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Grassroots activism will give power to climate action

Benjamin Holland

Ben Holland fills our takeover slot with a rallying cry to unite with the activism of students and young professionals across the UK and really act on the climate emergency

Grassroots activism across the UK
Grassroots activism across the UK

‘Calling all architecture students, graduates, professionals. Your education is failing you!’

There’s a clear message in the tagline of the Climate Curriculum Campaign, an initiative led by ACAN (Architects Climate Action Network). There is no time to lose and architects, designing at the centre of an industry that contributes one third of the UK’s waste, are best placed to take the helm. But what are students doing about it?

We know the built environment accounts for roughly 40% of the UK’s carbon footprint, and with more than 1000 signatories to Architects Declare we seem ready to begin addressing the fundamental problems in our industry. The dual crises of climate and ecological breakdown require immediate and radical change and those in positions of power, who have the ability to effect fundamental change, will likely be dead before the worst of the tragic results of a tardy response to the climate crisis is realised.

As a result, students are taking matters into their own hands with university climate action groups popping up across the UK. Often inspired by events organised by ACAN, a range of topics is being tackled including educational reform, dissemination of resources and autonomous sustainability education.

One such group, QCAN (Queen’s Climate Action Network), started this summer by Jessica Scott and Chris Connolly at Queen’s University Belfast, is facilitating a dialogue between students and tutors to work out a response to the climate crisis. QUB declared a climate emergency last year and subsequent studio briefs have started to frame necessary questions, but the duo felt this top-down approach needed to be reciprocated from the bottom up.

Connolly comments that ‘climate action isn’t a specialist subject,’ but with the scientific foundations of its emergence, it sometimes feels like it can be. Scott and Connolly are compiling a research library of podcasts, books, documentaries and films to supply accessible information to fellow students to aid climate action and literacy. The library will soon be launched on their website and Instagram.

Through podcasts and lectures, the pair have been educating themselves and students from other disciplines within the faculty (including engineers, planners and geography students) which is vital for future success says Scott: ‘Architects have a lot to answer for and are the primary designers, but once you get into practice, our profession is so interdisciplinary.’

Scott McAulay, co-ordinator of the Anthropocene Architecture School and a RIBAJ Rising Star, agrees. ‘Architects are perfectly placed in design teams to mediate between disciplines and to lead the conversation,’ he believes. He hopes to show that the built environment industry has huge political potential and says we should be lobbying hard: ‘If the government was met with noise from more than 50 universities, the RIBA and a coalition of architecture practices, it would be pretty hard to ignore and a powerful public statement to encourage other industries to follow suit.’

In Bristol, Nicola Mead, a fourth year student, ACAN member and sustainability officer at the University of the West of England Architecture Society, set up WE CAN, a student activism group liaising with academic staff to adapt the curriculum to address the climate crisis appropriately. 

A recent project asked students to send in their ‘climate action in up to 12 words’ to be posted on the WE CAN Instagram page – a recorded manifesto encouraging them to be accountable for their own education in the climate emergency.

  • Climate action pledge from Nicola Mead, WE CAN student co-founder, for WE CAN action installation, November 2020.
    Climate action pledge from Nicola Mead, WE CAN student co-founder, for WE CAN action installation, November 2020. Credit: U.WE.CAN
  • Head of University of West of England’s department of architecture and built environment, Elena Marco, commits to do her bit.
    Head of University of West of England’s department of architecture and built environment, Elena Marco, commits to do her bit. Credit: U.WE.CAN
  • Student on architecture and technology Ashleigh Msipo makes her pledge on climate action.
    Student on architecture and technology Ashleigh Msipo makes her pledge on climate action. Credit: U.WE.CAN
  • Student architecture society at UWE and how it promised climate action.
    Student architecture society at UWE and how it promised climate action. Credit: U.WE.CAN

At the end of the last academic year, ‘SSoA Students for Climate Action’ at the Sheffield School of Architecture conducted a survey gaining feedback from students about the quality of their education in tackling the climate emergency. Their findings were presented to the faculty in a staff reflection day helping the university to consider its strengths and weaknesses, but despite its success, they feel this is something all schools should be doing of their own accord.

The co-ordinators of the group note a significant lack of funding for staff to carry out this type of reflection. They hope that by pushing upwards, their school can do the same, twisting the arms of the officials sat in bureaucratic conclave to give them the green light (and green paper) to begin the essential transformation required to start tackling the major shortfalls of an outdated education system.

Looking to the future, the Students for Climate Action team including Eleanor Derbyshire, Claire Wilkinson and Marian Alkali, hope to form relationships with other student action groups across the country. Joining the wider conversation while keeping a local focus expands their agency, and other groups are finding the same. ACAN Education is preparing a new campaign to unite student groups across the UK and give an identity to their collective voice. 

While promoting the three main tenets of ACAN’s agenda: decarbonise now; ecological regeneration and cultural transformation, ACAN Education has set up working groups with focussed research themes, provided educational resources and encouraged the RIBA to listen to the student population.  Ben Yeates, SSoA alumnus and co-ordinator at ACAN Education also notes the mental wellbeing benefits of getting involved with initiatives such as these, noting that collective action can help people to feel like they’re doing some good in what can otherwise seem like a helpless situation.

The reception across the board has been positive. Tutors have been engaging and open. Students are getting involved wherever they can, and there is sizeable support from adjacent disciplines. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have provided alternative methods of working which might just provide this movement with a longevity that others have not had. According to Yeates, ‘the pandemic has generally improved confidence and willingness to communicate via online calls’. Geographic barriers no longer limit activism and, while London is involved, this is not a capital-centric movement whereas previously it might have been. In fact, it’s not only national but beginning to spread further afield with people joining the conversation from the European Architects Student Assembly and even as far off as Nairobi.

Historically, coalitions with a united voice have been effective vehicles for change, and strength here is definitely in numbers. Students and young professionals, eager to see the changes that will save our world, have begun taking ownership of the problem. Now professional practice must follow suit.

Time should be provided for all employees to improve their climate literacy and perform their own activism. Resources should be shared and tools developed between practices, not just within them. We cannot wait until the current student cohort climbs the ranks - that lag time is too long. Intervention is required now. Professional reform is needed just as much as educational.

So back to the original question. What are students and young professionals doing about the climate emergency? The answer is taking ownership. Leaving the fate of their future to older members of the profession is just too big a risk. There is a collective responsibility to act now and students across the UK are using their energy and enthusiasm to transform education and add their voice to the growing noise.

Benjamin Holland is a student at Central St Martin’s and part of one of the winning teams for RIBA Rethink 2025 

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