Reimagining playgrounds. Protecting campus from flooding. Probing the “manufacturing clean-up” of London companies. Helping hospitals pinpoint staff knowledge gaps.
Western’s Thinking Globally, Acting Locally (TGAL) program has boosted sustainability across campus and the city, tackling a host of societal problems with distinctly local consequences.
It’s a unique initiative because it supports student-driven projects, said coordinator Varun Ravikumar, a PhD candidate in philosophy. Each of the four initial winning efforts received $20,000 and is led by graduate students, with help from community partners, faculty and undergraduates.
“Sustainability is not something ‘out there.’ It’s not an issue for other people to tackle, it’s something for us, as responsible citizens, to take into our own hands,” he said.
“The problem starts at home. Once we find ways to tackle these sustainability problems here, people can take these solutions and implement them wherever they are in the world.”
The TGAL program currently includes four projects.
- Playing for Keeps, considering the role and impact of playgrounds, including the drawbacks of artificial structures and the potential for more sustainable play options
- Live staking, a form of bioengineering, using tree branches hammered into the bank of Medway Creek, to mitigate flooding and promote animal habitats
- Investigating London manufacturers that reduced air pollution while increasing their output, and looking for lessons to apply in the fight against greenhouse gas emissions
- Interviewing non-Indigenous healthcare workers to understand their levels of knowledge and where there are gaps that could improve care for Indigenous patients
Western has made a huge commitment to sustainability on campus and in its research initiatives. Times Higher Education ranked Western in the top 10 institutions around the world for its work tackling the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It’s also a pillar of the university’s strategic plan, Towards Western at 150.
Thinking Globally, Acting Locally efforts extend well beyond Western’s boundaries, with data collected at hospitals, factories and daycare centres and community agencies partnering on each project. That collaboration is an important element.
“The core researchers tell us the kind of connections that were made have been very meaningful,” said Tatiana Zakharova-Goodman, a PhD candidate in education who is leading the playground sustainability project.
“We are in this land, we are in this space together, we need to continue building these connections,” she said.
But organizers also hope the impact will spread even farther, across the globe.
“This was a really good way to showcase good work at Western happening more broadly, but also to think about challenges outside campus,” Brandon Samuels, a PhD candidate in biology and an environmental advocate, said of the projects under the TGAL banner.
He believes the efforts model achievable ways to tackle climate change and other pressing sustainability challenges.
The live staking project includes a short documentary the team hopes to post online.
“It’s public, visible and hopefully inspires more action,” Samuels said.
DIG INTO THE PROJECTS
Playing for Keeps
Walking into the outdoor play space at London Bridge Child Care’s Piccadilly Place, there aren’t many of the bright plastic toys you’d expect to find at a daycare. A single red dump truck lays on the ground. Instead, there’s nature to explore – a bird’s nest built on the side of the business has drawn particular interest from the children – and room for imaginative play. It’s just one example of the sort of questions the sustainable playground project has probed. Western students, London Bridge employees, artists and pedagogical experts have all conversed about the sustainability of playgrounds and the role they play in keeping children healthy and safe.
“We wanted to think through this idea of what playground spaces can do, not just as forms and sites of entertainment, this very traditional thought of outdoor play, but how they can be part of these bigger debates of what we’re sustaining and why we’re sustaining it,” Zakharova-Goodman said.
They considered whether bright, neon-coloured plastic slides reaching incredibly high temperatures under the beating sun should be a staple of kid-friendly spaces. In another site, the roots of a 100-year-old tree are pushing up an artificial turf laid down at the child care centre.
That tension between the natural and the “pre-made solutions” is what’s under debate. The interdisciplinary team is creating a catalogue to highlight their different approaches to sustainability.
It was a one-day blitz that transformed the banks of Medway Creek running through Western’s campus. Teams planted 200 native shrubs and hammered 100 live stakes – branches of sandbar willow taken from a nearby site north of the city – into the banks. It’s a form of bioengineering.
The live staking effort helps mitigate flooding, improves the health of the river and the animal habitats along it and strengthens the relationships with First Nations communities that protect and depend on the water.
“These impacts of climate change, where the risk of flooding is getting worse, are not restricted to London or Ontario, they are global in nature. We are going to see massive displacement associated with sea-level rise and other ways water is moving,” Samuels said. “I believe it would be helpful for others across the world to have an understanding of what they can do. Tree planting in the right area can be quite impactful.”
It’s a rare example of good news in the fight against environmental destruction. Companies managed to increase manufacturing by up to 40 per cent despite reducing air pollution even more drastically. That unexpected result is known as a “manufacturing clean-up,” and a Western team is studying it among London businesses.
“If we understand how firms managed to comply with environmental regulations around air pollutants and, at the same time, increase their output, it’s the question of how we can manage to do that for other things like greenhouse gas emissions,” said Meghdad Rahimian, PhD‘21, who teaches environmental economics at Western.
From employing cleaner technology to manufacturing new products altogether, changes to adapt to environmental regulations may help carve a path for future manufacturing adjustments. Rahimian and his team hope to lay groundwork for new policies, including at the local level.
Indigenous voices in healthcare
Kaycee Stewart, a master’s student in psychology, and her team are surveying healthcare workers at 14 southwestern Ontario hospitals to spot gaps in knowledge, training and cultural sensitivity when it comes to treating Indigenous patients. The ultimate goal is to reduce health care inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations.
“Asking hospital staff, healthcare professionals for their experiences, barriers they’ve noticed, how they think their colleagues are performing, is a great way to have hospitals recognize that. It’s helping give voice to the problem, to people who should be stakeholders, but aren’t directly impacted,” Stewart said. “It also gives hospitals the opportunity to do more targeted intervention.”
The team hopes to reduce inequality by conducting research of non-Indigenous populations providing care. Later, they will also contrast the data with patient reports from Indigenous populations, knowing direct feedback from patients who have received healthcare at these hospitals is crucial to driving change.