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| A place for ecological parks in European sustainability research

Eco-centres certainly attract tourists and provide local employment, but are rarely thought of as part of mainstream science. The Ecolink project suggests that this attitude should change. Not only do Europe’s network of ecosites provide an excellent model of local sustainable development, they also have the capacity to conduct research and implement innovative environmental technologies. In partnership with other scientific institutions, they could make an important contribution to Europe’s sustainability agenda.

The Ecosite du Pays de Thau has an international reputation.
The Ecosite du Pays de Thau has an international reputation.
Philippe Brière, Director of Ecosite du Pays de Thau, has no doubts about the importance of Europe’s growing number of scientific and technical ecological parks, or ecosites. "Most of these centres are well known far beyond their local areas," he says. "Ecosite du Pays de Thau, for example, was set up in the early 80s to implement new alternative solutions for waste water management that respected the fragile Thau coastal lagoon. Today the centre has an international reputation."

"Ecosites play an important economic and social role, generating significant income and creating or maintaining many jobs," Brière continues. "But these traditional economic measures fail to identify many other aspects of these centres. For example, every centre invents, tests and promotes new technologies for transport, construction, agriculture, water, energy and waste management. As tourist destinations, they not only support the local economy, but also play an important role in raising public awareness of the problems facing society and the efforts being made to address them. Ecosites are excellent demonstrators of the philosophy of sustainability."

Studies in sustainability

A few ecosites have been operating for over 25 years, proving the viability of such centres. Over the last few years, there has been a considerable spread of interest in ecosites from NGOs wishing to promote environmental protection and education, and from local authorities wishing to develop a focal point for local sustainable development.

It is hardly surprisingly, then, that the EC funded a project to look in more detail at the contribution ecosites could make in European local sustainability strategies. The Ecolink project brought together four eco-centres, three universities and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in a wide-ranging assessment of the true value of ecosites in Europe’s sustainable future.

"A thorough study of what ecosites are, and what they do, had never been undertaken," Brière notes. "Our analyses and case studies have revealed enough similarities to come up with a ‘formal’ definition of an ecosite as well as some significant differences."

Attitudes to research

One important area of divergence is the position each centre takes on R&D. Some ecosites are already part of the formal research community and produce high-quality peer-reviewed work (for example the Ecosite du Pays de Thau, HDRA Ryton Organic Gardens in the UK or the Rocky Mountain Institute in the US). At the opposite extreme, a large number of demonstration sites receive no research function, but contribute to innovation by running and demonstrating new, or at least unconventional, technologies. They may also be innovating ‘invisibly’ in new behavioural or organisational forms.

A third class of centres innovate consciously, but publish internally or though popular media, or via web sites. Others simply communicate results by demonstration and diffusion (for example CAT in Wales, CERES, or De Twaalf Ambachten).

Whatever the style, however, the Ecolink project shows ecosites’ tremendous value as sources of insights on sustainable development and as subjects in their own right in socially important research fields. Links and partnerships should be sought between the formal and informal branches.

Ecosites involved

"There is currently a gap between research in formal research institutions and research in eco-centres," explains Brière. "The direction of FP6 and of national research programmes may help to bridge the gap since applied R&D and implementation and dissemination are key aspects of future projects. The fast, flexible, responsive and problem-driven research conducted in eco-centres meet the requirements of the funding institutions well. FP6 explicitly recognises ecosites as potential research centres."

The increased participation of ecosites in Euopean R&D and in implementing EU policy will be championed by a new organisation - the European Federation of Ecosites. This body, a direct spin-off from Ecolink, will act on the project’s findings. In particular it will coordinate the development of an ecosite ‘label’, which should help ecosites to present their offers to research institutes and other stakeholders looking for applied R&D services, testing, dissemination, demonstration or other facilities.

Brière expects ecosites to benefit greatly from Ecolink’s conclusions. "The project aimed to find out whether ecosites can be instruments for European R&D policy for sustainable development. Without a doubt the answer is yes. Ecosites are obviously strategic places for the achievement of public policies for sustainable local development. They act as a meeting point for bottom-up and top-down approaches, both of which are important."

Ecosites across Europe can look forward to building on their reputation as tourist attractions by participating in cutting edge research at the heart of Europe’s sustainability agenda.

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Philippe Brière, Ecosite du Pays de Thau
+33 04 67 46 64 80