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Developing low carbon neighbourhoods

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A collaborative action research project in Newcastle

Overview

Who: Audley Genus, Senior Lecturer, Business School, Newcastle University and Beacon North East Fellow; Northumbria University; West End Housing Co-op, Rye Hill Tenants Association, Mather Waverly Tenants’ Association (participating residents/tenants groups); Beacon North East, Newcastle New Deal for Communities (later known as ‘Centre West’), Your Homes Newcastle (project co-funders); Bridging Newcastle Gateshead, Newcastle City Council, Energy Saving Trust,  Groundwork, National Energy Action (delivery partners).

What: A multi-actor collaborative action research project of which the Beacon NE fellowship project was one element, informed by ‘co-inquiry’ methodology adopted as a working principle by Newcastle/Durham Beacon for public engagement.

Why: Within the Beacon NE theme on Energy and Environment the project aimed to improve university engagement with communities and neighbourhoods in Newcastle upon Tyne to discern local visions and actions relevant to building low carbon communities/neighbourhoods, in ways which the university and other actors can support

Where: West End of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North East England

When: Collaboration within the Beacon project started 1st September 2009. The Beacon North East Fellowship formally ended on 31st August, 2010 but the nature of this particular collaborative partnership, which involves multiple agencies and actors and is still ongoing, means it continues beyond the formal funding deadlines.

Project description

The collaboration involved a partnership between Newcastle and Northumbria Universities, Newcastle City Council, National Energy Action (NEA), the Energy Saving Trust, and others.

This project emerged from an earlier collaboration in 2007 with Northumbria University’s Sustainable Cities Research Institute, which looked at ‘what can be done at a local level about climate change’. Following this collaboration, in 2009, the Newcastle eco-neighbourhoods research group, received funding from New Deal for Communities (NDC) to investigate the feasibility for more ‘bottom up’ actions and energy demand reduction in certain fuel poor areas of Newcastle (the ‘eco-neighbourhoods’ project was subsequently renamed Newcastle Low Carbon Neighbourhoods).

 The total amount of NDC and other matching funds obtained for the project was £31,500. To ensure longer term engagement with local citizens the collaborative partners decided that more funding was required. Audley’s successful application for a Beacon North East Fellowship contributed a further £15,000 to the project.

The aim of the Beacon fellowship was to examine and to enact deepening engagement between universities, residents and other stakeholders relevant to the energy and environment theme of Beacon NE. This partnership project involved working with communities and neighbourhoods in the West End of Newcastle.

Purpose

Within the Beacon NE theme on Energy and Environment the project aimed to improve university engagement with communities and neighbourhoods in Newcastle upon Tyne.

It aimed to discern local visions and actions relevant to building low carbon communities/neighbourhoods, and ways in which the university and other actors can support these.

The project aimed to encourage innovative environmentally sustainable behaviour and to enable or build upon citizen initiatives and capabilities.

It also sought to encourage university researchers and other specialists to work with - and to challenge their assumptions about working with - non-specialists in co-creating plans for low carbon living.

The project contributes to wider collaborative research/engagement on ‘eco-neighbourhoods’, part of which concerns how to scale up novel engagement and energy use practices.

Methods and process

Specifically, engagement has developed among researchers, specialists and: (i) a housing cooperative that owned a number of Victorian dwellings (7 terraced houses with solid walls, including 1 large listed building split into 4 flats, plus 2 other flats), with whom three meetings have been held; and (ii) two tenants’ associations with whom there have been three and two meetings so far, respectively, and whose accommodation is a mix of terraced housing and high rise flats, all of which is social housing (i.e. the residents are tenants and control over property maintenance rests with a housing association). There has been a large amount of email and other correspondence and telephone communication among project participants and facilitators.

Prior to this engagement ‘taking root’ Audley Genus and other researchers had telephoned and/or sent emails to a number of possible contacts in grassroots neighbourhood and community organisations, as well as delivering approximately 4000 leaflets about the eco-neighbourhood project door-to-door in that part of the West End of Newcastle in which the housing co-op is located, and a similar number in the part of the West End in which the two tenants’ associations are located.

From this initial contact, meetings were set up with specific community organisations, including Time Exchange and Private Rented Service, representatives of which referred to other potentially interested community groups, most notably the housing co-op, one member of whom was known to Audley from their mutual involvement in the Newcastle Transition Town group.

One of the contacts passed on to Audley from the local authority climate change officer was that of a community engagement worker, with whom a meeting was arranged. This led to attendance at an electoral ward meeting at which another contact was made, serendipitously, between Audley who spoke at the meeting about recruitment for the Beacon/Eco-neighbourhood project and a representative of a tenants’ association, who had attended to promote a separate interest of hers. This person’s contact details were passed on (with permission) to a colleague at Northumbria University, which subsequently led to a meeting and later a workshop with members of the tenants’ association concerned. Colleagues at Northumbria University separately made contact with a representative of a second tenants’ association in the West End, which led to that association’s participation in the project.

The nature of relations between the eco-neighbourhoods/Beacon team and tenant resident groups may be described as ‘advice and capacity-building’, and with the housing co-op something closer to mutual shaping of the engagement agenda associated with ‘co-inquiry’. Housing co-operative residents provided (without prompting) written material by email such as a feasibility study report they had commissioned into the potential for installing wood burning stoves (in homes owned by the housing co-op) and suggestions for topics and possible actions they wished to discuss in meetings.

Results and outcomes

  • Clarification of requirements of the housing co-op, e.g. what renewable/ energy efficient technologies to pursue;
  • Thermal imaging of housing co-operative properties is being arranged, with energy performance assessment to follow;
  • Tenants in the housing associations have received advice on how to read and reduce energy bills and participated in discussions about energy use practices, how they come to be and whether/how they might change.
  • Learning about engagement facilitated by sharing reflections on the project with others e.g. at NCCPE Engage 2010 conference, a workshop for the  local authority (scheduled for March 2011), meetings of Durham-Newcastle co-inquiry action research (CAR) group, and other academic and community organisation conferences/meetings.

What worked well

  • Supportive networks: induction, training and mentoring was provided for Audley as part of the Beacon initiative. This included opportunities to meet and share experiences with other Beacon fellows and public engagement specialists.
  • Openness and flexibility: Being open to new ideas, constantly learning from others; developing listening skills and being adaptable.
  • Managing and meeting expectations: making promises and meeting them was ‘ a major achievement’ (e.g. responding within a couple days to promises made to the Housing Co-op at a meeting, to provide details of local energy performance assessors, contact specialists in thermal imaging and register with the Cooperatives UK green pioneers scheme). 
  • Benefits of University involvement: the universities’ involvement supported local residents in several ways, which was “appreciated by residents”. For example, Northumbria University’s expertise was used in a creative way through the proposed use of thermal imaging to map heat loss in houses.
  • Team working: the “multi actor nature of the team” with the “university as part of a team”.
  • Links and Liaison: the team’s role as mediators and a “point of contact” for example, “I cannot solve your insulation problems but I know someone who will”.

“Thank you for this – great.” Resident Participant

“It was really… helpful.” Resident Participant

“It has been a pleasure to work with you … you have helped us along the way.” Resident Participant

“I have learnt how to collaborate with a multitude of different actors and be sensitive to their needs and differences.” Audley Genus

“I put in a heck of a lot of time and effort, a lot of it ‘out there’ in the neighbourhoods or with non-academic partners. My role has been chief organiser, and liaison person, delivering on promises made by the ‘team’ to residents by making sure that action points from meetings were acted upon.” Audley Genus

What didn't work well

Working with the paradoxes and demands of co-inquiry;

  1. Compare the centrality of proactivity of citizen participants in co-inquiry methodology with the variability experienced in practice, which may be connected with the perception of apparently passive participants that they lack the power or means to effect the changes they want to make (e.g. to homes they do not own);
  2. Consider the requirement to be fully inclusive of groups that experience oppression or marginalisation alongside the temptation to focus on participants who appear to have the highest potential to combat urgent socio-economic and environmental problems quickly;
  3. Note the difficulty of avoiding facilitator framings of issues within an institutionally driven engagement process having a ‘pre-history’ foreshadowing engagement with citizens;  but also recognise
  4. That the personal commitment of facilitators and parallel involvement in networks related to those of citizen participants can help to bridge gaps between specialists and lay participants and help compensate for non-citizen framing problem.     

Time and Energy Commitments: it is absorbing, time consuming and taxing of energies but may work in a complementary way with other interests and activities in one’s life. 

Funding Issues: members of the partnership may be keen to keep the engagement going but they may eventually need more funding. Thus, great hopes and expectations can arise out of co-inquiry work but this can be limited by practical issues such as funding.

Multiple Identities and Trust: there is the issue from an academic/university perspective of multiple identities and trust when engaging with academics, non-academics (e.g. policy practitioners) and people with different issues and agendas. Each requires different lenses and sensibilities.

Role Conflict: not wanting to become an advocate but as Audley says, “found myself [close to] becoming an advocate” in sympathising with a group of disaffected tenants who were complaining about the repairs that had (or hadn’t) been made by a local housing association.

Can become ‘Personal’: a co-inquiry approach can become ‘personal’ - a central part of your life and much more than merely a work-related research or other interest.

Top Tips

For academic researchers seeking to facilitate properly collaborative engagement with citizens and others

  • Fundamentally it is important to try to understand the peculiarities of the engagement situation in which you are immersed and the appropriate or acceptable actions and processes required therein. Do not give in to the temptation to seek universal prescriptions about how to do engagement, which a ‘toolkit’ approach might encourage!
  • Having said this, my experience tells me that to be flexible and adaptable may be advantageous, as the collaboration may not develop as initially expected.
  • The availability of low cost, local spaces for meetings and the commitment of certain specialists and their willingness to attend meetings in the evenings facilitate the development of the collaboration.
  • The proactivity or passivity of the participants influences the development of the collaboration (NB. apparent passivity may not equate to lack of or low commitment of participants and reasons for it could be an interesting topic for further research – for instance the processes or spaces for interaction may not have put people at their ease).
  • A collaborative partnership can be effective for those involved in a variety of ways. For example, for the universities, exploration of the issues ‘on the ground’ connected with deepening engagement and research; for community partners, a contribution to tackling issues they care about; for all, insight into a new ways of working together to define/solve significant research/practical problems having social and other significance.  
  • To try and avoid ‘role conflict’ be clear about ‘who you are’.
  • Goodwill, trust and perseverance contribute to a successful collaboration but do not guarantee its success.
  • Communities and actors which are located close to each other geographically may raise different issues related to the project theme e.g. relating to the need to be aware of local political sensitivities or technical opportunities that may feasible to implement on a neighbourhood basis.

Beacon North East Co-inquiry Action Research Project

This case study formed part of the Beacon North East Co-inquiry Action Research (CAR) group project. The aims of the CAR group project are to share learning from Beacon NE partners about co-inquiry as an approach to community-university engagement, with a particular focus on research, and to produce materials (co-inquiry literature review, a toolkit and articles in practitioner and academic journals) that will be of use to universities and community partners engaging in this approach.

The project has been funded by Beacon North East and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement and is based in the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action at Durham University. 

Members of the CAR group include academics from Durham and Newcastle Universities and community partners involved in collaborative projects through Beacon North East under the themes of social justice, ageing and wellbeing and energy and environment.

The CAR group has met on five occasions to discuss in detail the findings from a literature review, case studies presented by members and the design of a toolkit. This case study involved a collaborative project under the theme of energy and environment.  The case study was presented to the CAR group by Audley Genus, and collated by Andrea Armstrong and Audley Genus.  

Contacts

If you would like more information about the project then please contact:

Audley Genus, audley.genus@ncl.ac.uk or rainbyrds@hotmail.ac.uk

If you would like more information about the Beacon North East Co-inquiry Action Research project then please contact:

Andrea Armstrong, andrea.armstrong@dur.ac.uk