A student's experience of the EUniverCities meeting on sustainable urban development in Innsbruck

By Emma de Saram, University of Exeter Guild Vice-President for Liberation and Equality

In November 2023, I travelled to Innsbruck in Austria for the EUnivercities network conference on sustainable urban development. EUniverCities is a European network in which medium sized cities and universities work in tandem to share knowledge, exchange expertise and experience in cooperation across urban Europe. Based around the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the network works on a local and global level in recognition that cities and universities can have a significant role in leading the way towards achieving these goals. Since cities consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of global carbon dioxide emissions, cities are crucial in the movement for climate action. As the UN Secretary-General António Guterres states, cities are “where the climate battle will largely be won or lost”. 

As a climate activist I’ve had many experiences working on campaigns at the University of Exeter, nationally and internationally, so this conference was a fantastic opportunity to learn more about how other universities are taking sustainable action in response to the climate crisis. Throughout my undergraduate degree, I was part of Be the Change Society, worked with the Stop Cambo coalition, and attended COP26 in Glasgow. Among other projects and campaigns, it has been my study of History that has motivated me to continue being dedicated to climate activism, as I have hope that collaborative action can change the course of history. 

I travelled to Innsbruck on the train, stopping off in Paris on the way to break up a twenty-hour journey! Taking the train was an obvious choice for me, though in the fast paced work life we have where time is a precious commodity, I was fortunate to be able to take time out of my work for the journey. In Paris I spent most of the time soaking up the sunny weather before my next series of trains. Across Paris there was advertising for a new exhibition on climate action too which was advertised everywhere, and it was amazing to see how climate activism is being celebrated and encouraged in the city. 

A few trains later, through Strasbourg, Munich and Stuttgart, I arrived in Innsbruck ready for the conference ahead. We had the first morning free to explore the city. I walked around and enjoyed the very fresh air, picturesque buildings and the backdrop of the Alps. Perhaps more than ever, I saw Innsbruck through the sustainability lens, and the way the city was designed for people with the trams and open public spaces for example making it feel very welcoming. 

Innsbruck's famous colourful buildings

In the afternoon, we had the opening talks from members of the network including the network coordinator from Exeter, Katherine Shingler, the Innsbruck Mayor, City Council and university members. The keynote speaker, Verena Ringler, described cities as "Magic Gardens of People and Ideas". She invited us to take a fresh look at our local voices and networks and look at how universities and cities can participate in co‐creation and cross‐fertilisation to bring ideas to power. In the following panel discussion, which was focused on the challenges of city-university sustainable urban development, the key takeaway message was that transformations can only be achieved through conflict and collaboration; we cannot ignore conflict until it’s too late. Universities should be the front runners of necessary societal and cultural changes and are increasingly important in an age of disinformation. 

On the following day, we had a series of talks and presentations by different universities, academics and city officials on their sustainable urban development projects. We heard from the Vice President of Infrastructure and Sustainability and Professor for Energy Efficient Buildings and Renewable Energies at the Universität Innsbruck about a project called SINFONIA ‐ "Smart INitiative of cities Fully cOmmitted to iNvest in Advanced large‐scaled energy solutions". This project involves calculating the energy efficiency of every home in Innsbruck and working on retrofitting buildings and homes in cooperation with building companies. Another project we heard about was about sustainable real estate planning and buildings, and the decarbonisation of heating systems through the use of mountain heat. Energy efficiency is such a hugely beneficial climate and cost of living crisis solution, given that the Committee on Climate Change estimate that 40% of UK emissions come from our homes. Despite this, the UK government recently cut the Green Homes grant, which only accentuates climate injustices as only those households who can afford it have the right to a well-insulated home. In Innsbruck, the localised approach and empowerment of the City Council to take this action is clearly a more effective way of climate proofing homes and buildings.

Following the talks, we were split up into smaller groups to visit another area of the University. I went on the climate fit urban spaces walk with the Head of Green Spaces Department at the City of Innsbruck. We visited a newly built climate friendly park which was specifically designed to stay cool in the heat (up to 10°C cooler than the surrounding area!), to prevent flooding and as a welcoming space for the community. 

Emma in ‘Messepark’, a climate fit park in Innsbruck.

We were also joined on the walk by a student who is doing her Geography dissertation focused on how people in the city have responded to the park, emotionally and socially. The space is being monitored to see how people are using it, and its effectiveness so that similar public spaces can be designed and other cities can learn from Innsbruck’s example. As we saw during the pandemic, people’s use of public green spaces increased yet access to them was unequal. Now more than ever there is an opportunity to improve and develop resilient green spaces in our cities for the benefit of people and the planet. 

Throughout the conference I had many interesting conversations with other student delegates. I learned about the prominent role that students at Innsbruck University have in their "Green Office", which is similar to the Exeter Students Guild as the bridge between the university leadership and students. I also spoke to a student from Ghent University and learned about a project they have whereby students have the opportunity to use their dissertations to inform policy decisions by being partnered with different organisations and academics. This encourages socially valuable dissertations and allows an efficient process to transform research into practice, and motivates students with the knowledge that their work can translated into real world solutions. 

My favourite workshop of the conference was presented by a group of students and academics from the Free University of Bolzano focused on reclaiming abandoned or underused spaces as a sustainability solution. We had a fascinating talk on how the group reclaimed an abandoned space for the benefit of the community. The goal of their project was initially to raise awareness of unused areas inside the city and question the approach to public space, provide a framework for reclaiming unused areas and create a culture of active participation and civic engagement in democratically deciding how these unused spaces could be used. In Bolzano, there was a large abandoned area that a group of activists have started using temporarily as a space to hold community events, through working with city councillors and the community to unlock its potential. The space can be described as an "urban common", which is a resource in the city which is managed by the user in a non-profit oriented and prosocial way. 

Pro Action Café

Following the talk we participated in action cafés to discuss our thoughts and experiences with city spaces with members of the Bolzano group which have a rich tapestry of different perspectives and lived experiences. We discussed the perspective of students needing more space, and community groups, versus the considerations of the city council around responsibility and bureaucracy. In my action café group, I discussed my difficulty in navigating bureaucracy in trying to find a permanent space for the Repair Café I run at home, and came away with some insightful considerations on how to go about this. This session demonstrated the benefits of sharing solutions, collaboration and conversation between our university and city stakeholders. By learning from and with each other, I had a much better understanding of how we can structure and develop city‐university collaboration when it comes to developing our public spaces. 

On the journey home, I had time for reflection on the conference experience and Innsbruck, and how to apply these learnings to the University of Exeter and my activism. It was inspiring to hear from other students doing similar work to me across Europe, which is motivating in itself. There are definitely so many ways to collaborate and do sustainable urban development, energy efficient housing and transport, all of which help towards our solutions to the climate crisis. In a world heading for 2.7C of global heating, the Global North has a significant responsibility to take immediate action on climate change. As Professor Saleemul Huq said recently on an episode of Rethink Climate, the Global North is yet to really experience the impacts of the current trajectory of global heating. Collaborating with universities across not only Europe, but the world, in connection with communities and councils is vital in confronting the climate crisis and solutions that work for everyone. We can’t leave the transformation to future unproven technologies, but harness the power of social connection and solutions that are already proven (like public transport, retrofitting and sustainable food) to drastically reduce emissions. 

Since returning to Exeter, I’ve been able to organise a climate action day, and work towards Go Green Week in March, as well as consider the potential implications of Exeter’s recent partnership with Shell. However, sustainable development and climate action cannot be treated in isolation from other issues in Universities. The cost of living crisis, academic pressures and housing costs are all interdependent and require us to fundamentally rethink the unsustainable systems of our cities and universities so that they can benefit both people and the planet. One way I have approached that is the launch of the £2 meal deal at Exeter, which is both a climate solution (as the food is plant based), and a cost of living solution. My few days in Innsbruck have given me even more inspiration and hope for Universities as powerful institutions for collaborative change. 

About the author

Emma de Saram is a BA History graduate from the University of Exeter, climate justice activist and trade union committee member. She has worked across several organisations fighting for climate justice and regularly speaks in different forums on her work, and has participated in conversations at prestigious events including at Chatham House, COP26 and the Global Progress Summit. In her home town, she started up a repair café alongside her mum. She currently works as the elected Vice President for Liberation and Equality at Exeter Students' Guild. This post has been republished by kind permission from Emma's blog

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