Universiteit Leiden

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Municipalities as testing grounds in sustainability

Researching as a student how you can make your own student house free of natural gas. That is now possible because of a new collaboration between Leiden University and the municipality of Leiden and The Hague.

Energy transition, green roofs, and other sustainable developments raise a lot of questions for municipalities. ‘For students it is nice to experiment with these questions, especially when their own student city can be used as a testing ground,’ says Benjamin Sprecher, assistant professor at the Institute of Environmental Sciences in Leiden (CML). Since 2017 he has coordinated the Resilient City Hub, which he set up to bring together students and municipalities. This hub is part of the Centre for Sustainability, a centre for research and education at Leiden University, TU Delft, and Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Since 2016, bachelor's students from various disciplines have already been working on questions from municipalities during several weeks of the minor in Sustainable Development. ‘But that is too short a time to be able to give a good answer.’ Therefore, from this semester on master's students will work on sustainability issues faced by both the municipality of Leiden and The Hague.

Spectacular targets

Sprecher describes the targets that municipalities set during the past few years as spectacular and ambitious. The Hague, for example, wants to be 100 per cent CO2 neutral in 2040. ‘But the policies often do not connect well to those targets, and that is of course interesting. Sustainability is a property of the city, but policies in general are made for different parts of the city. Together they do not always achieve the desired outcome,’ Sprecher explains.

The different parts of the city are linked. A decision that has a positive influence on a specific part, might well have negative consequences for other parts. ‘An example of this is a newly built residential area in Delft that was not connected to the gas network, but where more fireplaces were installed. This gives lower CO2 emissions than natural gas, but does give rise to other forms of air pollution.’

‘For both the municipality and the scientific world it is important to understand how decisions for parts of a city influence the sustainability of a city as a whole,’ Sprecher emphasises.

Students from all disciplines

The first class of Resilient City Hub graduates consists of fifteen master's students of Industrial Ecology, who started the programme this semester. During the next five months they will study for their thesis sustainability questions put forward by the municipality of Leiden and The Hague. The next group of students will start in September.

Sprecher also invites master's students from other disciplines to participate and contact him by e-mail, because sustainability requires a multidisciplinary approach. Law students for example can help find solutions to problems with laws and regulations, and psychology students can study how you can convince people to make certain decisions. ‘Insulating your house is very sustainable and is cost-effective within a few years. But even when people have that information, they are not likely to do it.’

Sprecher wants to combine in booklets all the collected knowledge  that encourages implementation and further research. Through this he hopes to provide the municipalities with the newest scientific insights, relating to their own questions. ‘We started off well. At the moment only the municipalities of Leiden and The Hague are involved, but other municipalities have also shown interest.’

The Resilient City Hub addresses the Knowledge City programme of the municipality of Leiden, with which Leiden aims to promote the development and growth of the knowledge institutes. To achieve this aim, the municipality also recently appointed knowledge broker Lara Ummels. She is committed to improving the connections between the municipality, the Leiden University of Applied Sciences, and Leiden University.