I pay less for an apartment in Germany than for a room in a Dublin house

Working Abroad Q&A: Leitrim man Robert Morrow, who lives in Germany, explains his passion for working in sustainable development in cities across the world

 Robert Morrow is originally from Cloone, Co Leitrim and  now lives in Freiburg, Germany, where he works on sustainable development in cities across the world.

When did you leave Ireland and why?
I initially left Ireland in August 2011 to spend my Erasmus year in Lund University in Sweden. I enjoyed it I liked living abroad so much that after graduating from my undergrad in UCD in 2013, I decided to move to South Korea to work as an English teacher. Two years in Bristol and one year in Vilnius later, I moved to Freiburg in 2017 and have been living here since.

Did you study in Ireland?
I graduated from UCD in 2013 in history, politics and international relations. I am now completing a second undergrad - a BSc in Environmental Management at Institute of Technology Sligo (IT Sligo). The course is very vocational, which I really enjoy. Also, as it is an online course, so it is easy to fit around my day-to-day work, and means that I can study from Germany.

Have you done any training or studying anywhere else?
I completed my Master's at Bristol University, where I studied Gender and International Relations, a topic, I'm interested in and think is really important. I've also completed a number of Erasmus+ funded training courses in topics varying from refugee integration to gender-based violence. Since moving to Germany, I've also begun to focus more on learning German and doing exams.


Have you lived and worked anywhere else?
I like to move around a lot and have spent eight of the past nine years living and working abroad. So far, I've lived in Lund (Sweden), Incheon (South Korea), Bristol (United Kingdom), Vilnius (Lithuania), and now Freiburg (Germany).

Tell us about 'Local Governments for Sustainability'? What does ICLEI do?
ICLEI is a global network of local and regional governments working towards sustainability. In total, the network has 1,750 members, and about 190 are European cities and towns. Despite occupying only 2 per cent of the world's landmass, cities house 74 per cent of people in Europe, account for more than 75 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions and generate more than 80 per cent of the world's GDP. Therefore, it's clear that towns and cities across the world have a key role to play in the shared fight against climate change.

Increasing urbanisation places more pressure on cities

With this in mind, ICLEI works with towns and cities globally on initiatives covering sustainability topics - from cultural heritage, water, energy and climate adaptation. ICLEI also represents and advocates for the towns and cities to the EU and UN.

What do you do there?
In my role as media and communications officer I develop and lead communication strategies for sustainability projects that towns and cities across Europe are implementing. I work on advocacy and awareness raising campaigns, which seek to promote sustainable practices, such as sustainable mobility. I also help to organise sustainability conferences and events, and am responsible for organising an annual sustainability award called the Transformative Action Award.

Does your organisation operate in Ireland?
Unfortunately, at the moment we have only one Irish member - the City of Cork. However, Cork is really active in the field of sustainability, and is working on some interesting stuff. I think they don't get the credit they deserve. Same has to be said for other Irish cities, such as Limerick and Galway.

What does sustainability mean and why is it important? What challenges are there to being sustainable?
More than 30 years ago the World Commission on Environment and Development - more commonly known as the Brundtland Commission - provided the world with its first definition of sustainable development - development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This kick-started three decades of sustainability programmes and policies, with notable milestones including the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Agenda 21, the Millennium Development Goals, Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals, and the Paris Agreement.

The challenges to becoming sustainable require fundamental changes

From 1987 to today, the threat posed by climate change has been clear and growing more intense. Despite this, the impetus to act has not been as consistent. Thankfully, in recent years we have begun to see a shift, with more people calling for a response to the climate emergency we are now in, with schoolchildren leading the charge through climate protests, and local, regional and national governments and even the European Parliament declaring climate emergencies.

What challenges are there to being sustainable?
Even though the desire to act is stronger than it was previously, the challenges to becoming sustainable require fundamental changes to our economies, value chains, habits, processes, and the way we think about the world. Increasing urbanisation also makes these challenges more acute and places more and more pressure on cities. The European Commission estimates that by 2050, 83.7 percent of all Europeans will live in urban areas, and by 2100, 85 percent of the world's population will live in cities. This requires us to change the way we think about, plan, build and govern cities.

What can we do?
Local governments, especially in Ireland, where power is highly centralised, need to be given more authority and governing control. We need to start planning and building cities for people, not for cars - cities that promote sustainable transport, and active forms of mobility, such as walking and cycling. A recent study from McGill University in Canada found that cities that promote active forms of mobility, by for example having neighbourhoods with more intersections and fewer dead-ends and cul-de-sacs have lower rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

We also need to change the ways we produce and consume - moving to buy local, regional food; buying sustainably-sourced products; using renewable sources of energy and ultimately moving away from our current linear “produce, consume, discard” economic model .

How can all places, particularly big cities with large populations, be more sustainable?
We want to support cities in their transition to becoming more sustainable. Cities are ambitious, forward thinking, innovative, and have been at the forefront of sustainability for many years. Back in 1994, in the aftermath of the Rio Earth Summit, European cities and towns came together in Aalborg for the first European Sustainable Cities and Towns conference. The main outcome of the conference was the Aalborg Charter, an urban sustainability initiative. The charter has since been endorsed by more than 3,000 local authorities, and kick-started the European Sustainable Cities and Towns campaign.

Cities continue to be innovative, forward thinking, and ambitious. There are so many examples of this whether it is cities setting carbon neutrality targets for themselves (Bristol, Oslo, Turku, Copenhagen, Reykjavik) - targets which are often more ambitious than national targets - or cities implementing innovative policies, such as Hamburg’s green roof strategy, Wroclaw’s rainwater management strategy, Tirana’s tree planting policies, where they have planted two million trees around the city, or Ljubljana’s approach to invasive plants - instead of burning or composting invasive plants such as Japanese knotweed, they use these plants to make paper products.

What is it like living in Freiburg?
Freiburg is a medium-sized city in the south west of Germany, located on the foothills of the Black Forest and just beside the Swiss and French borders. The city is a great place to live. It is completely surrounded by nature and everything is accessible by public transport. Renting can be expensive, but nothing in comparison to Ireland. I have my own one-bedroom apartment, which is a 15-minute walk from the city centre, and I still pay less than what I would pay to rent a room in a shared house in Dublin.

Do you think working abroad has offered you anything?
Our understanding of the world, our beliefs, attitudes, and values are all tied to society, culture, and our upbringings. There are so many things that we often consider to be "normal" or universal - things such as gender roles, responsibilities, and expectations. However, all of these are socially and culturally defined, policed and controlled. The opportunity to live and work in another country allows you to gain a deeper understanding of how these are created and reinforced. This has made me more aware of what it means to be Irish and has given me a greater understanding, and in some ways appreciation, of Irish culture.