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Sustainable City Lab will ‘set to work on sustainability in our own backyard’

The Sustainable City Lab The Hague will be a hub that connects organisations in The Hague that work on sustainability with the research and teaching at Leiden University. ‘We’re going to set to work on complex sustainability challenges in our own backyard,’ says project leader Eefje Cuppen.

The lab is the joint initiative of Campus The Hague and Liveable Planet, Leiden University’s interfaculty programme to encourage interdisciplinary research and teaching in the field of sustainability. Cuppen has been developing the programme for several years, together with Thijs Bosker (LUC), Jan Willem Erisman (Institute of Environmental Sciences), Marja Spierenburg (Faculty of Social and Behavioural Studies) and Wil Roebroeks (Archaeology).

Cuppen: ‘Liveable communities are central to the approach. How can you translate global goals to the local level? Because that’s where things ultimately have to happen. All sustainability challenges come together in local places, in a setting where there are limitations on space and capacity. And how do you then pass that knowledge back and scale it up to other levels?’

Grant from the municipality

Sustainable City Lab The Hague (SCL) recently received a 70,000 euro grant from the municipality of The Hague and will use this to work on an inclusive energy transition. ‘That is really important for a city like The Hague. At the moment a lot is happening with the heat transition and fighting energy poverty. Much is changing, not only in the technical infrastructures (from gas to electric or heat networks for example), but also in the social dynamics, the policies and the ways citizens are involved. The question is how you can set to work with sustainability in the neighbourhood in a way that is fair, so that everyone can participate.’

Eefje Cuppen

They are currently looking for a programme manager who can work full-time at the lab. ‘Then we will start the inclusive energy transition projects. There are already a number of initiatives running in The Hague that we want to link up with, such as LDE Centre for Sustainability Cities Hub, Knowledge in Production (in Dutch), Binckhorst (in Dutch) and Thesis Workshop The Hague Southwest. The idea is to start working with the municipality, residents and other parties in the city such as housing corporations, local sustainability organisations, energy suppliers and grid operators. With all the stakeholders who are working on energy transition in a neighbourhood, we’ll look at how we can contribute with our knowledge and students.’

Not only research, but also teaching plays an important role at SCL. ‘At the Hague campus there are various degree programmes that want to contribute to this. I myself am involved in the Master’s in Governance of Sustainability. Our students are very interested in this type of topic. Second-year students have the Sustainability Challenge course, where they do a group assignment for an external party. The lab is a good vehicle for these groups to start working on real sustainability issues. Urban Studies is also already running a project where students are working with this theme.’ Cuppen hopes that students from different degree programmes will also work together.


To ensure the energy transition is inclusive, everyone must have equal access to resources, Cuppen explains. ‘For example, there are differences in the extent to which certain groups have access to grants, networks and government. There is a lot of room for participation in the energy transition, so people can give their opinions on policy or plans in their neighbourhood. You see that a certain type of person comes to these events. It’s often older, well-educated, white men. How do you ensure that other, underrepresented groups are given a say?’

Inclusion also involves sharing the costs and benefits fairly. ‘How do you share the losses and gains? If you have your own house, you can put solar panels on it. If lots of people do that, the grid operator has to make adjustments, which will make the grid costs higher. Costs like that are passed on to all users.’ Cuppen gives her own neighbourhood as an example. ‘We are homeowners and have disconnected our house from the gas, but my neighbours live in housing association homes. They also have to pay for the increased grid costs that our heat pump has caused.’ Such an unfair distribution of the costs can lead to resistance from residents, warns Cuppen.


The SCL will begin by focusing on projects relating to the energy transition, but Cuppen hopes it will eventually become a large structural programme. ‘We want to bring together different perspectives, faculties and disciplines, and work together on a wide range of sustainability issues. We are also exploring how we can collaborate in the area of health, for example with parties such as the LUMC. Sustainability and health are related to each other, especially when you think about energy poverty.’ Cuppen therefore makes an appeal to colleagues. ‘If this sounds interesting, let us know. The aim is to work in a truly interdisciplinary way. Everyone is welcome to contribute.’  

Cuppen also invites other parties to join in. ‘Step one in the project is collaboration with partners from outside the University. We are going to grow that network: Universities of applied sciences, municipalities, energy corporations and foundations that are active locally, for example. Huge steps need to be taken in a short period of time. No one can achieve this enormous task alone.’

Text: Tom Janssen
Main photo: Unsplash

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