Imagining a climate resilient community

Anna Cooke-Yarborough reports on the latest part of the MSc Sustainability and Adaptation course, which included sessions on permaculture with Chris Dixon and Ruth Stevenson, Values with Elena Blackmore (Common Cause) and Sustainable Architecture Practice with Sunand Prasad (ex president of RIBA).

The second part of the first module was ‘Context and Planning’ and our task for the week was to envisage a climate resilient community on the land around Castell y Bere. This is a castle initially constructed in the 12th century and now lies ruined, situated on a hill near Llanfihangel-y-pennant in Gwynedd, Wales.

Planning a climate resilient community
Planning a climate resilient community

We were divided into two groups and headed off to explore the location using Castell y Bere as a viewpoint. All the land we could see from the castle site was available to work with. The use of the natural drainage divide, marked by the peaks of the hills around, felt very appropriate as one of our aspirations was to make the area ecosystem enhancing. Understanding the precipitation and drainage of the land were key to improving the environment for all the organisms dwelling there. To give time to develop an individual view we approached in silence and came together once everyone had had enough time to consider the space alone. As a collective project this quiet time proved important, the group work that followed was full of highs and lows, concentrated, a little frayed, but most of all a great learning experience.

student exerise
Personal reflection was the starting point for the exercise

We were expected to provide for a population of 500, be fossil free within 10 years, increase resilience, be waste free, carbon sequestering and ecosystem enhancing, and to promote non-growth trading. With so much to research in a short time-scale both groups divided into sub-groups to explore the important areas of this imaginary community in more detail. These were decided as water and food, shelter and energy, health and wellbeing along with governance, transport and communication. The interdependence of all these aspects was clear from the start and so frequent sharing of discoveries and ideas was key. The realisation of the extent of flooding experienced in the area was an important turning point in much of our thinking, and this had to be considered alongside the likelihood of longer dry spells as well.

Discussing climate change adaptation and flooding
Discussing climate change adaptation and flooding

Spider diagrams, timelines, playdough figures, poems, acting, long discussions, longer debates and many maps all ensued. One thing was clear from the start – this was going to be a challenging week.

The Architecture Practice Lecture given by Sunand Prasad was full of ideas we could take forward and use in our community design. He made mention of ending reliance on fossil fuels, the importance of flexibility and symbiosis along with the idea of leaving no trace. Something I found particularly useful was the notion that buildings cannot be finished, that they need to be constantly tuned.

One of the key things we were able to look into throughout the week was Permaculture design, with lectures from Ruth Stevenson and Chris Dixon. The importance of cycles, appropriate zoning and working with natural systems in Permaculture design became clear, along with the versatility of the ideas involved, which can be attributed to all aspects of life. The emphasis on rediscovery and understanding traditional systems were particularly interesting. There is so often an emphasis on the development of new ideas, when many important possibilities are either hidden or forgotten.

Elena Blackmore from Common Cause came to give us a lecture and workshop on values. It was interesting to see how many of our values as a group were similar, which was probably related to the decision we took to take the course, whilst even in this niche setting some values were very contrasting in terms of how important we deemed them to be. Often perceived as something abstract it was good to learn more about values, including how they can be changed and how they affect responses to global issues. In terms of planning our communities it was useful to establish as groups the most focal values, using these to help guide some decision-making.

student working
‘Valley Republic’ working group

After a lot of table moving, information sharing and weaving together of ideas it was finally time to clamp down and get a presentation together. Both groups were secretive in their final plans, so the last hours were tense and exciting.

Republic of Naz told the tale of their community in the setting of “Memory Tavern”, making use of drama. It was an extremely funny, clever and playful display of the development of the community, complete with a special effects transport display! The Valley Republic similarly took the view to look back over the growth of their community, this time at a celebratory festival. They put together a presentation with Bardic linking to the different sections, complete with a beating drum. The community were caught out on their desire to be pirates with the inclusion of a large, wooden boat in their master plan.

cycling presentation
The Power of cycling – lively presentation by ‘Naz’ working group

So the group work phase came to an end. All of us had learnt a great deal and it was a little sad leaving behind all our plans. There are whispers in the air though.

It was time to celebrate the end of a long week again and Friday night made way for a Halloween party. There was a lot of face painting, a murder mystery game underway in the straw bale theatre, music and dancing, with thanks to the super organisation by Kirsty Cassels, Josh Shimmin and James Irvine.

Halloween face painting
Face painting for Halloween party

On Saturday we had the opportunity of a lecture and workshop from Anna Beswick, who works for Adaptation Scotland. Having had a week working largely outside of real-world scenarios this was a valuable and positive insight into the difficulties faced along with possibilities and examples of adaptation across the UK, with the importance of dialogue, community involvement and working across regions made clear.

At lunch we headed our separate ways again, our heads full of ideas and thankful to everyone that made it such an enjoyable week. We all went away a great deal more knowledgeable about the challenges and opportunities surrounding community planning.

To find out more about this course and others, come to CAT’s Graduate School of the Environment open day on November 16th