Black Mountains College in the Brecon Beacons will train proactive advocates for sustainability. Co-founder Ben Rawlence tells Eleanor Young about the thinking behind a new sort of environmental education
On the northern edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, amid bracken-browned mountains and rocky streams, sits a ramshackle farm. This could be the site of a game-changing new college that trains activists – proactive advocates for sustainability: Black Mountains College.
It all starts with a car park in the small mid-Wales town of Talgarth. Ben Rawlence, co-founder of the college, is waiting to guide architect Sarah Featherstone of Featherstone Young and me up through the fields, walking as the students do each week learning from the pastures around them, from a climb though the protected temperate rainforest, taking samples from the stream to examine temperature, phosphates, nitrates and turbidity, marvelling at fungi.
Rawlence is an author, most recently of Treeline, which tells the story of the advance of the boreal forest into the warming Arctic tundra. He has worked trying to tackle the devastation of successive famines in Somalia – a threat that he sees as getting closer to home with global warming: the Arctic and the tropics are the sharp end of climatic disruption but it’s heading this way. His work in journalism and political speech writing for the Liberal Democrats has made him well aware that mainstream politics move too slowly for this crisis.
This is a tale of creating your own change – from Rawlence setting up the college in his home town, via the architect Featherstone Young taking on the site, to the willing but perhaps unwitting students. Interrupting the first cohort studying regenerative horticulture as they break for lunch, I expect missionary zeal and Damascene conversions. There is a little of that, but a good half of the students simply arrived for the college’s free local horticulture NVQ and have gradually become convinced about preserving soil health and no dig cultivation.
That democratic access to the sustainability knowledge is what Rawlence wants from his college – and what he sees the UK needs. It is knowledge our grandchildren will thank us for and an aim that is enshrined in Wales’ still barely-understood Well-being of Future Generations Act.
Rawlence has a vision of a liberal arts college like the similarly-named Black Mountain College in the US, where Buckminster Fuller famously taught. But Rawlence wants his courses to be available through funded standard education paths – first NVQs which are free in Wales and ultimately undergraduate degrees – rather than high cost masters courses. For him that’s the difference between Black Mountains College and Schumacher Collage or the Centre for Alternative Technology.
These are plans with grand ideas. They have won the college recognition from George Soros’ Open Society University Network (give a boost by local trustee Bill Newton Smith, previously head of Soros’ higher education programme). The original site that Featherstone Young worked on – the 19th century Mid Wales Hospital which once housed over 350 mentally ill patients – gives you a sense of the ambition. The hospital had been the subject of plans for business parks and residential conversion since the NHS left in 2007, along with demolition. But after sinking £250,000 into feasibility it became obvious that the buildings with their caved-in roofs would be too much of a financial drain for a new institution. With the nearby Troed-yr-Harn Farm gifted rent free to the college for three years, that option remains open – perhaps something for the future, working with a residential developer.
Architects are used to grand plans and change making. But this project is particularly close to the heart of Featherstone Young with Sarah Featherstone and Jeremy Young trying to set up a Welsh base in addition to their east London office. They have long retreated to Wales and their award winning house Ty Hedfan. At the same time Featherstone has been a key proponent of VeloCity, with its emphasis on reconnecting and reinvigorating rural settlements.
The college designs, which are in for planning, include longhouse style buildings with rooms for early cohorts of students, opening up a stone barn for eating and socialising, and re-using the slab that supported dilapidated sheds as the foundation for teaching rooms. In between the buildings, firepit, informal amphitheatre and farming plots there is the chance to be outside and connected with the land, both in cultivation and in wildness.
How realistic is the big mission and the stepping stones for getting there? For Featherstone Young the challenge has been getting certainty on re-using buildings, and balancing choices between locally-sourced materials, low embodied carbon and reducing operational carbon. For Rawlence it is now discussions on funding with potential partners, having found the right site and got the multi-disciplinary degree (neuro-science, creative practice, mainstreaming ecology and systems change) agreed by awarding body Cardiff Metropolitan University.
And for the students? They just have to save the world.