Could we be Ireland’s ‘greenest’ city?

Cyclists take off from Ebrington Square.
Cyclists take off from Ebrington Square.

A recent EU report showed that the Republic had the Continent’s worst record on tackling climate change – with greenhouse gas emissions increasing by 7 per cent since 2015 despite policies designed to reduce them.

A E600 million fine is currently in the post to Dublin for failing to do its bit to improve air quality and clean up its act.

That said, N. Ireland’s record on environmental issues is equally poor, if not more so – with lax planning and enforcement leading to one million tonnes of waste dumped illegally alongside the River Faughan at Mobuoy, putting Derry’s main drinking water source at risk.

Meanwhile, the annual beach survey by the Marine Conservation Society found a 10 per cent rise in litter on N. Ireland’s shorefronts, with over seven pieces of rubbish collected on average every metre.

Climate change is undoubtedly one of the major challenges facing humanity in the coming years.

And with more than half the world’s population living in urban areas (predicted to rise to over two-thirds by 2050) cities have an increasingly central role to play in ensuring that societies become genuinely sustainable. Two-thirds of the island’s population are already living in urban areas.

Given the challenge presented by climate change, and Ireland’s poor record on responding to it, there is therefore a major opportunity for somewhere to carve out a strong and unique niche for itself by declaring its intent to become Ireland’s ‘greenest’ and most sustainable city.

Why should anywhere care about trying to position itself as Ireland’s greenest city?

There are three key reasons for doing so.

Firstly – in a globalised world in which thousands of cities and regions compete to attract people, jobs and investment, it is vital for places to find meaningful ways to differentiate themselves. This is particularly important in Northern Ireland, where the vast majority of attention and investment focuses solely on Greater Belfast.

By creating clear points of difference between Derry and the other cities on the island/UK, we would stand out from the crowd in the pursuit of jobs, investment and public funding.

Secondly – a greener and more sustainable city would also be a much more pleasant place to live, work, study and visit : with less waste, cleaner air, more green spaces, better transport etc. So who wouldn’t want that for their city ?

And third – in a world where green technologies and policies are both fast growing, anywhere that creates a strong niche for itself in sustainability will gain significant economic benefits from doing so.

Derry is a very small city, located on the periphery of an island that is itself on the periphery of Europe. All that makes us a hard sell at the best of times for attracting inward investment.

The Republic has long recognised the need to increase its competitiveness by targeting specific business sectors with strong future growth prospects and ensuring the skilled workforce and business infrastructure are put in place to attract companies in those areas. It’s a strategy that has made the south one of the premier business locations in the world for the IT, biotech and pharmaceutical sectors. Individual Irish cities have followed suit themselves – with Limerick, for example, establishing a strong cluster of International Aviation Service businesses at Shannon Airport (over 40 companies) and creating a new National Sports Cluster to target inward investment in the sports technology, food and nutrition sectors. Yet not since the demise of Derry’s shirt industry over 50 years ago have we been an important and identifiable location for any specific business sectors.

It is a major structural weakness in our economy, and makes it even more difficult for the isolated north-west to attract foreign investment.

Through seizing the economic opportunities presented by a reputation for environmental sustainability and innovation, we would create a strong reason for companies to consider us ahead of other choices. We would be in a stronger position to attract and create clusters of green businesses locally, which would in-turn make it easier to attract further such investment here.

And we would be focusing part of our economy on sectors that not only have tremendous growth appeal in the future, but which are also generally well-paid and labour intensive.

In short - declaring our intent to become Ireland’s most sustainable city would be a route to more jobs, greater skills and a more pleasant place to live.

Declaring that intent wouldn’t be enough on its own, however.

We would also need the entire city to play its part in ensuring we became as sustainable as possible.

So what would a significantly ‘greener’ version of Derry look like in 20 years time?

On Energy, the city would have the best insulated homes in the UK and Ireland – resulting in the lowest fuel bills and fuel poverty rate.

And we would have a community-owned Energy Supply Company creating electricity locally through wind, solar and the tidal power of the mighty River Foyle.

Our transport would be significantly enhanced – with more electric vehicles than anywhere on the island, greater numbers of cyclists, the highest usage of buses, and a popular railway network that was about to be extended to Strabane and Letterkenny.

Our economic fortunes would have improved dramatically from our current position as the UK’s unemployment blackspot, with high paid and high-skilled jobs located here as a result of Derry becoming a key European centre for green industries.

Our University would have expanded dramatically, with new courses offered locally to train students for the city’s growing green business sector (much of it locally owned).

And our airport and seaport would both be booming in-line with our European-wide importance as a key hub for the green sector. On the built environment – architects, town planners and engineers from across Ireland would flock to our city to visit our innovative new green homes and commercial buildings, and to study here.

Plus the council would have just opened its new city centre civic offices in an award-winning exemplar ‘green’ building.

And in terms of the everyday experience of ordinary people - we would have thriving local communities where services and shops could be easily accessed, we would have the cleanest air and water of any city on the island, the highest number of green spaces and be recognised yet again by awards and in the media for having the best quality of life.

Derry would be the benchmark against which everyone else on the island of Ireland compared the liveability of their own city.

It’s certainly an appealing vision of what Derry could be, and would enable us to genuinely stand out in attracting both people and employers.

To get there would be a long and at times difficult road, however, requiring a clear focus on the end goal to avoid abandoning mission en route.

It would require a recognition that the current way in which our city is structured and operates is clearly not delivering for our people economically, qualitatively or in health terms, with Derry bottom of the pile on all those measures.

Carrying on ‘Business as usual’, or with only minor changes, would not enable Derry to seize this golden opportunity to deliver prosperity through making our city a genuinely better place to live for all.

And it would necessitate change in every aspect of how our city is currently planned and functions, particularly when it comes to the public and personal mindsets.

The good news is that there is already a vanguard of individuals and groups who are quietly working to make our city a greener and more sustainable place, and a ready pool of volunteers that can be tapped into on this regard.

Zero Waste North West are doing great work on encouraging people to think again about things like single use plastics - which has become such a hot issue that Ards and North Down Borough Council became the first local authority in Northern Ireland to adopt a ban on their use last month.

Do we want to genuinely change Derry? To break out of the current economic paralysis? To only improve and progress our lot in baby steps whilst other cities on the island take giant leaps forward?

Steve Bradley is a commentator and regeneration consultant from Derry. He can be followed onTwitter @bradley_steve