Green Hustle Festival - the Free Nottingham City Party Uniting Communities on Climate Action

Words: Adam Pickering
Photos: Tom Platinum Morley
Sunday 11 June 2023
reading time: min, words

Our Partnerships Manager and Environment Co-Editor Adam Pickering is a busy boy, somehow managing to find space to run some of the city's biggest festivals in his spare time. Here he talks about how the latest effort, Green Hustle Festival, helped bring our community together around celebrating life, nature, creativity and climate action...

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When asked during a recent podcast interview what one action I would take on climate change if I became Prime Minister, I said I would organise a great big festival to bring everyone together. And that’s what we’ve just done in Green Hustle Festival - “why wait for something that’ll never happen?” I said. According to Nottingham Business Improvement District (BID) 10,000 people turned out for our free event celebrating life, nature, community action, and creativity on one sunny, blue-skied weekend in early June 2023.

Looking at the UK Government and its Official Opposition, it can often feel like we’re moving backwards, not forwards, on climate action. The moment the rightwing media gets hold of anything that faintly looks like threatening 20th century status quo fossil fuel interests the parties cave, citing this or that fiscal rule. With official regulators pretty much dismantled, our natural resources have become a Wild West for extractive capitalism. The only hope we really have is… ourselves.

In Nottingham, regarded as a leading global city for climate change, remarkable things have still managed to happen. Data from 2020, released in 2022, shows we’ve reduced carbon emissions by 57% per person since 2005. The council has facilitated the planting of an estimated 37,600 trees since 2019, aiming to hit 50,000 before the year’s out. In all sorts of other places up and down the country too, local people are taking climate action, and addressing social needs, by the horns.

But until recently, it didn’t feel like everyone was really around the table, or aware of the positive things that were quietly occurring. So we felt the need, locally, for a bit of positivity to amplify good work, tell a more optimistic story, and create a space for everyone. Green Hustle Festival was the result. A truly citywide, all-inclusive free event for all ages - with the slight exception of a handful of the film screenings that formed a few of several dozen fringe events.

Our third Green Hustle Festival saw us evolve from our roots as an online event conceived during 2020 lockdowns and filmed on smartphones, followed by a first outdoor outing at the increasingly plant-lined Sneinton Market Avenues in 2021. In turn this was born of the Hockley Hustle’s green efforts - a now 40+ venue annual charity music festival I founded in 2006, which has hosted and helped a proper panoply of the city’s now chart-smashing musical exports.

In moving up to the Old Market Square, we landed in the beating heart of a city which, despite being a favourite target of central Government cuts, has learned to stand on its own two feet and keep society just about hanging on, and progress on the environment steady and determined. Touted as amongst the largest in the UK upon its 2007 revamp, it was initially home to a number of popular and free music festivals including the council-run City Pulse. But these events dropped off following the 2008 Financial Crisis and the subsequent austerity agenda. In recent years few truly public, free, proper festivals have taken place on the site.

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Green Hustle Festival triumphantly returned an uplifting, inclusive event to the space. In the end relying on 100% local funding, via Nottingham BID, as well as independent partnerships like Raleigh, Castle Rock Brewery and Savoy Systems, with some additional University of Nottingham funding. In-kind support and enthusiastic promotion came from Nottingham City Council, Nottingham Trent University, the cultural sector at large, and environmental groups including Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, the Environment Agency, and our fabulous network of community gardens, to name a few.

Rather than approaching climate and nature issues with any hint of doom and gloom, the festival is about celebrating humanity and its potential to make change. This in line with the advice of new-wave climate change influencers like Jessica Kleczka, who believe the climate discourse requires more positivity.

Our event comes from a mindset of actionism over activism, doing something practical about issues and approaching the matter with positivity and pragmatism, rather than just shouting about problems. 

It welcomed an extremely diverse crowd - in the sense that not just a few communities came together but every continent seemed out in force, the range of ages was vast, and accessibility was built in throughout. Of dozens of festivals that I’ve organised and worked at, I’ve not seen anything quite like it.

Income was no barrier to inclusion either, and that started with putting food on the table for all. Over 750 free hot meals were served at our community kitchen. The hosts, Salaam Shalom Kitchen (SaSh) - led by the muslim-origin Himmah social justice charity and foodbank, and the local Jewish Liberal Synagogue in a collaboration unique in the UK - reported feeding families on the brink and many homeless, particularly on our second day once the word was out. It was a welcomed feast. 

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We achieved a diverse audience in part through careful and comprehensive programming, ensuring all communities had a role and proper agency in creating the substance of the event, and sweeping programming themes, which touched on all aspects of city life; Nature & Wildlife, Food & Community, Music & Performance, Sport & Movement, Art & Creativity, Discovery & Learning, Fashion & Lifestyle, and Economy & Business. It was proudly LGBT+-inclusive, and made accessibility a central planning objective.

Spread over a long weekend, Friday 2 June saw our World of Work business day, and Nottingham Assembles at Council House - focussed on young people and civic engagement, with several notables like the Lord Mayor, High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, and the Sheriff of Nottingham in attendance. Here we also announced plans for a fully sortitioned and officially backed citizens assembly on climate change for Nottingham in 2024 - pending meeting its investment needs. 

A local film debut, Of Walking on Thin Ice; Camino to COP26, and a gig beckoned the rest of the weekend’s somewhat more conventional outdoor festivities. On Saturday 3 and Sunday 4 June, from 11am-6pm, we made Old Market Square our little vision of the world.

How green was Green Hustle Festival? To start, we have a three person core team dedicated to event sustainability. This is made up of academic researchers and recent graduates who are working to quantify and reduce our physical impact. We don’t know if we’re at “nature positive” stage yet, but we’re working hard to answer that question and reach that goal. Alongside asking for surveys from attendees to help get the data, we’re strong on messaging about how people can reach us, and enjoy the festival, with minimal harm and maximum nature-benefit.

Being in a city helps reduce the biggest factor for field-based festivals - where scope three, or indirect - vehicle emissions account for about 80% of average total impact, due to the tendency for people, and the pop-up city that goes with a festival, to drive long distances. Our data from our recent Hockley Hustle festival in 2022 shows that for a festival about ⅓ the size, six mature trees’ worth of carbon were emitted, and around 90 trees were recommended to be planted to promptly offset that carbon.

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In the last two years alone we’ve planted over 2,600 trees across various city-based projects. We’ve also transformed shop fronts into street gardens, improved green spaces for wildlife, and created hundreds of volunteer opportunities along the way. We’re looking to go way beyond offsetting the carbon we create at our festival via Green Hustle’s year-round nature-regeneration initiatives. We’re a community interest company too, focussed on including more people in the environmental space.

With volunteer help we’ve revitalised existing green spaces and created several new ones, including the funky social and indie shopping street, co-working space and part-time beer garden for the adjacent Bodega music venue, Cobden Chambers. Tearing out the increasingly unpopular plastic plants (apart from the bits currently nested by a resourceful urban blackbird family), we’ve created a much more nature and human-friendly space.

We’ve also turned around a large Canal-side ramp which, although already nicely wooded lacked form and biodiversity. It was looking a bit worse for wear, and generally breeding rubbish, antisocial behaviour, and neglect. With help and resources from Raleigh and the Canal and River Trust we rounded up volunteers, garden design expert Andy Callow, and got down to a good bit of wildlife gardening - thinning, leaving the good stuff, replanting with higher yielding options for all creatures, and creating various new habitats.

We also commissioned local sculptor Michelle Reader to create a permanent heron sculpture made of discarded bikes and metal waste, which will stand on the site overlooking the canal at about 6ft tall. Bringing joy and creativity is, alongside improving spaces for nature, a key design principle. Community engagement is critical to restoring care to such spaces.

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This collaboration tied neatly to our artistic and spiritual theme of Oceans and Waterways - a programming steer which has seen our School of Fish project involve nine primary schools in storytelling and creative upcycling activities, making sea creatures that were displayed in pride of place on Old Market Square. Dance performances, talks, research engagement and other activities helped push this message throughout the event.

We’re also collecting signatures on an open letter asking our friends at Nottingham City Council to declare a "Motion for the Ocean", penned with ocean experts. The campaign focuses on better stewardship of, and connection with, our oceans, and if we declare such a motion we will be the first inland council to do so. And as the UK’s most landlocked core city, we are very much inland.

All this is to say that, given our success as a fledgling festival at bringing people together around climate change and nature, working on a modest budget that sees our C.I.C. quite safe from VAT liability, we’ve achieved a great deal, with a significant green and social legacy. Close evaluation of our operating emissions, and those of attendees travelling, set against behaviour change impacts and green legacy, will hopefully show it is at least eminently possible to do more good than harm overall for the environment whilst still having fun and communities people together.

This approach breaks with almost all large scale festivals before it, where impact is often barely considered. We want to lead by example in the industry and provide a template for responsible events. We also believe it provides an effective means for reinvigorating the climate movement, and hopes of thriving on this planet. Nottingham-focussed community-led cultural events like this are, it seems to us, vital to achieving Nottingham City Council’s core city-leading 2028 carbon neutrality goal.

We’re growing a space for everyone by approaching lofty topics at a more relatable level, with an inclusive warmth and positivity, and love at its core. By viewing environmental issues through relevant vectors, and tailoring topics to each locality, we think we can achieve the cohesion needed both to collectively resist, or potentially prepare ourselves for, climate breakdown.

Follow Green Hustle on social media via @greenhustlefest

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