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Future towns and cities with Professor Tim Dixon

Professor Tim Dixon explains how cities will need to adapt in the future to become more sustainable and achieve net zero carbon.
We’re here out in the main quad on campus to talk to Professor Tim Dixon, to discuss how we can adapt our cities to future climate change and pollution. Tim is a Professor of Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment here at the University of Reading. He also works with the Wokingham Borough Council on Climate Change. And he’s co-chair of the Reading Climate Change Partnership. So Tim, what inspired you to get into climate change, and can you tell us a little bit about your research in this area? Yeah, sure, Emily. I started off as a geographer many years ago. And I was kind of always interested in buildings and cities.
So it was a natural move, really, to move into the built environment. And so when we talk about the built environment, it’s really to do with all the buildings we see around us, all the made buildings, the infrastructure that we see, the green spaces in between. That’s all part of what we call the built environment. And kind of it was a natural progression, really, from that to be interested in sustainability and climate change. And so a lot of the work that I’ve been doing recently looks at buildings, neighbourhoods and cities and how we can make all of those different kinds of scale of the built environment more sustainable and to mitigate and adapt for climate change.
If we go back to the sort of original definition of sustainable development, and it’s all about not prejudicing future generations for the needs of the present generation. And so that, in a nutshell, plays out to the idea that we need to be economically sustainable, that we have a pathway to growth, but that we’re able to pay for that through green jobs and developing the economy and in different ways, maybe through retrofitting buildings, which create different skills and different expertise, and that plays out to growth in the economy. But that we make that a kind of socially inclusive sustainability result at the end of the day. So we engage with everybody.
And it’s not just certain groups in society that benefit from that. And then, finally, that we make sure that the environmental dimension of sustainability is also catered for within a city. So a sustainable city isn’t a contradiction in terms. We can definitely create it. But it means we have to think in a really integrated way about those three different dimensions, the economy, the environment, and society. So Tim, can you tell us how you’re getting involved with the future of Reading as a city and the project that you’re doing for 2050? We started the Reading 2050 project back in 2012. And the vision for the future of Reading was launched in 2017.
And what we were thinking of, at that point, was imagining what a net zero Reading would be in 2050. So we brought together lots of different stakeholders. And we developed what you might call a co-created vision. So that’s to do with how we might imagine Reading to be both smart, using the kind of technologies that are available to be able to retrofit buildings and make it much more energy efficient and waste efficient, using less water, but also making sure that we are sustainable in terms of our thinking. Fantastic.
That’s really exciting as a student living here to hear about the future of our city and how you’re making it a lot more sustainable, and the fact that you can teach and research here as well and have your impact directly happening in your local area, which is really exciting. Well, thank you for saying that. It’s always good to be involved in sort of research that has a local impact. I think, at the university, we’ve, for many years, been recognised as a leading international university. But part of my mission, since I came here, has been to kind of develop projects that do make a difference locally. So we are a civic university.
So the projects that myself and other colleagues have developed have tried to help produce something that does benefit and maintains knowledge and expertise for people living in Reading. I also had a question about– more with the built environment, about how we make our city sustainable. What are we actually doing to make the city sustainable for the future? When we think about how we need to change a city, I think there are different aspects of life that we all need to think about. So we need to change our everyday behaviour, to use less energy, travel sustainably. You know, so we’re actively mobile. We use walking, or we use biking, bicycles, that kind of thing.
As far as getting a good public transport system is concerned, Reading’s being really good in moving towards a kind of green transport system. But we can do so much more, not only in Reading but in all of our cities. We’ve been doing some research recently across the six local authorities in Berkshire that’s been looking at how we get much better data on air quality. So that people have that information before they travel to work. And so they can then choose the best routes to avoid the places where the air quality is worse. And so that kind of thinking, I think, is really important if we’re going to make Reading a smart and sustainable place to live. Yeah.
And that is definitely very interesting research to think on such a small level of something I’d never even considered. But that is a really amazing way of trying to also get people onto bikes, if, you know, if you don’t want go through like a smoggy part, and you’re like, oh, I don’t want to go through this intersection, to be like, there’s these other ways that you can go about this and to walk around is really nice to hear.
I think the idea of transport and how we can create incentives for people to use public transport, perhaps making it free, which means that the government has to subsidise local authorities to do that, but making sure that we encourage everybody to walk, not use cars, and cycle or use scooters even. That’s really interesting. So future proofing for our cities is really important. You know, there is a bright future. A lot of people are pessimistic about the future. But part of what we wanted to do in Reading was to create a vision that people could buy into that did create change.
And the other part of the work that I’ve been involved in is the Reading Climate Change Strategy, which is one of the emergency declarations that we’ve seen in a lot of local authorities across the UK and also internationally. So how do we get to net zero by 2030? That’s a big challenge. But we’re working together within the climate change partnership to try and do that. And again, that comes back to convincing people that they can make a difference.
So if you are willing to take the Reading Climate Change Champions Pledge and sign up, there are so many ways in which you can make a difference, by being active in your travel, by not wasting energy, by not wasting water, by thinking about how you might recycle, and by even washing at lower temperatures. All of these things can help improve the environment.

Watch Emily and Nick as they ask what inspires Tim Dixon, Professor of Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment. Find out what’s meant by the ‘built environment’ and how a sustainable city can be an achievable goal. Discover the impact that research expertise can have on the local area, and hear some of the practical ways towns and cities can achieve economic, social and environmental sustainability.

What kinds of changes would help your local area become a more sustainable place to live? In the next few Steps you’ll discover how important change is, particularly for urban areas, and have an opportunity to discuss the actions you intend to take to make a difference.

About Professor Tim Dixon

Tim Dixon is a Professor of Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment. He is co-chair of the Reading Climate Change Partnership and works on a number of other projects at city and community level, for example, Reading 2050 which he highlights in the video above. Tim also researches the measurement of social sustainability in property development and regeneration projects.

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