Pooran Desai

Pooran Desai

Get your hands dirty and stick at it

As I came into Hackbridge station by train from London Victoria, I was thrilled to see the multicolour ventilation shafts of the BedZED development come into view.  Strange as that may sound, I had heard much about this eco village in South London which opened in 2002 and had not had a chance to visit.  I was also really looking forward to meeting one of the instigators behind the project, Pooran Desai.

Pooran is a co-founder of BioRegional, an entrepreneurial charity which aims to show us how to live more sustainably.  I wrote about Sue Riddlestone, the other co-founder, two weeks ago.  One of Pooran’s most visible achievements since he and Sue set up BioRegional is the completion of BedZED which comprises 100 environmentally friendly homes, some community facilities and work spaces for 100 people.

It’s about five minutes walk from Hackbridge station to the eco-development through unremarkable suburban streets.  So, as the large glass expanses on the Southern side of BedZED come into view, they seem all the more impressive.  The houses are almost woven together by a maze of bridges and pathways.  Parking is limited and residents are encouraged to walk or use public transport.  Possibly as a result of the design of the buildings, which are quite close together with open-plan garden spaces, residents know each others names and the community spirit is strong.

I talked to Pooran across the kitchen table in his own BedZED home, just a minute or so from his desk in the BioRegional Offices.  He told me that now that BedZED is complete, he realises that the impact of housing on an individual’s overall environmental footprint is sometimes over estimated.  Choices which people make about transport, food and waste are all very important.  Consequently, Bioregional Quintain, the property company which Pooran established in 2004 and where he now works 50% of the time, is focussed as much on long-term management of properties as their initial construction.  One Brighton, is their latest development of 170 apartments.  By simplifying the environmental specifications, they have managed to complete the building at the same cost of a conventional development.  Now they are focussing on how they can foster community living and encourage the residents to have a low environmental impact through their lifestyles.

As a child, Pooran told me he loved animals and wildlife.  When he was about 10 years old a lesson on population growth had a big impact on him.  He’s been concerned about the environment ever since.  At university he studied physiology and neuroscience and then medicine for a year and a half.  But Pooran questioned his career path and decided to leave.  “I realised so much of health was down to lifestyle and environment, that I decided to try and make a contribution to people’s health by protecting the environment, rather than becoming a doctor.”

After leaving university Pooran spent a year “reading and working in a garden centre part-time.” He then went to work at the local environment centre, which is where he met Sue. Together they informally set up BioRegional in 1992 in a room in the local Ecology Centre and then two years later, the charity was formally established.

One of Pooran’s early successes was the BioRegional Charcoal Company.  This company coordinates small British producers of charcoal so that they can supply big chains like B&Q and be competitive with imported charcoal.  Their system allows local producers to supply their local stores and reduces the carbon emissions from transportation to store by 85%.  The creation of a market for British charcoal also encourages sustainable management of woods in the UK.

Pooran is working on a vast number of other sustainability projects and in 2004 he was awarded an OBE for his contribution to Sustainable Development. He seemed like a good person to ask about how to make a difference and he had two key messages:

Firstly, “theories are important but in the end you need to know if things work.  Practical experience is important.  Get your hands dirty.”  And secondly, “stick at it! If you want to make a difference you need to work at the same thing for at least 10 years to a life time. I think that people who change jobs all the time, can’t have as much of an impact.”

I expect that BioRegional will be coming up with practical solutions to our environmental crisis for some time to come.