A reflective piece by Vikki Slade
Whilst a lot of attention has been placed on the Platinum Jubilee celebrations it’s worth remembering that World Environment Day, hosted this year by Sweden, also took place this past weekend.
Repeating the slogan from 50 years ago “Only One Earth” it’s a timely moment to reflect on how, in just half a century, the world has seen the dramatic impact of climate change, and following the IPCC’s warning last year, we are now seeing ‘Code Red for Humanity”
I have recently returned from a short trip abroad – a tinge of guilt that we drove in a diesel car but there were five of us, we had our bikes on the back and we avoided more carbon intensive flights across to mainland Europe.
It wasn’t just the wind turbines at the sides of motorways across France, Belgium, and the Netherlands but also the co-location of high-speed trains making the most of the scar on the landscape allowing people to move between towns and even countries for their work and leisure. Trains are not only more frequent and efficient for connectivity, but they can also be more cost effective. Even tram links are replacing car access into the hearts of cities like Den Haag. Europe just feels more environmentally progressive, without it being a big issue.
Homes in the areas we visited were typically large-roomed apartments or houses over three storeys, taking up less land and logically costing less to heat, and there is so much public space that smaller gardens don’t seem to matter as much. People appear to live more of their lives outdoors, socialising in the cafes and squares, and exercising – whatever the weather.
We need to grasp the concept of 15-minute neighbourhoods and walkable towns or cities to reduce our household carbon footprint and reserve our use of cars (which most of us will need to retain) for those journeys that are too long or too complex to manage on public or active transport. That goes back to town planning and being visionary. Looking at the layout of towns in the Netherlands, it is hard to believe that just 50 years ago their roads were also choked with cars, air pollution causing rapid increases in asthma as well as a high number of road deaths.
Schools, sports complexes, and parks were in the heart of communities – car parks buried underground, and supermarkets embedded on shopping streets alongside a wide range of independent retail units and cafés – my teenage daughter loved the shopping experience in both the suburbs and the city, which many UK towns could learn from in their post-covid retail strategies.
During our four-day trip, our car did not move. Walking 2km to restaurants and shops, and cycling 10-12km for sightseeing or the beach seemed perfectly normal. I cannot imagine doing that back in the UK – and it is not the lack of hills as most people would assume. It just felt natural, normal and most of all safe. Roads are incredibly narrow, so no one exceeds the 30kph (20mph) speed limit and cycle lanes are almost as wide as the space dedicated to cars, with not only a pavement but in many areas a sandy bridleway too! It is clear, that many of these have been retrofitted from space previously dedicated to motor vehicles, as newer areas of the city are built with cycle links crossing dual carriageways, through parks, paved in red tarmac or brick so if you are walking them you know to be aware of bikes coming up behind you.
Then there was the litter – or should I say lack of litter. Yes, there were still fast-food outlets, but paper rather than plastic was the packaging of choice, sunken bins ensured that capacity was sufficient in busy areas, and everything looked clean. If we are going to keep global temperatures to within 1.5 degrees of pre-industrial levels, society needs to look at consumption. We all need to ask ourselves if we need that replacement ‘thing’ or if what we have might last a bit longer.
Which brings me back to bikes. Although there were some lycra-clad leisure cyclists complete with aerodynamic helmets most of the bikes were slightly battered and designed for utility. Described as ‘walking on wheels’ they were ridden by people of all ages, wearing everything from suits to dresses and there was no need for ‘secure cycle storage’ which is currently the reason so many people give for not cycling – a bike (even an e-bike) wasn’t viewed as a status symbol, so regular locks were all that was needed. Most people refer to fietsers ‘someone on a bike’ rather than seeing themselves as cycling ‘enthusiasts’, it’s just so normal
As we returned home, we paid a visit to KinderDijk, the UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its windmills, first used in the 1700s to manage water, and an initiative to keep the low-lying areas around Dordrecht dry and capable of agriculture. Perhaps it’s the country’s relationship with nature and its attempts to control it that make it so aware of working alongside it every day?
You might have guessed; I rather liked the lifestyle – although I would have welcomed slightly warmer weather – and as we look to the future, I think it boils down to a few simple things.
Less consumption – of energy, of space and of stuff – combined with an awareness of the impact of our behaviour on our own health, on other people and on nature can transform a community and could save humanity. Applied to almost any situation they could slow the decline in our environment and even change the direction of travel.
The irony is that the country which seems to have embraced a more natural way of life, is one most at risk of disappearing under the waves, if humanity doesn’t grasp the urgency of climate change. So on reflection of this year’s World Environment Day, book a trip to The Netherlands and experience the lifestyle for yourself, try consuming less, and think more for the sake of those who will be most directly impacted by business as usual. We only have one earth, and we need to work with it.
For more information about Cratus 2050 please contact Vikki Slade.