Going for gold
London's Olympic bid victory was an enormous achievement for Great Britain. Tom Idle caught up with Sue Riddlestone, the sustainability champion whose work has been influential in the success
“I thought we were going to win, but still couldn’t believe it,” an excited Sue Riddlestone tells me. Like many fellow Britons, Sue was huddled around the TV at lunchtime on 6 July, awaiting the decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
And, as Director of BioRegional, the company whose philosophy towards sustainability has been so instrumental in London winning the chance to host the 2012 Olympic Games, Sue certainly had reason to celebrate when London was announced as the host city. “There was a lot of jumping up and down and shouting,” she says.
According to studies carried out by BioRegional and WWF, our unsustainable lifestyles mean that, if everybody in the world behaved as we do in the UK, we’d need three planets to sustain us. The organisation’s One Planet Living concept is a highly respected model of sustainability, highlighting ten key principles to ensure that we stop eating into the Earth’s capital and start living off its interest. And it’s a concept that the London 2012 Olympics bid team liked so much, they recruited Sue’s company to achieve their sustainability ambitions and the One Planet Olympics document formed a key part of the bid.
I travelled to Beddington in south London to talk to Sue at BioRegional’s headquarters. And it’s not just any old headquarters. The office is part of BedZed (Beddington
Zero Energy Development) – the UK’s largest eco village, comprising 92 homes and workspace for around 100 people.
You could argue that it’s the perfect home for a company with such a unique, holistic approach to creating sustainable communities – a key part of the 2012 Games’ legacy, particularly in the proposed east London Olympic Village.
You must be very proud. Just how much influence did your One Planet Olympics strategy have on the outcome?
I think it was an important part. Environment is one of many categories that the IOC looks at, and all we know is that an independent expert from Canada said the London bid had the best sustainability credentials.
The BedZed project is a great place to have an office. What was your involvement with this development?
Well, BioRegional is the environmental organisation behind BedZed. We initiated it.
We used to rent some offices in a council ecology centre. We were growing, had run out of space and we needed a new office. So, we thought ‘let’s have a green office’. We asked the council about this piece of land, and then we teamed up with Bill Dunster Architects, who are well known for their green credentials.
Why has this development been such a success?
Obviously this is an eco-development but, when the residents are surveyed, the thing they say they like most is the sense of community.
I live here. My garden is on the roof of the office.
In delivering a sustainable community, you are delivering a quality of life. That’s really important. That’s what people want. People do things for their own self-interest. They might all care about the environment but they just want a nice life really, don’t they?
Getting back to the Olympics, how long have you been in partnership with the London 2012 team?
I’ve been involved for the last two years. I’m a member of the Mayor’s London Sustainable Development Commission, and the mayor asked the Commission to work on the sustainability of the Olympics.
And because we have this joint initiative with WWF [World Wildlife Fund], One Planet Living, I just kept thinking, ‘One Planet Olympics’ sounded really good.
Have there been any stumbling blocks along the way?
The only thing is, we wanted to go for a zero carbon Games. Some people within the 2012 team felt that was too much of a rod to be beaten with later, so they went for low carbon. One Planet Living is very much about examples where we don’t need any fossil fuels at all in the home.
We have ten principles, and the idea is that you evaluate these and find out what would be needed to achieve, for example, zero carbon, both for the Games phase and the legacy phase.
It’s almost easier to do things just for the Games but the legacy is the really important lasting example and that’s the thing that has a lot more stakeholders, funnily enough.
So, what happens now? How do you ensure that your sustainability strategy is adhered to between now and 2012?
We have had a number of meetings with LOCOG [London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games], including with the chief executive, Keith Mills and the CEO, Mike Power. They have said that this document was presented to the IOC and therefore it forms part of the bid. It is therefore part of the chief executive’s job to make sure this is delivered.
At BioRegional, we’d like to run some workshops for people who are bidding for the Games, so we don’t want to partner up with anyone in particular but we want to be able to offer workshops and training so companies can come and learn.
What is the One Planet Living concept based on?
We’ve taken it from the WWF and the Ecological Footprinting experts who produced a Living Planet report. We say that if everybody in the world lived as we do in the UK, we’d need three planets to support us.
When people think about the built environment, they might just think about insulating their houses, but what we are looking at is the idea that it’s your whole lifestyle.
People come and live at BedZed but they could eat loads of imported food, go on three foreign holidays a year, drive a BMW that does 10 miles to the gallon. They wouldn’t be living a One Planet lifestyle, even though their home is insulated and they have a renewable energy supply.
So how do you encourage a One Planet lifestyle among the residents?
Well, we’ve reduced the energy use in the home, we’ve got low-energy appliances and a renewable-energy supplier.
We’ve also got a green transport plan; we’re near to the train station and bus stop, we’ve got a car-sharing club, which was the first car club in London and now it’s really taken off. About a third of the people who live here belong to it, and the idea is that either you don’t need a car or you don’t need a second car.
Do you ever feel like what you’ve achieved is just a drop in the ocean?
One of the important things is that people love a working, practical example. They realise that you don’t have to be a hippy, wearing a woolly jumper.
But obviously, with developments like BedZed, we’d like to roll this out. That’s the reason why we’ve set up a property-development company.
Don’t you think it’s quite sad that it takes an event like the Olympics to put sustainability on the agenda?
I think people are taking sustainability seriously.
In London, the mayor has really pushed the envelope. What I think is a bit sad is that by winning the bid we get more money to spend than if we didn’t win it. But then that’s
life I suppose.
I think in London, we are leading the way. In the UK, the housing regulations are getting much, much better. I think the UK is very switched on to sustainability.
How will you gauge your success?
There’s going to be two measures of success – how we do on the Games and how we do on the legacy. They are a bit different and they have different challenges.
If the Games has been a success, that part of London will be a vibrant community and not some sort of ghost town.
The Sydney Games was very strong on the environment but when I went there, I could see this big stadium with nobody about.
Have you got any advice for our readers?
There’s a lot to be said for going out there and doing things, working on brave, big projects.
You do get knock-backs, and things do go wrong. Even George Bush has admitted that climate change might be a problem. We face some enormous problems so we might as well do something about it.
Where will you be in 2012?
At the Games, of course.