The word “turas”, meaning journey or pilgrimage in Gaelic, is one that Dr Marcus Collier, a recent addition to Trinity’s Department of Botany, is very familiar with. For five years, from 2011 to 2016, he was Scientific Manager of Transitioning towards Urban Resilience and Sustainability (TURAS), a project promoting collaboration between communities, businesses and local government to create solutions to the environmental challenges posed by increasing urbanisation. Involving hundreds of people among 30 different organisations across 11 regions, the endeavour received €6.8 million in funding from the European Commission and produced upwards of 80 new initiatives and processes to foster “urban resilience”.
In layman’s terms, the project gave communities the tools and the knowledge to overcome the challenges presented by environmental and ecological change.
Although that is a simplistic summary of the years of work that went into TURAS and the results it produced, the project is far too complex and multifaceted to do any justice here. But the overarching vision is clear. In the words of Birgit de Boissezon, a Senior Unit Head in the European Commission, quoted in the end of project publication, TURAS represents a dream “to see more green spaces, more green infrastructure, these types of solutions brought to cities… citizens themselves and researchers working together on new solutions”.
In many ways, the dream also epitomises Collier’s best characteristics. TURAS was ambitious, almost impossibly so, emerging from intellectual curiosity and, according to the project publication, which Collier edited, “a couple of coffee discussions, many emails and phone calls and then numerous proposal drafts”. That narrative is self-effacing, as anyone who has managed a project with multiple actors will tell you just how maddeningly complex the task can be. As well as the coffees and the emails, the project came to fruition because of his boundless energy and optimism.
When they’re allowed to go crazy with their academic brains, sometimes you get a really, a nugget of just… I love that
Speaking to The University Times about his work, Collier demonstrates a fascinating and often bewildering knowledge of his area of expertise. He also covers subjects as broad as academic freedom of speech, theatre, student activism and the funding difficulties faced by third-level students – all the time in possession of the relevant statistics or anecdotes to situate his ideas. One comes away with the impression that he could improvise a presentation, offering penetrating insight, into just about any topic you care to mention.
Zorica Nedović-Budić, Professor Chair of Spatial Planning and Technology in the School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy at University College Dublin (UCD), worked closely with Dr Collier on TURAS for five years. Speaking to The University Times, she describes a versatile, dynamic leader: “He was always on the task. He could manage the high level communications with 30 partners across Europe, and motivate and entice everybody. It wasn’t easy to communicate across the whole group, but he managed in a very diplomatic way.” What left a lasting impression on her was his ability to apply himself to every aspect of project management, “getting everyone on the same page and moving the conversation forward, but also taking care of every detail of every little step we needed to fulfill.” Factor in the language barriers and different cultural backgrounds of the parties involved, from Zagreb to Paris, and you have a clearer picture of the requirements of the role Collier played.
In fact, he played it so effectively, he is heading up another project, called Connecting Nature, which will run from this year until 2022 as part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 initiative. A partnership of 29 organisations from across Europe, with around €12 million of funding from the European Commission, the project will implement nature-based technology in cities to promote public health, climate change adaptation and sustainable economic development. A conference was held last week in Tallinn University, Estonia, as work begins in earnest to start, as the official tagline reads, “Bringing Cities to Life, Bringing Life into Cities”.
It’s no wonder Trinity offered him a position on the staff this year, and though he has officially transferred from University College Dublin (UCD) where he led TURAS, he is yet to begin teaching here: “At the moment, I haven’t been assigned any [modules]. I’ve only just started. I will be teaching in the area of sustainability science… so geography and botany and zoology, but I will also be doing some lectures in the business school…about ecosystem services and capital.”
I like to see this engagement and activism and students getting up off their asses
His teaching style, if his track record is anything to go by, should make him a favourite among students. Keenly aware of the need to get research beyond the classroom and out into the world where the public can benefit from it, he is a huge believer in co-creation and collaboration. One of the cornerstones of the TURAS project was this desire to engage with communities and involve them in the problem-solving process, so that they felt ownership of the solutions they produced. It proved to be one of the projects resounding successes, as citizens took charge of their own environments.
Perhaps it is his background in drama that has imbued him with a love of collaboration: “When I was in university, I got very heavily involved in DramSoc, we used to do stuff with Players, here. We co-ran the Dublin Student Theatre festival. The atrium had just been restored after a fire and we built a theatre in there.” The process by which a play takes shape in the rehearsal room is a very collaborative one. The director must involve their actors in every scene, and provide them with clear intentions for every action they make. Through personally investing their charges in the roles they are playing, a good director brings out an authentic performance. Likewise, a good lecturer involves their students in their subject matter in the classroom, so that the students pursue self-directed learning outside of it. And Collier is very enthused about the capacity of Trinity students to learn.
He becomes animated upon recalling the student-led campaign to get Trinity to divest from fossil fuels: “This wonderful initiative the students had of… what’s the phrase? Decoupling? No, divesting! Divesting away from carbon stocks. And that came from students. I think that, that’s what you get when you just let students go crazy. Forget about the vomiting and the usual stuff that goes on, when they’re allowed to go crazy with their academic brains, sometimes you get a really, a nugget of just… I love that.”
There is, of course, a responsibility on the part of students too, to engage with their lecturers and the world outside Trinity’s walls, in whatever positive way they can. Collier recognises that, and in the campaign to divest from fossil fuels, he sees cause for optimism: “I love activism too. I like to see this engagement and activism and students getting up off their asses and saying ‘Right, put down the phone for a second, stop Googling, stop Snapchatting it, just do it’.”
Aoife Corcoran, a PhD student who was working on the TURAS project under Collier, is entirely positive about her time learning from him: “He’s really generous with his time, really generous with his ideas. Always trying to encourage you to do your best and be innovative. And I suppose a really great motivator in terms of getting you to try new things and getting you to push yourself in terms of the area that you’re in.” In other words, UCD’s loss is almost certainly Trinity’s gain, as the botany department have acquired a very valuable teaching asset.
In the future, aliens will be able to come down and see that this was our most embarrassing time. It is there in the rocks
While Collier isn’t so grandiose as to bring up the word “legacy” in relation to his work, it’s clear he is a forward-thinking man. One of his many academic interests is the theory that we are entering a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, brought about by our relentless extraction and consumption of natural resources.
Essentially, in the last century or so, the pace of economic and demographic growth has given rise to a new era in the geological record. Samples of rock strata from all over the world are showing up trace amounts of plastic, radioactive material and rare metals that can only be the result of human activity since the testing of the first atomic bomb in the 1940s. In other words, we have left a permanent smudge on the earth’s natural records. To say that humanity has ushered in this new geological epoch is understating the case. The Anthropocene was not ushered in, but rather forcibly installed, by an unprecedented industrial and nuclear revolution.
Considering Homo sapiens have walked the earth for around 200,000 years and left barely a geological footprint in all that time, Collier finds the deep treads that industrialisation has made (in a relatively short space of time) deeply troubling. Giving a Tedx Talk on novel ecosystems in 2015, Collier said, “In the future, aliens will be able to come down and see that this was our most embarrassing time. It is there in the rocks. We can never get rid of it”. But as well as adversity, he sees opportunity: “Society can redress, and recover a part of itself that has been lost over the last couple of hundred years.” Humans have lost touch with wilderness, he feels, and “become separated from nature”.
A large body of academic work supports this assertion. According to Collier, almost 80 per cent of Europeans will be living in urban areas within the next 30 years. Never before have so many people lived in such close proximity to one another, thronging to join the rush of city life. Speaking to the Irish Times just a few weeks ago, he noted how the world over, more and more lives are dependent on the facilities, services and activities that are available in cities and cities alone. As a result, these urban conglomerations we centre our lives around are growing at an unprecedented rate. Not only do their tower blocks and cranes dominate the landscape physically, cities also hold a social, cultural and economic hegemony over their citizens.
There is a legend about St Brigid, retold in the many schools across Ireland bearing her name. As the story goes, she spread her cloak across a field in Kildare and it grew to cover the acres of fertile land we know now as the Curragh. Today, Dublin, through its satellite towns and urban sprawl, is spreading a concrete cloak over all its surrounds, and with real consequences. Extensive research has shown that people living close to green spaces are more likely to live longer, have less stress, and better mental health. Conversely, as green spaces are eradicated to make space for development, public health outcomes deteriorate, communities suffocate and social isolation increases.
For Trinity students, living and studying in the heart of Dublin, the research is particularly relevant: “The value of urban green space has been established by the World Health Organisation to have an effect on mortality and health. You are more likely to live longer if you live near a park – specifically within 600m of a park. Studies have also shown that you get more benefits out of exercising outdoors than indoors.” This is where his work on the Connecting Nature project continues the journey that TURAS began. Green spaces and ecological habitats like parks, playgrounds, ponds and even scrubland have to be introduced where they are lacking, and protected where they might be developed. The difference between this initiative and traditional approaches is that, instead of “just putting nature into a city, where the council comes in, plants the trees and goes away again… this is something that comes from the bottom up”. And because the local community are invested in the improvements, they last, even in previously poor, dilapidated surrounds.
To return to his 2015 Tedx Talk, which he concludes with his characteristic optimism, Collier is hopeful about our ecological future. “The very areas that we have damaged the most, could even be the locations that bring us close to nature again.”