A field trip to northern Europe is “offset” by the ripple effect of knowledge gained.
THIS PAST JULY, the Larsen C iceshelf calved, leaving a free-floating iceberg in Antarctica twice the volume of Lake Erie. Meanwhile, President Trump signed an order to take the US out of the Paris Climate Accord. Closer to home, BC faced a provincial state of emergency triggered by over 200 wildfires that saw the evacuation of Cache Creek and devastated Chilcotin Nation lands. Heading to press, BC’s wildfire total this season has exceeded 1000, and the heat of another dry summer has broken records. An article making the rounds on social media cautioned that we are in for cataclysmic global warming much sooner than we had thought; it won’t be pretty.
One could be forgiven for feeling a little hopeless.
Seeking reasons to be optimistic, however, I was fortunate in not having to look too far. This summer I acted as teaching assistant to 20 University of Victoria geography students who spent a month in Northern Europe learning about sustainable transportation, green building, pollinator protection, and inner city greenways. Because of their enthusiasm and dedication, despite this summer’s headlines, hope for the future still seems possible. With students bringing their knowledge back to the Capital Region, their international experience is contributing to local environmental needs. One student, Riley Thackray, is looking for suggestions on where to put her passion to work.
The UVic Sustainability Field School takes place every spring, alternating between Northern Europe and the Cascadia coast (from Victoria south to San Francisco). This year’s participants landed in Paris and finished in Copenhagen. Along the way, geography professor Cameron Owens arranged meetings with planners, designers, food forest proponents and nature school teachers, allowing UVic students a first-hand look at how Northern Europe is building its cycling infrastructure, providing greenspaces for native species in Paris’ Clichy Batignolles, turning Rotterdam rooftops into gardens, and lowering Amsterdam’s carbon footprint through “Sustainist” neighbourhood design. Students gain credit for two courses during the five-week program, and then return to gain their third course by completing a legacy project in their local community.
Thackray, a 21-year-old geography student, received a $5000 grant from Nature’s Path’s Organic and Sustainable Food Systems Award for her project. She will build a rainwater harvesting system with a community partner in the CRD and document the process. “In places like Victoria, where we have wet winters and dry summers, rainwater harvesting systems can be designed to store water for the drier months and alleviate water costs,” says Thackray, who has studied these systems in her coursework. She hopes to collaborate with a local grower, farmer or community organization to support urban farming and pollinator habitat. “There are lots of negative connotations around sustainable practices that close individuals off to possibilities. I think we need more education…and community engagement.”
International travel, even for the sake of learning, can be hard to justify on a warming planet. Virtual research can take the place of in-situ learning; meetings or tours can unfold via video. How can a field school in environmental sustainability rationalize the considerable carbon output of 20 students and two teachers heading overseas?
Owens has led field schools for decades, and through UVic since 2009, when he joined the Geography faculty. “When I read recently about the Great Barrier Reef dying, I thought, ‘I never want to do another overseas field school again,’” he says. But he stresses that the consequences of the trip can’t be quantified only using carbon counts. Thanks to the hands-on approach he takes, including stressing “creative offsets” like legacy projects rather than simply buying carbon offsets, the reach of student learning often extends well beyond the field classroom, into the lives of those visited and those at home. Student-produced videos, interviews, improved critical thinking and empathy are just some of the outcomes of field learning. The reach and ripple effect from first-hand experience, says Owens, impacts a growing cohort of students who return determined to make a positive difference in the world. Thackray concurs. “I learned way more in the field than I would have ever learned in a classroom. I see a future for myself in this field.”
Hosts overseas also benefit from the students’ visits. Field school students visited Pôle Innovant Lycéen, an alternative school in Paris, which uses recycling projects to help youth aged 16-24 integrate back into the school system. The school will now use a video created by Thackray’s cohorts as its first English language promotional material. The video could lead to additional grants for the school, which provides help to immigrant and low-income youth throughout the city.
Thackray’s project is modelled for urban agriculture initiatives like TOPSOIL on Vic West’s Dockside Green development lands, or Spring Ridge Commons in Fernwood. But these growers already have systems in place. Thackray is hoping Focus readers might have an idea of where she could put her energy, creating a lasting legacy project that would see a reduction in the “urban heat island effect,” provide pollinators with habitat, and the city’s populace with healthy food.
Thackray also hopes to create a simple infographic brochure on how residents can build their own rainwater harvesting system. The brochure will be distributed at irrigation supply and gardening stores. Her goal is to alleviate costs for the grower in the summer months, while also reducing the draw on the regional water supply—increasingly important in light of longer summer droughts. “I feel a sense of empowerment in myself, the community and my peers that we can create positive change,” she says. “I’m excited for the outcome of the project.” Bertrand Smith, whose image accompanies this article, is creating a photo series for the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition, what he describes as a kind of “Bikers of Victoria” take on “Humans of New York.”
Thackray is just one of dozens of field school students who have completed projects in the Capital Region and beyond. Scott Mellett now works on soil health at TOPSOIL. Sarah Lax came home from her trip and helped contribute to Biketoria, Victoria’s plan for an urban, protected cycling network. This year’s students Rylee Christensen and Natasha Ewashen are working on the creation of a community green map in their hometown of Creston, BC, with a focus on parks and wildlife corridors.
Professor Owens provides significant support and direction to the students throughout the process to help beat the odds. “Seventy-five percent of these types of university-community projects are found unsatisfactory by the community partner…due to problems stemming from lack of effort and time invested, lack of communication, and unclear expectation,” he says. He recognizes that a new semester gets in the way. But with support, university students can gain the skills to facilitate a meaningful partnership. “I call it action with traction—action that is sustained,” says Owens.
“I encounter a lot of doom and gloom in my class-based courses,” says Thackray. “This leads to a sense of hopelessness for the future of the planet.” The field school and its after-effects helped her regain “an immense amount of hope and confidence that sustainable practices are achievable in today’s world.”
Personally, I watched students’ faces light up in disbelief, then joy, as the group arrived at one of Amsterdam’s city centre streets. There were no cars. Instead, a path of grass and wildflowers curved between two trolley tracks, with dual-direction bike and pedestrian lanes on either side. The urban landscape was so quiet you could hear wind rustling the trees. “Imagine this in downtown Victoria,” said Owens.
Despite BC’s record-breaking temperatures this summer, some argue that the planet isn’t too hot, yet. A plethora of young students like Ewashen, Christensen, Smith and Thackray, thanks to inspiration drawn from Copenhagen’s nature school and Rotterdam’s songbird-filled rooftop meadows, are working to create a future we can feel hopeful about.
Readers can offer suggestions to Thackray by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.