Lampeter Resilience Hub: A community group that is changing university thinking

By Jane Powell, reblogged from http://www.foodsociety.wales

The area around Lampeter has long been a magnet for creative incomers. Most well known perhaps are the organic farming pioneers of the 1970s, but the rolling hills and valleys abound with many other artisan enterprises and imaginative environmental projects. These co-exist with a native, strongly Welsh-speaking community with whom they share many values to do with community, traditional knowledge and connection to the land. Now these values are starting to permeate the University itself, and it all began with a letter.

Speaking at the launch of the Wales Centre for Resilience and Harmony at the Lampeter campus of the University of Wales Trinity St David (UWTSD) last November, Provost Gwilym Dyfri Jones told the story like this:

“Some three years ago, the University received a letter from the Lampeter Permaculture Group offering a number of suggestions for development here in Lampeter. Those suggestions centred on how concerns for a sustainable future, especially in local food production, together with the great beauty of the landscape, attract people to this area.”

The University responded positively. A series of presentations and meetings followed and as a result a group of people drawn from Lampeter Permaculture Group formed Hwb Ymaddasu Llambed, or Lampeter Resilience Hub, which is working with the university to embed systems thinking in the curriculum. Andrea Sanders, one of the founders of the Hub and a former teacher who was at the time a graduate student at the Centre for Alternative Technology, explains the rationale.

“We had the networks, they had the facilities,” she explains, “and so we saw an opportunity for the university. There’s a huge skills shortage in horticulture, renewable energy, green building and community development generally, especially at undergraduate and further education levels, and we knew we could help. We wrote to everyone we could think of, even Prince Charles.”

The group is at pains to emphasize its origins in collective action, drawing on the contributions of many in the Permaculture Group, which for the past 20 years has been connecting smallholders and gardeners in practical work on each other’s land. The Hub has begun by preparing modular courses to get things moving. “It’s about teaching the staff, as much as the students,” says Andrea, “introducing systems thinking and breaking down silos, moving away from conventional thinking.”

Their first module, Resilient by Design, will be part of the Continuous Professional Development programme which is being offered to staff across the institution. It sets the foundation for other modules, which will include food, horticulture, regenerative farming (in association with agricultural college Gelli Aur, which is a member of the UWTSD partnership), green building with architecture students, sustainable business skills, and aspects of inner and social resilience.

Angie Polkey, founder member of the Permaculture Group and now a Director of Lampeter Resilience Hub, explains how permaculture can be thought of as a way of designing human systems according to natural principles. “It’s about nurturing relationships that work, and minimal intervention for maximum effect,” she says, “and it’s about cyclical, rather than linear, processes. It’s also about allowing new perspectives to emerge, which is what an ecological system naturally does. When you understand that and work with it, life gets a lot easier.”

Angie, who is also an external tutor at Aberystwyth University, understands the challenges that a partnership across the academic and the community sector brings up. “There is potentially a cultural clash here, because we do have very different ways of working. But ultimately it’s about personal connection. I don’t know a single person at the university who doesn’t resonate with what we’re talking about, and wants to see the same changes, but they are sometimes held back by structures and procedures, while we have freedom to experiment.”

It has been important to attend to the imbalance of power between the university and a small, new community group. With help from Renew Wales, the Hub incorporated as a community interest company last year, and the University is drawing up a Memorandum of Understanding with the Hub that will cover things such as intellectual property. “We weave and flow around university processes, but It’s important to maintain our autonomy too. We are an outsider body with an outsider viewpoint, and we don’t want to lose that,” says Angie.

It’s just as important to them that things are seen to change visibly on the ground. As Hub member and former smallholder Louise Nadim explains: “We walked the whole campus and drew up an interactive map showing the potential for food growing, enhancing biodiversity etc. Estates Management have been incredibly supportive and this winter we will see new fruit tree plantings as well as more places where students can grow their own food”.

This is an ideal complement to another Lampeter initiative, Incredible Edible Llambed, which Hub member Julia Lim is also part of: “We know how difficult it is for people to afford healthy food – growing more on the campus and teaching these skills is part of building future resilience in our local area,” she says.

Lampeter Resilience Hub also came up with the concept of the new Wales Centre for Resilience and Harmony, whose values and environmentally sensitive ways of working will in turn underpin an ambitious new project, Canolfan Tir Glas. Headed by restaurateur and broadcaster Simon Wright, this new Centre will draw together the Town Council, Ceredigion County Council, the local business community and others to reinvigorate Lampeter, which has suffered from falling student numbers in recent years. Food and farming – natural strengths of the area – will be the basis of the new centre’s work, which will include a new Academy of Contemporary Food Wales and a food village.

Lampeter Resilience Hub therefore now finds itself part of a web of formal and informal partnerships which is a focus for new vision. By helping to shape the work that is at the core of the university’s purpose – its teaching activity, the knowledge and skills it transmits to civil society, and especially young people – it is in a position to shape the future in subtle but significant ways.

‘It’s not all down to us,” says Andrea, pointing out that former Environment Minister Jane Davidson did much to set the scene by embedding education for sustainability across the undergraduate curriculum during her time in Lampeter, while the Provost has led a visionary approach to UWTSD plans, “but I think we got people thinking in a different way. We helped a university to change direction.”

Julia Lim of Lampeter Resilience Hub will be talking about their work in a session on systems thinking at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference on 23-25 November in Lampeter. Book your tickets now!

Image: Jane Powell

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