Green Medal for Olympian Ecologist

| 13th August 2013

David Stubbs, Head of Sustainability for the London 2012 Olympics

The Ecologist meets David Stubbs - the man who holds the 2013 Chartered Institute of Ecology & Environmental Management Medal. It is the first time the Medal has been awarded to a professional ecologist working outside what might be considered the traditional boundaries of the discipline......
Now that the Games are over the politicians seem to have gone to sleep and dropped the baton of sustainability

Why did you choose a career in ecology?

Ever since childhood I have been passionately interested in the natural environment, so I was determined that I would work in that field, although it's too grand to say I chose a career in it. When I graduated in 1980 there was no obvious career path, and I didn't have a plan as such; just a determination to do something in ecology. Back then the idea of thousands of professional ecologists and environmental managers working in industry, for consultancies and on diverse major projects, was not even a dream.

How did you get to where you are now?

I think the recurring theme has been one of a combination of chance, recognising an opportunity and devoting a lot of energy to making it happen. This is as equally true for my first professional role - as a research assistant at the University of Kent on a three-year NERC-funded project to study the ecology of Hermann's tortoise - as it was for my Olympic role.

On the tortoise project I had initially chanced across a site in northern Greece teeming with these animals, and I was fascinated to know more about their ecology. Virtually nothing was known about Mediterranean tortoises in the wild, so I had found a ‘gap'. At the time it was topical because of concern about the pet trade's impact on wild populations, so instantly I had a biological conservation mission.

My Olympic journey started in the mid-1990's well before the London bid officially started. At the time my work was focussed on the environmental aspects of golf courses, when I was approached by the British Olympic Association with a request to represent them at a series of Sport and Environment conferences hosted by the International Olympic Committee.

BOA also invited me to join a working group looking at the potential issues and opportunities for a London Olympic bid. Essentially I took a punt on putting a lot of time and effort into a project that might not even get off the ground but one which even at that stage I could see had huge potential. I am very glad I did that!

What achievement in your career are you most proud of?

Winning the CIEEM Medal has to be up there as it is both a personal award and one voted for by my peers. But that's an acknowledgement of all that I have done, rather than one specific achievement.

The moment that stands out most for me was being in Singapore on 6 July 2005 when London won the bid for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Clearly that was not just my achievement but I know I had played an important part and the joy of winning as a team is always more profound than an individual moment of glory.

Of course winning a bid is all very exciting but that was just the start. So my real answer has to be the satisfaction in having delivered on those promises and putting sustainability firmly on the Olympic agenda. Again that's a team thing, and my great pride is in the work of my team who put their all into achieving our goals.

Your profession has recently become 'chartered'. What does that mean and why is it important to you personally and professionally?

Chartered status is important because it means the state recognises my institute - CIEEM - as the pre-eminent body in its field. To have achieved that in such quick time is nothing short of remarkable.

Ever since my early involvement in the foundation of the institute I have championed the cause of professional standards in ecology and environmental management. It's about first ensuring that our members are properly qualified and good at what they do, and secondly that they are recognised as equal professionals by people in other disciplines. As ecologists increasingly need to work in multi-disciplinary environments, it is vital to have strong professional credentials backed up by a proper code of professional conduct. The institute provides all that.

Most of the high profile professional bodies in the UK arose out of guilds and trade associations in the nineteenth century and have a long history. Your professional body, the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM), is quite young, having been formed in 1991 and gained its Royal Charter this year. Are professional bodies such as this still useful and relevant today? What purpose do they serve for you and society?

Environmental disciplines are relatively recent. In many respects we have had to play a rapid game of catch-up in relation to other professions. Given all the pressures on the environment these days it is vitally important that we have qualified professionals working across a broad range of sectors and having the status to be able to influence decisions. Just to be clear, CIEEM and its membership are very much part of the 21st Century, grappling with contemporary issues and challenges, and as such it has a key role to play.

As the 2013 recipient of the CIEEM Medal, what do you regard as the value of such accolades?

Interestingly I am the first ‘rank and file' member to have won the CIEEM Medal. Previous recipients have mostly been eminent academic ecologists and the nation's favourite naturalist, Sir David Attenborough. When I realised this I thought for a moment it must be a mistake. Then I thought that being awarded the Medal in recognition of my work on the London 2012 Games, as well as my wider career history, could be a source of inspiration to others starting out in the profession.

There is perhaps a sense that ecologists only do ecology, whereas my example shows how one can use the scientific foundation of the discipline and move on into broader fields - in my case sustainability - and high profile situations. It would be great to see more people with a background in ecology moving into key roles in business, politics and culture for example.

Helping biodiversity and running the Olympics are not obviously related activities. Why was it important to do so as part of staging London 2012?

I guess it was the ecologist in me that made sure we had biodiversity as one of our key themes, along with climate change, waste, inclusion and healthy living. And maybe that is why it is important for professional ecologists to be in more influential roles, so they can make sure biodiversity is not the poor relation.

I have had a life-long interest in urban ecology; from my childhood in Ealing where I taught myself about the birds and other wildlife in my local patch, to the years I spent on the London Wildlife Habitat Survey and various other projects for the London Wildlife Trust.

So to my mind it was absolutely natural that we should pay close attention to biodiversity on an urban project of the Olympic's scale for two reasons - first for the intrinsic value of making sure there was space for nature in our project, and second for the opportunity to promote this aspect to a vast, global audience.

Why was it important for the Games?

We were always thinking in terms of the Games experience for each of the different ‘client groups': such as athletes, officials, media, spectators and workforce. What better experience than enjoying the sporting action in a fantastic natural setting. The wildflower meadows and exquisitely planted gardens were the stars of the show.

The veteran sports correspondent Simon Barnes writing in The Times said: "I've been to plenty of impressive places to cover great sporting events and they're hard, tough, uncompromising. They're places to visit and be awed, not places to feel at home in. For the first time in my experience, a great sporting event will be happening in a Nice Place. That's a triumph, one that should be copied whenever great sport takes place." So that's biodiversity 1, business as usual nil.

Can an event that involves hundreds of thousands of people travelling from around the world ever be called sustainable?

To look at something like that in isolation rather misses the point about sustainability. The Games are about far more than simply a few weeks of sporting festival. Sustainability has to look at the entire project and the effects it has over its lifecycle and long-term.

In the case of London, we took a large, run-down and polluted tract of land and waterways and created a fabulous new quarter in East London. The project has created significant local employment and skills development opportunities; new housing, schools and healthcare facilities; new energy, transport, water and telecoms infrastructure and of course new sporting and leisure facilities.

At the heart of all this is the ecologically designed and managed Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the design of which not only provides great wildlife habitat and a valuable and accessible greenspace amenity, but it also has taken 5,000 properties out of the 1:100 year flood risk.

Further afield there have been important ecological benefits associated with other Games venues such as Greenwich Park (equestrian), Weymouth and Portland (sailing) and Box Hill in Surrey - a focal point for the Road Cycle race.

In terms of the event world we set new standards - literally in the case of ISO 20121 Event Sustainability Management System, which is now the global standard of choice for major events. We defined a ground breaking Food Vision which has vastly improved the sustainability performance of the hospitality catering industry, and our Zero Waste to landfill operation was a transformative success. The transfer of knowledge to future host cities is another important benefit.

At the heart of the London 2012 vision was the pledge to inspire young people around the world to take up sport. The International Inspiration programme was the embodiment of that pledge and has succeeded in supporting over 12m young people worldwide to participate in sport for the first time.

All in all the quantum of benefits - and there are many more I could mention - vastly outweigh the inevitable impacts of staging the Games.

What was it like being an ecologist working with architects, engineers, construction workers, etc? How did you convince them to incorporate your ideas?

It's a very sporting concept; this was a question of teamwork. We all had a common objective; to deliver fabulous Games and leave a positive legacy. It involved so many people from different disciplines - but experts in their profession - and there was a mutual respect and recognition that we needed each-other's input to achieve our objectives.

Sustainability did not come as a surprise to anyone working on the project as it had been a core part of the bid. It was a large part of what we stood for and what we did. So I never had push-back in terms of why we were doing this. The challenge was more of how to incorporate sustainability into project plans and processes.

I had two important assets in this respect: first was time. Having been involved from day one I was able to influence things from the outset, rather than come in late and retrofit. The second huge asset was the brilliant team of sustainability professionals I recruited.

In hindsight, is there anything you would have differently?

Over all those years it would have been impossible to play a perfect innings throughout. At the time much of what we were doing was untried in that context and at that scale, so inevitably there were a number of false starts and missed opportunities. But when I look at what we did achieve and the positive reaction this has received from all over the world, I am very satisfied with the way we went about things.

Of course there are lots of learnings and I am delighted we have been able to capture many of these in a series of papers in the Learning Legacy website. This is an important knowledge resource, not just for construction and event management but many of the lessons are more widely applicable to other sectors.

What is happening in terms of ensuring that the biodiversity element of London 2012 continues now that the event itself is over and new players are taking over bits of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park?

The London Legacy Development Corporation is overseeing the management of the site and the ecological integrity of the parklands is a key objective of theirs. They are also legally bound to implement the Biodiversity Action Plan, so the matter cannot be ignored. The site is currently undergoing a major transformation into its full legacy configuration - something that will take several years - but the parklands remain central to the long-term masterplan.

What impact do you think the sustainability lessons learnt from London 2012 will have on future planning of large-scale events?

I have a mixed view on this. Internationally the signs are excellent and I am seeing a lot of interest from future host cities, not just in the Olympic and Paralympic Games, but also other major sporting and cultural events. Domestically I feel the outcome is less certain and I am disappointed at the way the government has dropped the sustainability baton.

Why does that matter?

Sustainability doesn't just happen by magic. It still needs strong leadership and direction and that is what is currently lacking in the UK. We have shown that the event sector is more than capable of delivering high standards of sustainability but that requires a client-side lead to demand such standards. That's what LOCOG did and the market responded magnificently.

We certainly demonstrated the business case for sustainability so you might expect enlightened event organisers to get on and do it. To some extent that will happen but slowly. That is why I would like to see more push from government to ensure that the high profile events we are hosting in the coming years continue to champion the sustainability agenda.

Sadly I don't see anyone out there pressing for this. For the Olympics we had every pressure group, journalist and politician under the sun on our case demanding that we did sustainability. Now the Games are over and we did it, they all seem to have gone to sleep.

In your role as a technical expert to the International Olympic Committee for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and for evaluating the 2020 bidding cities, what are you hoping to achieve?

What I like about the Olympic world is the opportunity it gives to develop exciting sustainability projects in a succession of very different cities and cultures and thereby extend awareness and understanding of environmental issues to whole new audiences.

My London experience was fantastic for having the opportunity to put theory into practice and to do it in my home city but it's not finished business. The Olympics and Paralympics move on and I hope to help influence and support sustainability programmes in future host cities.

Congratulations to David Stubbs who won the 2013 award for his 'Outstanding Contribution to the Development of Ecologically Sustainable Sports Facilities and Sports Event Management'. The medal will be presented to David at CIEEMs annual conference this coming November.
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