universities share information and develop inter-university and cross-departmental programmes. Collaboration and cross-fertilization across universities and disciplines is encouraged by offering grants and bursaries to students, lecturers and departments. The links to other learning institutions, both nationally and internationally, have increased and the learning from these projects is actively disseminated to communities, organisations and governments through a range of formal and informal communication channels.

All education facilities are encouraged to tackle real-life sustainability issues and academic and vocational courses are given equal status. Tuition fees have been capped at 2012 levels and repayment of student loans is still linked to average wages to encourage greater take up of higher education opportunities.


The percentage of walking and cycling routes has been increased, and all have to incorporate sustainability criteria. The redevelopment of vacant properties in city centres has reduced the need for transport. The canal system has been fully restored and provides transport routes for goods as well as wildlife habitats, tourism and leisure opportunities. Canal tow paths and river walks are patrolled and lit with solar lights, and provide additional cycling/walking routes across the city.

All employers have to supply walking, cycling and public transport routes and have reduced car mileage rates and introduced walking and cycling rates. Walking buses to schools are actively encouraged and are supported by free local training programmes. Outdoor and high visibility clothing is provided by the school and funded by local businesses
All polluting buses have been removed from the roads and there are low cost buses powered by renewable energy running between communities and connecting them into the centre of towns and cities and into other transport hubs such as the railways and metro.

Overall car ownership has declined due to spiralling costs of cars and fuel and more people have turned to community car collectives. Public charging points for renewable energy cars have been put in place throughout the region and traffic measures favour shared and renewable energy cars.

The high cost of flying and the development of high speed, low-cost trains has reduced the need for short-haul national and European flights so there has been no expansion of airports in the region or nationally. Technological advances means that planes use less fuel and have reduced emissions. Existing airports have become beacons of resource efficiency and operate as mini sustainable cities.


Many countries have been severely affected by climate change and death rates from flooding and extreme temperatures remains high. Health and well-being programmes are integrated into all aspects of life and are properly resourced from taxes and tax loopholes have been closed so all businesses pay their correct taxes. Even the lowest paid receive a fair living wage and many people work a maximum of four days a week; increasing their opportunities for sport, culture and the arts, volunteering, community work and family time. This also creates employment opportunities for others – in particular younger workers - as we tackle the challenges and opportunities of a longer employed, healthier, more active, ageing population.

As well as main-stream hospitals and a properly resourced NHS, well-being clinics are sited in every community with medical staff working alongside well-being practitioners such as reflexologists, acupuncturists, herbalists, homeopaths and physiotherapists. Multi-diagnosis and treatments are common and the clinics have gardens growing medicinal herbs and are tended by staff trained in herbalism, horticulture and horticultural therapy.

People are more active and sports facilities are affordable and accessible. Each local park, including new community parks created and managed by the local community, have areas for wildlife, young people’s play equipment and free outdoor fitness equipment and health trails for adults.

Those who are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, the elderly, the less well off, disabled, young and sick, have been identified and are being supported through a variety of measures including practical support in the home through targeted care packages andcommunity social enterprises offering home improvements and low energy retro-fitting. These measures are combined with community volunteering programmes to help people with gardening, cooking and social activities. The aim is to keep people happy, healthy, fit and active, and in their own (improved) homes for as long as possible.


The UK is now virtually self-sufficient in food production. Meat production and consumption has declined rapidly for both human and animal health reasons and because of its impact on climate. All meat is organic and free range and for those who eat meat it is now considered a special addition to a diet that is rich in locally grown vegetables, cereals, nuts, pulses and fruit. Waste food and sewage is treated and recycled back into the system reducing our landfill costs and dependency on oil-based nitrogen fertilizers and oil energy generation. Fruit and vegetables, grown in personal gardens, community gardens and allotments,support the national agricultural programmes. Farmers are paid a decent price for their produce and subsidies have ended.

The Oceans have been severely affected by climate change - including increased acidification and warming - and these changes have caused negative feedback loops including flooding, extreme and unpredictable weather patterns and a loss of some fish stocks. However, due to the careful management of coastal fisheries and improvements in river quality some fish stocks have improved. Fresh water fish are also raised in organic permaculture systems, and have become a part of a healthier, more locally-based diet. Food that is imported is fair trade and organic wherever possible.


Continuous economic growth was recognised as a false and unsustainable path and a steady state economy is now in place, based on a localised economy, more integrated with natural processes. The role of the World Bank has been downgraded, all debt has been cancelled and countries are encouraged to move away from free trade and globalisation and to concentrate on local and regional self-sufficiency.

As part of the international adoption of a steady state economy, efforts to stabilise global population continue as does tackling inequality in areas such as access to health care, sanitation, food and resource distribution. Transfer of clean renewable technology to the south has aided development and helped to reduce carbon emissions. However, tackling the effects of climate change and inequality continues both at a global and at a local level.

Procurement and development from within the local region is favoured and is supported through tax breaks and regional support initiatives. A sustainable hierarchy is in place that puts regional self -reliance before global competition and profit. Finance and banking have been reformed and re-regulated to ensure investment and banking are separate functions.

The internalisation of the real costs of production and disposal of goods through carbon taxes, pollution taxes, increased landfill charges etc., means that unsustainable products are just too costly to produce and dispose. Initiatives such as the Blue Economy and the Circular Economy are now main-stream and guide the development and manufacture of all future goods and services. Reducing our use of resources by buying less, reusing and recycling more is normal behaviour and manufacturers design goods and services to separate and close the loops, so resource use is minimised, costs are kept low, recycling is easier and any residue is reused as a resource.

In the UK a minimum and maximum wage has been set to limit the range of inequality; a maximum ratio of 1:200 has been proposed. Alternative forms of currency and ‘work’ such as LETS and Timebanks are operational across Greater Manchester. Although the inequalities gap has reduced, there are still those who have retained or generated wealth so they have been encouraged to co-finance some of the iconic sustainability initiatives such as hydro-electric dams on canal locks and urban high-rise farms. All profits are ploughed back into other initiatives with an agreed percentage going to investors.

Cooperatives, micro finance and peer to peer loans are on the increase, and alternative models such as the Swedish Jak bank model (originally developed in Denmark in the 1920’s) where customers only pay administration charges are on the increase.The devolving of budget control down to the community level means that people can control and see the impact of their budget spending decisions.  Ethical Banks and other financial institutions lead the way in micro loans and support for local and social enterprise development. This is aided by crowd-funding and other ‘risk spreading’ financial initiatives.

Natural resources

The blue and green infrastructure has been mapped and recorded across the UK, and is protected to provide heat sinks, biodiversity and water catchment protection, as well as measures to remedy soil and air pollution and opportunities for recreation and food growing. National and local sustainability Indicators have been agreed and no development is allowed that affects the natural functioning and carrying capacity of the local and bio-regions.

Water efficiency, within the home, in agriculture andin industry, is as normal as energy efficiency as the cost of water has risen steeply. Retrofitting has been widened to include water conservation and water harvesting systems. Decanalisation of rivers is completed and rivers have been improved for wildlife and flood defence. Hydro-power has been introduced on canal locks and on suitable rivers. Planning law has been strengthened and is enforced through well-informed and knowledgeable ward councils and the locality agenda.  All of this is supported through government funded multi-media sustainability communication and awareness campaigns.

Tree cover has been increased and a variety of native trees provide food, medicine, shade, pollution control, wind breaks,fuel and soil stability. Communities look after their local green and blue spaces and ‘time-banks’ mean that engagement in such schemes is acknowledged and rewarded. Information from these initiatives is linked to biodiversity data gathering programmes such as OPAL and guides the Local Nature Partnerships. There is an agreed percentage of ‘green space’ per person and a number of major ‘pockets’ of green space that are wildlife and biodiversity specific are protected from human disturbance. Significant brownfield sites within Manchester and surrounding townshave been protected and have been minimally restored and then left fornature to take over; providing unregulated ‘wild places’ for children and wildlife. Young people take a lead role in managing these areas.

Green roofs abound and bee hives, bird and bat boxes are compulsory on suitable buildings as well as in green spaces. Routine man-made chemical pesticide use has been phased out and more organic control and manual labour has reduced their use. Where control of ‘pests’ is required, such as Canada Geese and Japanese Knotweed, only the most ecologically sustainable interventions will be favoured. Schools, Universities and researchers are set these ‘problems’ as real life sustainability challenges.

Built environment

Unitary development plans and regional special strategies have been reintroduced but use sustainability criteria and cover the city region and the wider bio-region (the catchment area of the River Mersey). New homes have a smaller built footprint and are energy efficient but all have areas for growing food either individually or communally. All new buildings are built to the highest sustainability criteriaand as well as using natural building materials ‘new’ technologies are also embraced such as remote programming of appliances, grey water recycling or Start Up Novacem, which absorbs CO2 as it dries.

All communities generate a significant amount, if not all, of their energy either individually or in cooperative clusters, and from a diverse range of appropriate renewable sources – wind, solar, biomass, etc. All suitable empty properties have undergone retrofit green renovation and have been brought back into use, improving the existing stock, reducing the need for new build and providing employment opportunities. New build estates also include wooden ‘flat-pack houses’ which can be removed if population levels plateau and then decline in 2040 as predicted.

Everyday life is supported by technology; not ruled by it. Applications, cloud technology and social media are used creatively and productively to support communities living sustainably and the energy to run them is generated from renewables. Energy use in buildings has been massively reduced through conservation and new technologies and smart meters (powered by renewable energy) are visible in every home, school, public building and office, and reduced consumption is celebrated.

The implementation of BREEAM and eco-architecture standards means that all buildings measure their embedded carbon footprint, are sited appropriately and are efficient and effective for a changing climate. They incorporate ecological ‘answers’ to specific problems such as natural ventilation systems copied from termite mounds, or using black and white surfaces, like the stripes of zebras, for temperature control of buildings.

Zero waste and zero carbon are the ultimate goals as landfill charges rise and the costs of resource extraction soars. Individual and neighbourhood design is based around natural systems and loop-closing; with systems thinking providing innovative and creative solutions, such as small scale Ultra Violet and reed bed sewage treatment, to growing mushrooms on used coffee grounds.

Key Challenges

For the first time in human history there are more people living in cities than in rural areas. Cities can be drivers for change and areas of innovation but they can also be centres of poverty, disease, corruption and pollution. The challenge that we face is balancing the need for diversity and creativity with the need for regulation and governance. We need to recognise that we have one overriding problem – climate change – and we need to use all of our science and creativity to implement the solutions to tackle this problem. By doing so we will address many, if not all, of the other problems we face; whether we are living in rural areas or cities.

We need to challenge the values that underlie the dominant belief that continuous economic growth is the only answer to our problems. We need to show that alternative solutions are emerging from social enterprises, the voluntary, community and faith sector, grass root movements and indigenous cultures, and in particular from the so called ‘Pink Tide’ in Latin America.

Conflicts over food, water and oil have been happening for many years and will only increasein number and magnitude as key resources become more difficult to find and to extract because of climate change. Tackling wars, corrupt political regimes, terrorism and religious clashes are issues that will also need to be addressed if we are to have a peaceful, sustainable world. Again this is beyond the scope of this essay. However, the transfer of clean renewable technology from the north to the south will help, as will programmes to improve leadership, governance and self-sufficiency, tackling food security, ensuring water and sanitation for all, delivering universal education (especially for girls), promoting initiatives to improve health, improving access to renewable energy and reducing poverty.

On a local and more practical level we in the UK and in Greater Manchester need to address our own resilience. We need to plan for unpredictable weather, to support and increase the number and range of small-scale initiatives tackling food and fuel poverty, flooding, tree planting and forest gardening. We need to invest in behavioural change programmes and improve the information flows and learning from these initiatives, and give greater recognition and respect to alternative non main-stream solutions.

In Greater Manchester tackling existing inequalities and poverty will be a major challenge so that all citizens are able to contribute towards a sustainable region and so that being ‘sustainable’ is not seen as a luxury for middle class people involving up-cycling parties, growing organic fruit and veg and bread making. In fact the greatest sustainability challenges will be faced by those who are described as ‘rich’, ‘middle class’ or ‘better off’, for it is those who take two or three overseas holidays a year, drive too much in inefficient large vehicles and who throw a third of their food shopping away that will need to change their lifestyles.

Ensuring that learning about and engagement in sustainability is present at all levels will be a key challengefor educators and policy makers. Everyone, from children to adults, local communities to public bodies and voluntary organisations to large industries need to be actively engaged in our journey to resilience and sustainability. The arts and entertainment industry, celebrities, culture and faith communities will all need to play their part in engaging in this debate and spreading the messages. However, greater awareness does not necessarily lead to behavioural change and many different ways of learning, engagement, participation and leadership are required in order for all of us to really embrace the change.


There are many lists of sustainable cities and, depending on what values underlie the criteria used,different ones will come out ‘top’. In the UK Forum for the Future were monitoring UK cities and the last list they produced in 2010 put Newcastle just ahead of Leicester with Bristol and Brighton in third and fourth place. Newcastle won because of its clean-tech clusters, green jobs and innovation and support for electric cars.

Internationally there are many sustainable cities groups monitoring and sharing best practice such as the Sustainable Cities Institute, Sustainable Cities Collective, and Sustainable Cities 2012. However, it is the UN Global Compact Cities Programme, which measures cities against economics, ecology, politics and culture criteria and the Siemens Green City Index (which measures cities against CO2 emissions, energy, air quality, environmental governance, land use and buildings, waste, transport and water) that seem to come closest to the values that underpin my vision of how a sustainable city looks and behaves.

Three Scandinavian cities consistently come out on top – Copenhagen in Denmark, Oslo in Norway and Malmo in Sweden. The reason Copenhagen is the top for the European Index is because of its high targets and strong policies. It appoints environmental coordinators in all its administrative units. Its residential units consume almost 40% less energy than the index average. It has set itself ambitious targets to upgrade all municipal buildings to the highest energy efficiency and become CO2 neutral by 2025. Most residents live within 350 metres of public transport and the city aims to get 50% of the public travelling to work by bike by 2015. And finally 80% of the development in the city has been on brownfield sites (an indicator that I think might require a little more investigation!). In fact many of these examples are compromised by their national policies; for example Malmo’s position is undermined by the development of Sami lands.

Curitiba in Brazil is the clear leader in the Latin America section and has been active in developing a holistic approach to development since 1989. They have a household recycling programme where residents separate glass, plastics, and electrical goods and the council collects three times a week. It has pedestrian only streets and it is the birthplace of the Bus Rapid Transit. The council is monitoring the CO2 take up of green spaces and air pollution is much lower than other Latin American cities.

San Francisco is the top scorer in the North American and Canadian section with strong policies across all sectors. It has a 77% recycling rate and has encouraged excellent business partnerships to fund education campaigns as well giving out low-cost loans to householders to fundenvironmental improvements. Businesses have to monitor and publish energy consumption and the aim is to reduce business energy use by half in twenty years.

An example of their innovation and creativity is provided the design and development of Treasure Island, a paved, polluted military base made from earthen material dredged from San Francisco Bay in the 1930’s. By 2020 the 400 acre island will be home to 13,500 people in 6,000 new apartments, with offices and businesses close by. Approximately 300 of the 400 acres will be parks and farms. On the down-side only 50% of the energy required will be from renewable sources and the developer, Arup, have stated that zero carbon is not feasible given the available technology and the owners’ need to make a profit!

Other countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia are leading the way in challenging and restructuring our dominant cultural norms. For example they are enshrining the rights of the Earth in law, through their adoption of Pachamama or Earth Jurisprudence. Iceland leads the way in tackling the collapse of the financial systems with research into feminist economics and is also tackling its energy requirements with extensive funding for research and development into hydrogen. Africa is embracing and developing new technologies such as ‘I-moo’, an app for tracking and improving animal husbandry. The small scale but global initiative, Transition Town movement, is building on the skills and expertise found within local communities, and offers an example of a self-organising movement within a sustainable ideology.

What are the gaps in knowledge?

It is not the gaps in our knowledge that we need to address but the application of our learning.  Whilst we should always seek new knowledge and embrace continuous learning I believe that we have sufficient knowledge and skills to implement many of these sustainability initiatives. However what confronts us is not just an environmental dilemma, a climate change crisis, or an energy problem; the crisis that we face is a human crisis. On our current path of unrestrained economic growth, refusal to accept natural limits, excessive consumption, blind faith in technological fixes and values based on exploitation and profit, means we are a global civilisation headed for disaster.

We need to recognise that humankind has lived and flourished in a period of climate stability, described as the ‘Long Summer’, but that our growth has been at the expense of natural resources and natural systems and the subjugation and destruction of other species, countries,peoples and cultures. Our profligate use of natural resources means that accelerated climate change is inevitable; all scientific evidence shows that this will happen: it is only by how much and when that is being debated.

The implementation of the low-carbon measures detailed in this essay, some of which are in operation in other major cities around the world, would result in a more pleasant, greener and perhaps more equitable world, but without a fundamental shift in governance and ideology, a sustainable future for humans, be they in cities or rural areas, is difficult to imagine.


Some of the resources that have contributed to my thinking and writing this essay.

Diane Dumanoski: The End of the Long Summer, Three Rivers Press, 2009.

Pooran Desai, Sue Riddlestone: Bioregional Solutions for living on one planet, Schumacher Briefings, 2002.

Bill McKibben: Eaarth - making a life on a tough new planet, Black Inc, 2010.

Tim Jackson: Prosperity without growth, Earthscan, 2009.

Worldwatch Institute: State of the World 2010 – transforming cultures from consumerism to sustainability, Earthscan, 2010.

Mark Burton: A Green Deal for the Manchester-Mersey Bioregion, 2009 and Steady State Manchester 2012.

Margaret Wheatley: Finding Our Way, Berrett-Koehler, 2005.

Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze: Walk Out Walk On, BK Currents, 2011.

Anything by Fritjof Capra -

David Nicholson-Lord: Green Cities-and why we need them. NE Foundation, 2003.

Scientific American: Solutions to Environmental Threats, April 2010.

Scientific American: Eco-Cities of the Future, David Biello, Vol 18, Number 4, 2008.

Manchester a Certain Future: Published by Manchester City Council on behalf of the City of Manchester, December 2009 updated 2012..

Scientific American: A Plan for a Sustainable Future, November 2009.

Amitai Etzioni, Get Rich Now, The New Republic, June 2009.

Northwest Regional Development Agency: Adaption for Sustainable Economic Growth, Feb 2010.

Herman Daly -

Four Degrees of Preparation: Eco-Cities.

Turbulence – ideas for movement, December

M.E.N. Masterplan to take city into the future, Deborah Linton, 19 June 2012

Gro Harlem Brundtland et al: Environment and Development Challenges - The Imperative to Act, February 2012

The Independent: Engineering, Future shock – why Britain must prepare for a changing climate, February 2009.

David Bent, Stephanie Draper: Leader Business Strategies, Forum for the Future, October 2007.

Gunter Pauli, The Blue Economy; 10 years, 100 innovations, 100 million jobs, Paradigm Publications 2010

Ellen Macarthur Foundation, The Circular Economy, 2012

The Green City Index, Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by Siemens, 2012

Professor Kevin Anderson and Dr Alice Bows, Tyndall Centre. Manchester University


This Perspectives Essay was written as part of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform's (GM LIP) 'Mapping the Urban Knowledge Arena' project. The GMLIP is one of five global platforms of Mistra Urban Futures, a centre committed to more sustainable urban pathways in cities. All views belong to the author/s alone.