(Gavin Harvey, Sustainability and Conservation Coordinator, Coastal Housing Group)
Setting the scene…
Climate Change and biodiversity decline are both tragic realities. The planet is getting warmer, causing extreme weathers, rising sea levels, poorer air quality, and dangerous living conditions. Seasons are becoming unpredictable and erratic. On May 3rd this year I commuted from Bridgend to Swansea in the hot sun, and commuted back home on the same day, via the same route, in falling snow.
At the same time, our own habits, lifestyles, and cultures, are contributing to habitat destruction, pollinator decline, and species extinction.
At its most extreme, 2021 has already provided us with record high temperatures in the UK, devastating floods in Europe, and the almost apocalyptic image of the sea on fire in the Gulf of Mexico.
We know that we have to act now to reduce and limit our environmental damage. That is a responsibility that falls on all of us.
How it all started
This piece tells the story of how In 2018 I made the decision to act, and approached my employer with an idea for a new role that I thought they should invest in as a matter of urgency. The employer was Coastal Housing, and the role was Sustainability Coordinator.
Coastal Housing is a Swansea based social housing association that provides homes in Carmarthen, Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, and Bridgend. I had been working at Coastal for 5 years as a Caretaker. My main duties as a caretaker included litter picking, grass cutting, hedge cutting, shrub and tree cutting, weed control, estates maintenance repairs, and cleaning. I had been maintaining gardens and communal landscapes for many years before in previous employment.
I love gardening. I love nature. I love the seasons and the weathers. Our caretaker service at Coastal is quite an intimate one, in that each caretaker has his/her own designated ‘schemes’ to maintain. While most estate services rely on teams of operatives to visit numerous sites every day, our caretakers are mostly lone workers, and enjoy the privilege of being able to spend more time in the specific communities they serve. I was lucky enough to be asked to maintain the beautiful landscapes for the wonderful community of Ynys Lee in Cwmafan, Port Talbot. Ynys Lee is a community of 93 homes that sits on the sloped landscapes of the Afan Valley. The grounds of Ynys Lee are beautifully diverse, including brooks and streams, small woodlands, a nature walk, community allotments, and a communal playground. And the weathers of Ynys Lee are equally as diverse! At its most pleasant it can be sunny, still, and stunning. And at its most extreme is can be snowy, stormy, and sometimes scary! What a privilege maintaining these landscapes was, for someone so in love with gardening, nature, seasons and weathers.
Back then, my interpretation of a successful garden or landscape was a lot different to what it is now. I was obsessed with neat lawns, geometrically perfect shrubs, and weed-free surfaces. This obsession allowed me to maintain the landscapes to a very high standard. Everything was clean, uniform, and ornamental. And this was how the community at Ynys Lee were used to having their landscapes maintained. Indeed, it was often said that you could recognise a Coastal Housing estate by how immaculate the landscapes are. A calling-card we’ve always been quite proud of.
While caretaking at Ynys Lee I was also studying practical horticulture with the Royal Horticulture Society at Bridgend College. It was during this course that I was introduced to a module on sustainable horticulture. During this module I learned about composting, organic weed control, gardening for nature, garden waste and recycling etc. This module really interested me. And in time, my new learning exposed to me just how damaging my practices at Ynys Lee were.
“How damaging my obsession for ornamental landscapes was to the local environment and wildlife. I began to realise that I had a responsibility to maintain the landscapes in a way that not only served the local residents, but also the local wildlife, and the environment.”
At the time, I was already aware of the climate crisis, and was quite engaged in doing what I could at home to reduce my contribution to global warming. Switching to a ‘green energy’ provider, recycling, composting my green waste, educating my two young daughters on the importance of caring for the environment and wildlife. But for the first time I was beginning to realise just how much environmental damage I was causing during my 8 hours a day in Ynys Lee. I started to feel very guilty. And at this point, my interpretation of a successful landscape started to change.
How things can change….
I began to explore gardening for nature and wildlife at Ynys Lee. I allowed some lawns to grow and flower, and for the first time adhered to the wonderful campaign of ‘No Mow May’ (https://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/discover-wild-plants-nature/no-mow-may). I started recycling my green waste and reusing it on the landscape as compost or mulch. I experimented with ‘weeds’, allowing them to grow, recognising their ability to offer pollination opportunities.
Everyone on board?
This new approach invited conversations from local residents. As you can probably imagine, some of the initial feedback was positive, and some of it was negative. This was a new approach that the residents had never been introduced to before. They were not used to seeing lawns left uncut, autumn leaves being used for mulch or habitat piles, weeds being treated as flowering plants, or the woodland being managed less like an ornamental garden and more like… a woodland! But every conversation, even the ones initiated by negative feedback, was an opportunity to communicate the climate and biodiversity crisis with residents. And the vast majority of sceptics appreciated the approach once they understood the motives. To protect the environment, and to conserve wildlife, for the benefit of future generations. To stop the planet becoming inhospitable for many of its diversity of weird and wonderful species. Including, eventually, us!
On recognising the opportunity I had created for myself to improve the environmental impact of my service, to promote sustainability, and to communicate the climate and biodiversity crisis to a diverse audience, I started to wonder what difference we could make, and what audience we could reach, if the whole Estate Service adopted this approach. So I used my experiences and my learning to design and present a business case to the board of Directors at Coastal Housing. The business case was for the creation of a brand-new role. One that would be tasked with exploring what opportunities we have to reduce and limit our environmental damage, throughout the organisation, and most immediately within the Estates Service. The business case was unanimously approved, and I was generously offered the opportunity to serve a 12-month secondment to explore demand for the role.
The new role…
During the first 6 months of the secondment, we introduced new initiatives such as on-site composting, reduced-mow areas, and material recycling facilities. We installed new allotments, new raised beds, new wheelchair-friendly community gardens. We helped start up new community gardening groups. We changed the criteria of our resident gardening competition so that it celebrated gardens that benefited nature and the environment. We used every seasonal community event as an opportunity to promote environmental sustainability. At spring events we created wildflower seed bombs with local children and spoke about the importance of pollinators. In autumn, after calving pumpkins with local children, we collected the seeds to offer to birds and other wildlife and offered the waste pumpkin carvings to the squirrels and the foxes. And at Christmas we created RSPB approved reindeer food with local children, to reduce the amount of glitter and confetti carelessly scattered at that time of year. We also helped the fantastic ‘Repair Café Wales’ host their first café in Neath, by offering them a community hall and helping to host cafes for them. At repair cafes, local residents are invited to bring any broken or damaged items in for local skilled volunteers to try to fix. During the couple of cafes I co-hosted we saved an umbrella, a reclining chair, a hair straightener, a vanity table, and more, from being sent to landfill. Repair Café Wales promote community cohesion, skill sharing, waste reduction, and always offer lots of tea and cakes at their cafes! I highly recommend finding your local café and visiting or volunteering. (https://repaircafewales.org/)
At this time my post was made permanent, and I was given more freedom to explore demand and opportunity.
During the next 6 months we designed a ‘Sustainable Schemes Program’, which asked all of our caretakers to make sustainable ‘pledges’ on the schemes they maintained. ‘Pledges’ included reduced mow areas, reducing chemical use, sowing wildflower, planting trees, composting, reducing waste, collecting water, installing habitats etc. Before we ran the program, we measured how many of the pledges were currently being satisfied without intervention. At the time, throughout the service, 167 pledges were being satisfied. After collecting this data, we began increasing awareness of the pledges, particularly those with little engagement. We encouraged caretakers to be creative, and to speak to their relevant communities about what they would like to see. After a year of promotion and awareness-raising we collected the data again, measuring how many pledges were being satisfied by the whole service. The number had risen from 167 to 323, which is very near double the number of pledges. This time we also asked Caretakers to suggest proposals for the following year, pledges they weren’t currently satisfying but were interested in exploring. 198 proposals were offered by our team. Every single pledge showed positive engagement.
“The service was now more environmentally friendly than ever before. And our landscapes more biodiverse, sensory, and resilient to climate change. And important conversations were happening throughout many communities.”
The success of the Sustainable Schemes Program earned us ‘Bee Friendly’ status, which is an accreditation offered by Welsh Government to organisations that are excelling at protecting and promoting pollinators. We had increased our wildflower population, reduced our petrol machine usage, reduced our Glyphosate usage, and promoted the importance of pollinators at community events.
Future plans for the Sustainable Schemes Program include hosting a page on our website where residents can access what pledges are being satisfied in their areas. This will give them the opportunity to suggest new pledges themselves and help design how their landscapes are maintained. The goal would be to make the service as interactive and collaborative as possible.
While all this work was going on with the Estates Team, Coastal had assembled a Sustainability Group that was populated by staff members who volunteered an interest in sustainability. Representation was diverse, with staff members from Customer Services, Development, Finance, Facilities, Maintenance, and Human Resources etc. all involved. The purpose of the group was to explore how we could improve the environmental sustainability of the whole organisation. Successes of the group included switching to environmentally friendly bleach-free paper, increasing recycling facilities at our offices, and initiating a tree-planting schemes that saw us plant 500 new native trees in 2019, and another 630 in 2020. Again, wanting to make our journey as collaborative and as inclusive as possible, we are making plans to create a residents Sustainability Group, where a diverse group of residents will be presented with our progress, and offered the chance to feedback and offer their thoughts. They will be able to communicate directly with us how any shift to any new, more sustainable policy or procedure, would affect their communities. They will also be challenged to become community sustainability champions and work together to discuss ways they can promote and influence positive change in their own communities.
I am now in my third year as Sustainability and Conservation Coordinator. I have learned a lot in this time and am proud of the positive steps we and the communities we serve have taken towards environmental sustainability. An ‘Asset Based Community Development’ approach has helped us recognise the importance of working ‘with’ and ‘by’ communities, and not doing ‘to’ or ‘for’ (https://www.nurturedevelopment.org/asset-based-community-development/) The transition into a more environmentally sustainable society is a diverse and complex one, and one cannot assume that everyone is as prepared as oneself for that transition. Communities are equally as diverse. Different people engage with climate change in different ways. Some people are engaged in the public health benefits. Others, in the benefits to wildlife and nature. Some recognise the economic benefits, and others may not be aware of any of the benefits. It is so important for the process to be well communicated. Education and collaboration are key. And opportunities to educate and collaborate always present themselves when we ourselves decide to act. I decided to act 3 years ago, and I haven’t looked back since.
More work ahead…
Exciting projects I am currently working on include the installation of a living green-roof at our Swansea office and introducing an Estates Maintenance Calendar which could potentially see us half any environmental damage caused by our Estates Services. We will be formalising our first collaborative estates maintenance plans, where residents will actively help us design how their landscapes are maintained. We are designing a new Resident Engagement Strategy that will complement the launch of the Resident Sustainability Group, to ensure that principles of collaboration and consultation are imbedded in the group. Renew Wales are offering mentoring support for this and have helped facilitate a relationship with ourselves and TPAS Cymru regarding resident engagement. We are customising a ‘Carbon Literacy’ training program to deliver to staff and residents. Carbon Literacy is a course designed by The Carbon Trust and delivered in Wales by Cynnal Cymru. A number of our staff have completed the training, and some have qualified as Carbon Literacy trainers. The training will be used to increase awareness of the climate and biodiversity crisis, and to communicate the reason for our ambitions to become a more sustainable model.
There is so much more going on at Coastal Housing, from increasing our electric van fleet and infrastructure, to building new innovative eco-friendly homes and communities. From installing Swansea City Centres first living green wall, to supporting a crowd-funded community eBike service.
Get in touch….
If you would like to know more about our Sustainability work, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always happy to chat and collaborate with those interested in Sustainability. The solutions to climate crisis are often best approached as a community. Whether that is a community of residents, a community of professionals, or a combination of both. Together we can create the grass-roots changes that will help influence bigger societal changes. And help improve the health and wellbeing of people and communities for generations to come.
In engaging with sustainability, you will absolutely be contributing to a more sustainable planet Earth. What a noble, ethical, and rewarding contribution. A gift to future generations. Well- done to everyone on that journey, and everyone about to start that journey.
And thank you Renew Wales for your continued support.
*** Last week Gavin won the the Leadership Award at the Chartered Institute of Housing Awards for his sustainability work with Coastal and its communities.***