Creating models for sustainable development

Vincent Walsh, Founder, Biospheric Foundation, Manchester

The Biospheric Project in Manchester integrates urban farming projects and a whole foods grocery concept. The grass roots approach and the project’s views on local governance in urban environments have created connections to Mistra Urban Futures and the GMLIP.

‘The idea came out of my master’s thesis, 2009-2010, in urbanism and architecture’, explains Vincent Walsh, founder of the Biospheric Foundation. ‘I wanted to look at a place where urban farming would work in the context of climate and other issues. I found a neighbourhood in Salford, Manchester, that had 67 places where you could get unhealthy food but none that sold healthy food’.

For his PhD thesis, Walsh needed a piece of land, a shop, and a community, to prove connectability. The project is developing a whole food store, connected to ‘green’ and ‘brown’ waste, which goes to the permaculture system in an 18,000 square feet building with three floors. Some of the products are worm tea and worms fed to the fish in the aquaponic system, which create ammonia; water circulates around different areas of the building and up to the roof.

Q: How does the project relate to the academic world?

A: Research has never been done before in this context: what’s interesting here is the density of what we’ve done, with mushrooms, a biofaçade, and a whole food store. What is new is the way I’ve geographically positioned it and how the parts of the project are hyper-interconnected. We’ve had a 12-month engagement program with schools and 8000 people coming through. The power of public engagement is our geographical positioning: It’s always happening, whether it’s in the shop or in schools outside.

Q: How did you get involved with Mistra Urban Futures and the GMLIP?

A: I’m working with Salford Urban and Regional Futures, SURF, at the moment, which is a Mistra Urban Futures partner. SURF and GMLIP connected to the project because of the interest in governance in urban environments, and how a model of sustainability can be created. Mistra Urban Futures is interested in the way I’ve developed this project out of grass roots and the model I’ve developed through the foundation.

We are a community project, but at the same time able to draw in organisations like Siemens and Greater Manchester as well as architects interested in all the systems in the building. It’s not only research, but cultural. I got funding from the Manchester International Festival in part because they saw me as an artist. Siemens got involved with the monitoring systems. I approached Tony Bloxham of Urban Splash, an entrepreneurial venture that reinvented Manchester, and persuaded him to get involved – I said, we have to re-think how we develop urban infrastructure; we have to think about the environment. He rented the building to us for a 24-month trial period; if we do something interesting, we can rent it for 10 years. It’s mostly about negotiations: understanding not only what you want, but the person you are going to go see and how your research fits into their world.

The impact of working with GMLIP is that it has helped us position the organization not as only an ecological platform, but to open it up to understand the social, political and governance paradigms. I didn't have those networks before, and it allowed me to see how difficult it is for governance.

Q: What are the benefits and drawbacks you see of doing research and applied work together?

A: From my perspective, I don’t think research itself has the answers. What we actually need is a platform that relates to people and their culture. That culture can be different for every person, every community.

You need a more transdisciplinary approach. Interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary sits well in a university, but if you want to do transdisciplinary, you need an array of funders, and you need a long-term legacy that relates to what the community wants. You don’t have that extra level of actually working in a community in the university.


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