Leeds Living Lab case study: Roger Stevens Cooling Pond
After many months of research and planning, in the Autumn of 2018, the Roger Stevens Pond was underwent transformational developments to turn it into a promoter for biodiversity and scientific research and teaching at the University. The development is part of a collaborative project between the Sustainability Service’s Living Lab, Estates Services and academics from the Schools of Biological Sciences, Geography and Civil Engineering. The development implemented floating ‘islands’ of plants and sensors producing live data on water quality. One of the project leads is Dr Christopher Hassall, a lecturer in Animal Biology whose research focuses on the biological impacts of climate change and urbanisation, including geographical and temporal patterns of species occurrence, especially insects. He is a specialist in freshwater ecology and conservation, and focuses on the types of ecosystem services urban ponds provide as well as their contributions to biodiversity in urban areas. He provided much of the impetus behind the Roger Stevens Pond development.
What were your motivations behind the project?
My research interests are based around urban ecology and I’ve been at Leeds for six years now, and I’ve always had in the back of my mind that I would like to set up some kind of local study system. Having walked past the Roger Stevens pond for many years and seen the state that it sometimes gets into, I’ve always wondered what would be possible to do with that space. I think the main interest for me was trying to provide an evidence base for the landscape management. I wanted to make sure that what we were doing on campus was properly informed by the sort of research that the University has access to. It was a happy coincidence that Thom and the Living Lab project were there at the same time as the opportunity to do something that was tied into my research.
What are the main sustainability issues that were being addressed?
The problem that we were faced with was that the pond is a piece of hard grey infrastructure that regularly formed algae blooms that required quite a lot of energy to clean and keep safe and aesthetically appealing. The solution that we’ve come up with, assuming that it works, is a nature-based solution to that problem that will hopefully reduce management costs while also enhancing biodiversity on campus in what is the only freshwater habitat on the main campus. I’m hoping that there’s going to be some interesting data and teaching and research opportunities that come with that habitat as well.
What is the potential for student research and learning?
It would be more research based at the moment. We didn’t really know what was happening with the project until everything came to pass last October so there hasn’t been time to incorporate it properly into modules. I do talk about it a little in some modules in the context of freshwater ecology conservation and diversity of spaces that can be helpful to biodiversity. The idea for using the floating islands came from a research conference that I was at so it is very much based in research with potential application to teaching and the student experience at the moment. At the moment we have a PhD student who is a freshwater ecologist employed through a Living Labs grant to collect data. While that might not form part of his PhD, those data might form the basis of computer practicals in population ecology or maybe undergraduate projects themselves. So there’s lots of potential but we haven’t explored it properly yet.
Who are the different stakeholders that you work with and how did you find negotiating the different working relationships?
My main concern there was financial accountability and good use of funds for the University because I know that the University has a sizeable budget for maintenance of grounds and upkeep. The main stakeholder for me was the Estate Services team that was going to be implementing whatever was decided upon. When we first started talking about it, they had an idea of steel cages to put in the Roger Stevens pond that would contain plants. That sounded like a perfectly good idea but once costed up, it was going to cost around £150,000 – an astronomical amount. I had some ideas on the back burner and I don’t think I made any particular effort to sell it to other stakeholders – it may just have been the lower cost that sold it to them really!
I don’t remember having ever actually met anybody in Estates Services. We’ve got quite a close academic group – all from different faculties – between myself, Christian Berretta (School of Civil Engineering, Faculty of Engineering) and Paul Kay (School of Geography, Faculty of Earth and Environment). There were a few others involved as well but it was mostly us working with Thom Cooper in Sustainability. As a project, Estates have largely been the doing bit rather than necessarily the ideas bit. So I found it much easier to work with the academics, I don’t know how the Estates Services feel about what we’ve done yet, I’d be very interested to hear their thoughts, given the fact that now we’re up and running and hopefully spring will take over and we’ll reap the benefits of what we’ve done. I think partially because we hit upon quite early on an interesting and innovative research-based approach to the problem that didn’t really meet with any substantial barriers.
What is the overall timeline through to today?
We probably started talking about this a year before anything went in. There had been discussions for some time over whether we could do anything because it’s part of the Grade II* listed building. For a long time I’ve been asking people but I’d always heard that the pond is off limits. When it turned out we that could do something – if not adjusting the structure then floating or doing something in the water itself – things moved very quickly. From Estates deciding they were going to do something, setting aside a budget, getting quotes for a couple of different options and then getting it rolled out last Autumn, I think that period has only been around 18 months to this point. It has moved quite quickly in the grand scheme of things, which is satisfying, almost alarming! To have sent over a research poster that I’d seen at a conference with something similar to what we have now and some evaluation of nutrient retention in the plants, to suddenly see it in the flesh is surprising and satisfying.
What were some of the main challenges you faced as a collective of academics? Did the Sustainability Services play a role in overcoming some of those challenges?
Yes, very much so. Thom was absolutely the lynchpin of it all. The issue with trying to get academics to do anything is that we don’t have enough time and so when we have ideas and we suggest things we don’t have the time to go away and write position papers or strategy documents or business cases. We need to be able to provide the impetus and initiative for those sorts of things to happen but then to have people on hand like Thom who can support the idea and carry it through the process; that’s what’s been so useful working with him. In this case, there were relatively few barriers that I perceived. I think one of the issues that we did face was liaising between the academic and non-academic partners. Thom bridges the gap because he’s got the biological understanding and he’s got the industry experience as well. Overall, I don’t think there’s many ways that my experience could have been improved. I was a little bit frustrated that I personally didn’t have enough time to invest more in the project but that’s just a symptom of academic life.
How might this project feed into wider research? What are the impacts beyond the University and beyond academia?
This is a really interesting opportunity to showcase some novel nature-based solutions for these kinds of problems. The sort of problems we faced with the Roger Stevens Pond are by no means restricted to the University campus or to Leeds or to the UK. Nutrification and a combination of anthropogenic threats are causing problems in freshwaters and nature based solutions are a really up-and-coming approach to resolving those problems. However, there is a lot of risk aversion when it comes to doing things differently and so we’re hoping that by demonstrating that this sort of technique can solve the environmental problem in a cost effective and efficient manner that we might be able to demonstrate the technique works and encourage other larger stakeholders. Maybe we might think Leeds City Council first but ultimately thinking more broadly. It might encourage others to investigate this technique and this technology. We want to find out what works, we want to disseminate and we want to translate fundamental science, fundamental ecology – in this case freshwater ecology – into something that can be used in wider society. This is that linking step. There has been research to show that it works, this is the demonstration for the stakeholders and then it’s up to the stakeholders to decide whether that evidence base is strong enough. If not, come back to us and talk to us if they want to do more exploratory work.
What was your favourite part of doing a project like this?
I think it was the innovation side. There were a lot of different solutions to the problem that we could have had that might have used a particular species of plant or particular water treatments. I like the fact that because of the breadth of the academics involved, we had access to a lot of fairly out there, novel techniques that stakeholders, and Estates Services in particular, might not be familiar with. Being able to pluck one of those from the fundamental literature and then have it be incorporated into estate planning is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done; the idea was generated and it came to fruition so quickly. Effective translation of research into practice, even on a small scale, is probably my favourite bit.
What are some of the benefits for you beyond the project?
It’s strengthened a network that was there in principal. For example, we have a conference paper out of the Roger Stevens work more generally anyway. I’d like to think it would form part of grant applications going forward around freshwaters, which is an area I’m actively working in. I don’t know to what extent that will happen but it’s nice to have a string to my bow where I can point to interdisciplinary research and translation into practice. Who knows, it’s still early days but there is potentially a lot of things that can come from it.
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