Sunday, 28 February 2016

Walls in the Willows - a renewable construction material

This week I was fascinated by a lunchtime talk about a renewable construction material that grows itself: retaining walls made from willow! This has been used in several locations in Norfolk either on its own (for footpaths or river banks which aren't particularly sensitive to settlement) or to provide living scour protection for gabion basket walls (for roads or rail applications).

Willow spiling wall comprises posts and withy infill.
Image from JPR Environmental
What is willow spiling?
A willow spiling wall consists of two elements:

  • Live timber posts measuring at least 100mm in diameter (being a natural material, the size will vary somewhat) which are installed at 0.6 to 1.0m centres like a king post wall. 
  • Willow "withies" are woven between the posts to form the infill panels (as this is a fairly open weave, a layer of Terram is advised on the landward side of the wall to prevent loss of fines). Backfill to the retaining wall should comprise silt, sand or gravel.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Sitting Down for a Fairtrade Breakfast in York

"Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world" (Martin Luther King)
Perhaps this morning you relied on farmers in India for your tea, Colombia for your bananas, cocoa from Cote D'Ivoire, sugar from Malawi or coffee from Ethiopia. So since we rely on so many people just to produce our breakfast, how come the people who grow the food we take for granted can’t always feed their own families? This question lies at the heart of this year's Fairtrade Fortnight, which we kicked off in style in Yorkshire by hosting a Fairtrade Breakfast in front of York Minster. This is probably the only time I'm likely to eat breakfast outdoors in my pyjamas with the Lord Mayor of York in her dressing gown! The passing tourists loved it, unsurprisingly...
Breakfast with Lord Mayor of York, Sonja Crisp, in her dressing gown, complete with mayoral chains (she refused to be drawn on whether she actually goes to bed in these!)

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Perfect Storm? Climate Change, Flooding and Resilience

Following the flooding across Yorkshire over Christmas, this week I'm speaking at a panel debate in York entitled "A Perfect Storm: Climate Change, Cuts and Floods", bringing a civil engineering perspective to a national (and international) problem. Come and join us at 7.30pm on Thursday 18th Feb, Quaker Meeting House, Friargate
So how can I summarise in a ten minute opening speech (alongside contributions from a climate expert, a flooded resident and a firefighter) what are the most important things we need to do to become more resilient to flooding, and are we doing them? Well, as I've written in my earlier posts, to consider a problem holistically I like to start from first principles. So here is the flooding problem as we face it in the UK: 

1) Rain falls out of the sky (and more rain is coming)
We live on an island next to the Atlantic Ocean, which is warming up as a result of climate change. The prevailing wind blows warm wet air over the UK, depositing its moisture as it goes (especially on the west side of the Pennines - sorry Cumbria!). My gut feeling in December was that something was seriously wrong with the weather and our infrastructure was likely to suffer the consequences. The Met Office confirmed this as the average temperature over the month of December was 8.0 degrees, a whopping 4.1 degrees higher than the long term average of 4 degrees and much larger than the previous record (6.9 degrees in 1934). 
Warm winters usually mean wet and windy ones, as storms blow in off the sea and this winter has been unusual, but not unexpected given what we know about climate impacts. Therefore, while we cannot control the weather itself, we do have a choice about limiting our carbon emissions now to prevent making it worse. 

Saturday, 13 February 2016

From Ashes to Hope

This week I went to York Minster to start Lent with the beautiful ancient ceremony which gives Ash Wednesday its name:  receiving a cross of ashes on my forehead. Why ash? Because it is a symbol of mourning and mortality, given to each person with words echoing those I last heard at my father's funeral in late December: "remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return". To many, Lent is a time of giving things up, of disciplining the body and reflecting on our frailty and failures. While this is valuable, it raises the question of what the purpose of discipline actually is. What are we training for? 
In her sermon, the Dean encouraged us to think differently about Lent: rather than trying to punish ourselves because we are not perfect, let us put in the effort to pursue excellence.