Waterford city building a decarbonisation zone for others to follow

Involvement of local communities a catalyst for behavioural change

Many people now understand that genuine climate action at scale will have to happen in local communities across every country in the world.

In Ireland, local authorities have to prepare climate action plans that include both mitigation (cutting emissions) and adaptation measures (building resilience for the inevitable impacts of global warming) that are consistent with national climate action plans.

And one of the stand-out features of these local climate action plans is the selection of a decarbonisation zone in each county which the local authority hopes will model future actions of the whole county.

Waterford City and County Council (WCCC) has chosen Waterford city as its decarbonisation zone and its current plan for it is an ambitious one targeting residential retrofits, more public transport and active travel, energy efficiency across public and private commercial buildings, improved waste management and the protection of biodiversity.


WCCC chief executive Michael Walsh believes solutions to the climate crisis lie in local communities.

“The global and national actions have to be transferred to local areas. It will be the actions of thousands of individuals that will transform [society]. National incentives and policy instruments only go so far but at the end of the day, it is dependent on local residents, businesses and communities doing something themselves to improve their carbon footprint,” he says.

Sitting in his office at the heart of Waterford’s Viking Triangle, the discussion moves to whether artist-led projects in Waterford city will help the city of 55,000 inhabitants reach its goal to become carbon neutral by 2040.

The city is a forerunner in the national programme to model the net-zero emissions future in a decarbonisation zone — and Walsh is confident Waterford city’s commitment to climate action is genuine and substantial.

“We have a broad strategy across six pillars including residential, transport, energy, business, consumption [waste management] and biodiversity. For example, we are offering businesses a 5 per cent rates reduction if they commit to climate training,” he explains.

Plans for a new rail and bus hub on the north quays connected to the south quays of the river Suir by a sustainable transport bridge is the flagship project which residents and administrators alike hope will reduce the car-dominated traffic congestion that currently detracts from this picturesque riverside section of the city.

There are also plans to retrofit over 3,000 social housing units which represent about 14 per cent of the city’s housing stock. But Walsh acknowledges retrofitting the private housing stock will require more imaginative solutions than the current one-stop-shop model that each homeowner must engage with individually. “There needs to be a more collective approach where everyone with the same house type can get better value with economies of scale and a simple financial instrument,” he adds.

WCCC also hope to build a community of champions who will promote behavioural change on climate action. Through this lens, Walsh views Action Climate Targets (Act) Waterford, a joint community engagement initiative between WCCC and the South East Technological University Setu.

Meeting some of the artists and volunteers in the five Act Waterford projects funded by Creative Ireland Climate Action is an opportunity to see if such initiatives can in fact instigate behaviour change to advance climate action.

Sarah Kernaghan, a PhD student at Setu who is involved in the Waterford Sustainable Living Initiative, partook in the making of a video on transport for one project on responsible consumption and the adoption of a sustainable lifestyle.

She commends the introduction of the bicycle-sharing scheme in Waterford in 2022 but adds that behaviour change of significance is only possible when the infrastructure is in place. “There has been a lot more communication around college encouraging students to carpool and the bikes will make a difference but the buses need to be more reliable for people to be able to take them,” Kernaghan says.

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Many who engaged with the Act Waterford projects say that the local infrastructure remains a barrier for people who want to cycle or take the bus. “Bicycle lanes are there one minute and then they are gone. The city needs to be made safer for cyclists,” says Catherine Dower who helped paint an environmentally themed mural in the Ballybeg housing estate during the Waterford Walls Festival.

Susan Lee, a Waterford native who lived in Dublin for 10 years before returning to Waterford to live in 2018, agrees that infrastructure must be improved for people to change their behaviour.

“I took the bus and cycled when I lived in Dublin but it frustrated me when I moved back to Waterford when I found it quicker to drive than wait for the bus to come.” She says friends who have moved back to live in Waterford have lived more sustainably elsewhere and would be keen to keep up these habits if they had easy access to cycle routes and a frequent bus service.

Youth theatre facilitator and batik artist, Joanne Donohoe led the “Take the Bus for a Change” project in Act Waterford. She started her community engagement by asking people in the Dunmore Road area of Waterford city to share their positive and negative stories about catching the bus. She then displayed their comments on a poster site at the two local bus stops.

“People told me their key reasons for not taking the bus were that it took longer than if they took their car and that they didn’t know when the buses came. A lot of residents said that if there was a bus app, they could plan their bus journey better to use it,” she explains.

Donohue spent time talking to people at bus stops and travelling in and out of Waterford on the bus. She also sat in the green areas of local estates holding a blown-up globe as a prop to chat with residents. “I was privileged to be able to stop and sit and do nothing for climate change which got me thinking about the value of slowing down. I realised that if you saw your time on the bus as time you could value, you might look at public transport differently,” she explains. And with that, the Italian expression, Dolce Far Niente (the sweetness of doing nothing) emerged as a key concept to promote the use of public transport.

Local projects

Nollaig Healy, project manager of Act Waterford says the value of these artist-led projects is that they aren’t overtly pushing environmental messages. “It’s almost by stealth. It’s a softly softly approach to make people sit back and think about how they live,” Healy says.

Walsh says local projects such as Act Waterford are not in themselves “game changers. They engender discussion and dialogue and can become exemplars of best practice and innovation but it is always a balance between demand generation and the commercial reality when it comes to operating a bus service.

“We’re interested in encouraging demand and then once demand increases, the public service has to meet that demand,” adds Walsh, who cites plans to create one-way traffic systems, further reduction of city centre car parking spaces and park-and-ride facilities as future plans to enable Waterford City reach its target to become carbon neutral by 2040.

Katherine Collins, cultural projects manager at WCCC, says that by using creative people to engage with communities, initiatives like Act Waterford can create “hope and acceptance” that climate action can work at a local level rather than a feeling of helplessness to solve global issues.

“It gets people involved in conversations and gives them a willingness to accept change. Say, for example, if suddenly people can no longer park their car in the city centre, if they have been involved in an environmental project at an earlier stage, they will understand why these things are happening,” she believes.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment