> The initiative
Weekly enquiries from students indicated that there were many barriers to them living more sustainably. There were two reasons frequently cited. Firstly, that their flatmates were not as committed as they were. For example, they were always the person sorting the recycling or switching off the heating. Secondly, that landlords were not supportive. For example, they would not assist with or even allow composting facilities.
The University of Otago has around 700 bed spaces in flats that are usually used as international student accommodation. Due to COVID19 restricting international travel there was a prospect that many would be left empty in 2021. The sustainability office saw the opportunity in these two challenges and negotiated with UniFlats for a group of three flats totalling 20 bed spaces within 5 minutes walk of campus, to be set aside to establish a pilot of a sustainability neighbourhood.
The flats selected were extensively renovated in (circa) 2015 when they were converted from childcare facilities. This included high R rating insulation and double glazing. The original childcare centre had a large secure play area. This was a perfect location to create a shared neighbourhood space accessible from all three flats. This is where we established extensive raised veggie beds, a bike shed, a BBQ and community area, beehives, worm farms and compost bins. The Sustainability Office and the UniFlats accommodation office established shared responsibilities. Pastoral care, building maintenance, contract and finance all sit with the well-established systems in the UniFlats office. The Sustainability Office is responsible for finding the right residents for the neighbourhood, any living lab research activity (including ethics applications), supplying the resources needed for sustainable living such as veggie beds, compost bins, worm farms, power monitoring, bee hives and a range of training opportunities. This clear division of responsibilities has been critical to ensuring the student experience is that of well-coordinated support.
In September 2020 we promoted our intent to pilot the neighbourhood. Due to COVID19 restrictions we could not take students to see their potential flats and we could not send in trades staff to start the work as the flats were already occupied. This meant the students had to take a leap of faith and commit without even seeing their rooms! With their contracts, they also signed an ethics form that made it clear what elements of the Living Lab they could opt in and opt out of. Through the guidance of the ethics committee we limited the required participation as much as possible (power monitoring, waste audits, and regular images of the facilities in the gardens). The ability for a student to “just live there” without being required to have lots of involvement in the research has proved to be important as the level of involvement across the group has varied considerably. Sustainable living opportunities should not be dependent on participation in research. All applicants for the Neighbourhood had to submit a 3 minute video describing why they wanted to join the neighbourhood and what they would bring. This step was important as it also gave us a clear picture of their expectations.
We now meet for a focus group every month. This normally involves some open discussion, ideas for change, and an expert sharing some training. That training has included: sustainable living workshops, worm farming, composting, nutrition on a sustainable diet, bee keeping and predator trapping. Research so far has included a Zoology Department project on a before and after measure of “backyard biodiversity”, a student research project on a movable compost system trialled across 8 flats, and energy analytics data gathering to look as student power use.