Guest Blog – an American student’s perspective


Welcome to the first “Guest Blog” from the Chaucer Fields Picnic Society!  We start with a contribution from Justinian Dispenza, an American student who was studying for a year in Canterbury in  2010-11. Justinian was one of a group of  students, from Britain and abroad, who took the initiative in efforts to highlight the environmental value of unspoilt Chaucer Fields. A Film Studies student here for a year from Indiana University, Justinian applied his skills in two ways to draw attention to the situation. His Hedgerow Havoc video, when posted on YouTube, secured hundreds of hits,  bringing humour and a sense of fun to the campaign, and helped catalyse large numbers of students to take part in the Chinese Lantern Event of February 2011. If you haven’t seen this clip, you can it now  by clicking here: Hedgerow Havoc . Second, Justinian went on to capture the event itself on video, another YouTube film which has meant that people who were not there at the time have been made aware of what happened that evening  [see Blog Roll, right].


Justinian being serious, Roper’s Twitchell, August 2012


Justinian  developed  an interest in environmental issues at school through involvement in recycling projects. He has subsequently worked with several British and US-based international environmental NGOs as volunteer and paid staff, including the Sierra Club student’s coalition, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and People & Planet. In relation to Chaucer Fields, as the Blog captures, he is committed to the cause for the long term, and is spreading the word amongst peers in Indiana, and other Universities. He is hoping to work in Environmental media in the UK or elsewhere in Europe when he graduates in 2013.   Justinian is currently visiting Canterbury again – including Chaucer Fields of course (see photos). He is using the city as a base for wider European forays, combining visits to old friends, touristic travelling and  the  take up of volunteering opportunities in organic agriculture. He sees these efforts as part and parcel of his commitment to environmental respect and social justice.

Justinian not being serious, Roper’s Twitchell, August 2012


Chaucer fields. They are home to dog walkers, runners, cyclists, frisbee players, picnic makers, amateur photographers, tree climbers of all ages, and everything in between.  But, is it even more than that: It is so much more.  These fields, and the Southern Slopes of which they are part, are in my experience one of the major reasons for international students choosing to study at the Universiy of Kent.

As an international student, I had many options to study all over the world and had a list of 5 or so programs that accepted me.  I come from a small town in the USA and I grew up around parks, picnics, and the great outdoors although Indiana’s great outdoors are significantly flatter than the natural beauty you have in the UK! So  when I got the brochure from the University of Kent and saw the aerial shots of the University, its massive “green belt”  – clearly seperating it from the city, yet with Canterbury at the same time within easy reach –  I instantly knew that this place was going right up near the top on my list.  Universities in the US tend not to  have green belts: concrete and tarmac usually dominate.

I have always felt that the UK is at least five years ahead of the United States on progressive thinking and environmental responsibility and foresight.  And this thinking, of which the British should be proud, is bound up with real actions and practices. I am constantly telling my friends back in the USA how amazing it to witness people of all ages banding together here protect something they believe to be worth fighting for.

To make this post even more topical, I found out recently that my favourite spot of small woodland left on Indiana’s campus had been bulldozed without warning to expand our University’s School of Business. This last bit of unspoilt forest was taken and destroyed without so much as a blink of an eye from the general student population. Unfortunately, those of us who would like to have tried to stop it were either out of town, or too few to stop the bulldozers.  In the USA, we have been so quick to pave everything, cut ourselves off from  our natural suroundings and turn them into sterile short grass parks, interspersed with  Mcdonalds-style catering and consumption opportunities.   For those of you who don’t know, “managing nature” in America often means putting a fence around a piece of land and spraying it with pesticide every couple weeks.

Since England isn’t much bigger than my home state of Indiana and has 6 times the population –  and the South East is especially densely populated – I am convinced that the effects of losing a green space such as this would so much more devastating. It would hit hard wildlife, local nature lovers, and have knock on effects on the health and well being of locals, University staff and students alike.

Here in Canterbury, you have already fought with more vigour and strength than I have ever seen back home and it has been an inspiration to me and my Indiana friends  who have been following the development of this campaign. There is no danger of the passivity I reported in Indiana in your part of the world. The momentum behind the Chaucer Fields campaign just seems to keep on gathering. But – if  Chaucer Fields were to be been turned into a concrete revenue generation opportunity for the University in spite of this, what would have been done?  There is simply no going back. You never hear of someone tearing down a hotel to plant a garden.  Fight for this green space with everything you have.  I only wish as many of my American colleagues were as passionate about saving green space!!

PLEASE DON’T GIVE UP THE FIELDS AND SLOPES.  This thriving expanse of green space shared by so many really, really must be kept so that future generations from Britain, the USA and all over the world may share in its beauty. Ideally, the University of Kent should have a re-think on the matter, and recognise it is in its own interests to nurture and respect this wonderful place. It should develop ways to meet student accommodation needs, on or off campus, which don’t do so much damage, and  which do not severely erode its environmental reputation, and undermine its green credentials. This is counter productive, since it will obviously discourage environmentally aware students like me from choosing to study here.

Table: People & Planet’s Universities Green League table, People & Planet

Year University of Kent Christ Church University
2007 50th 93rd
2008 48th 81st
2009 21st 70th
2010 89th 56th
2011 94th 31st
2012 107 th 33rd

Source: data from subpages for relevant years at

Where am I coming from with this? As the data of well respected NGO People & Planet –  with whom I have been involved for a couple of years now –  show, the University of Kent’s lack of  green sensibility  has already demonstrably lead to a collapse in its national environmental management &  performance rating. This has unfolded especially over the past four years. There are also devils in the detail. It may be significant that its relative position has also dramatically weakened locally, as other institutions close by have improved their positions. For example, see the Table above comparing the University of Kent with Christ Church University. It now seems to me its green reputation is going to deteriorate fast at international level too, and adverse knock-on effects in terms of recruitment will follow.  That is, unless it listens to its students, staff, and local people and withdraws the ‘development’ plans in the interests of all.