Green heart of Hawick

Jonathan Dawson makes a trip to an environmental fair in Hawick and explains a recent paradigm shift

Green Heart of Hawick
I spent the weekend down at Hawick, a picturesque town in the Scottish Borders. The event was an environmental fair and conference called Green Heart of Hawick, put on by the irrepressibly enthusiastic Michael Shallis and his team.

The fair had everything, from films (including Al Gore’s "An Convenient Truth" and the wonderful "Power of Community" about Cuba’s response to its peak oil crisis), talks from a variety of speakers and exhibitions of local initiatives such as eco-schools, tree-planting programmes, compost making, local food schemes, allotments and the like.

It is tempting at times to despair at how few basic skills we have retained in our communities as the economy has globalised, but in reality, fairs like this demonstrate that the great British art of amateur tinkering has kept alive many older and more traditional ways of doing things. As if to reinforce the point, towards the end of Saturday afternoon, the town’s streets filled with an army of mounted riders, tracing the boundaries of the town’s lands on horseback in an annual practice that dates back to the 15th century.

I was there by kind invitation to talk about how to build and nurture local economies and how Hawick might go about creating its own transition town initiative. I have referred to transition towns in several previous blogs; these are community-led initiatives that embrace the reality of energy descent as fossil fuels run down as an opportunity to create more convivial and resilient communities.

So why, you might ask, was I advocating on behalf of transition towns rather than ecovillages? Why was I not trying to persuade the citizens of Hawick to model themselves on Findhorn?

Track back to February of this year, the most recent Board meeting of GEN – the Global Ecovillage Network – at the Los Angeles Ecovillage. There, a coin that has been wobbling on the edge for some time fell finally and firmly into the slot of our collective understanding.

This new understanding is reflected in the GEN Manifesto that emerged from that meeting. One section of the manifesto concludes: ‘…it may be of value for us to see today’s ecovillages less as ends in themselves and more as research, demonstration and training centres for sustainable community initiatives in conventional towns and villages worldwide’.

This is a substantial and significant shift in perspective. No longer, it suggests, is the good society that we promote to be created primarily by way of replication of the ecovillage model. Rather, the core purpose of these distinctive, charming, but somewhat artificial communities is to act as laboratories for the development of sustainability models of all kinds that can be scaled up into more conventional communities.

This insight comes to me as a breath of relief. The extent of Findhorn’s distinctiveness cannot be overstated. How on earth would one go about replicating such a unique model – especially given the growth in land prices and tightening of planning regulations over recent decades?

Just as we are coming to recognise that greening Britain’s housing stock will be primarily about intelligent retrofitting rather than new-build, so the building of a more healthy and resilient society needs to happen in existing communities like Hawick.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.