The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

Project: What Makes a Town Sustainable?

The Higher Education Academy funded an interdisciplinary, community, sustainability project. It was a good opportunity for those looking for "real life" material for the classroom or for their own action research.


To kick things off, a Sustainability Café was held for academics and community group members in April 2006 to discuss what a sustainable community would look like. Then, in Summer 2006, students, lecturers and researchers began looking at issues of sustainability in a market town, Thornbury (just north of Bristol). (Sustainability in this context refers to economic vitality, environmental health, social cohesion and transportation.)

University of the West of England

Funded by the Economics Network, a recently-graduated economics student, Donna Humphrey, used Ecological Economics: A Workbook for Problem-Based Learning to explore food sustainability. Her work is complete and is the basis of an Economics Network case study.

Leeds University

Ricardo Vieira, a PhD student researching participatory consultation methods, has based his work in Thornbury. He handed out disposable cameras to several residents and invited them to take photographs of aspects of Thornbury they both like and dislike. Once the pictures were developed, he interviewed the photographers to gain insight into their views of Thornbury: past, present and future. The photographs, along with the comments, were displayed at Thornbury and District Museum over three months. The next steps in Ricardo's project are: 1) to meet with "experts" in the fields revealed by residents to be of concern, 2) take the "expert" views back to the residents for comment, 3) continue this process. The projected outcomes are: 1) a report to relevant official bodies and advisory committees assessing some of the future options for Thornbury's development in a particular area of concern chosen by residents and the Town Council, 2) a manual with a description of the deliberative method followed, and 3) an evaluation report reviewing participants' assessment of methodology for further rounds of future planning processes. The project is now complete.

Cardiff University

Under the guidance of lecturers Julie Gwilliam, Francesca Sartorio, and Paola Sassi, 30 postgraduate students in planning and architecture consulted with Thornbury residents over a weekend in October 2006. Out of this, three groups formed to tackle the following issues of concern: 1) Is there a place for new, affordable housing near the railway link beside the quarry? How feasible would it be to open the line again and provide a Park and Ride facility? 2) Why is the Industrial Estate in Thornbury such a blind spot? How energy efficient are the businesses and what employee needs are not being met? And is there scope for renewable energy generation there? 3) How can primary school children in Thornbury better integrate with the wider community and start teaching residents about being 'greener'? The groups presented their preliminary findings to the town in December 2006. Several of the students are following up on the projects for individual assignments.

One subsection, architectural design students, ran an additional series of consultation events with residents in early 2007 to focus on one design plan that would be useful for the community. Ideas had included a new performing arts venue, the re-vamping of Thornbury Hospital, and a food production / consumption infrastructure. The chosen idea (the performing arts venue) was presented for feedback and the final feasibility study was introduced in May 2007 to the town.

One Cardiff student, not involved in the above projects, is comparing two streets in Thornbury for her dissertation. She will look at houses in the Conservation Area versus houses on a different Thornbury street, and analyze the different restrictions on making them energy efficient.

Another student, a research assistant in psychology, will be conducting interviews with residents on "Living with Risk" in the town for her PhD thesis.

University of Gloucestershire

One hundred and twenty 1st year students from five disciplines who were taking a skills module have been introduced to the theme of sustainability. As part of their programme of events, they have: 1) been in the audience for a special "Sustainability Question Time" with a panel consisting of Martin Horwood, Liberal Democrats Shadow Minister for the Environment and MP for Cheltenham; Alex Steele, Chairman of the Gloucestershire Environmental Business Forum, Director of the Gloucestershire Green Business Club, and Sustainability Advisor to Gloucestershire; and Heather Witham, founder and member of Sustainable Thornbury; and 2) visited Thornbury in three batches to meet with members of Sustainable Thornbury about their motivation and concerns.

Lecturers involved in the module, Sue Swansborough, Dave Turner, and Kenny Lynch, wrote about their experience in a chapter (PDF 116KB) for the university's book, Greener by Degrees. The project was showcased in January 2007 as part of an HEI networking event co-hosted by the Higher Education Academy. The event also included hearing from residents of St. Paul (a Cheltenham neighbourhood interested in regeneration) and Bisley (a village south of Stroud) with the aim of creating new project opportunities for staff and students at the university.


Please contact Heather Witham with any questions: