Friday, 21 June 2013

Question time: Urban nature

This week I was a panellist on the Big Green Week’s ‘Question Time: The state of nature, the next step’ (watch it here). It was a huge honour to be asked to be on the panel, and really inspiring :) We discussed everything from the badger cull (emotive topic!), to farming to feed the world, to urban nature and inspiring children and adults to reconnect with nature.

I think the most moving testimony was that of a secondary school geography teacher who said that she got her students to grow sunflower seeds, and 8 of them had never planted a seed before!

I have so many thoughts bounding around my head as a result of the panel discussion, it’s difficult to know where to start – I think the best way is to do weekly posts on each of the topics. The questions covered (i) urban nature; (ii) farming to feed the world; (iii) marine conservation; (iv) two questions from young folks – why do farmers use pesticides when they are bad for bees? & How can we engage children in schools with nature; (v) the badger cull; (vi) one big thing for nature.

Firstly, urban nature. Bristol was awarded European Green Capital for 2015 – what benefits will this give the people of Bristol? I must admit I didn't know that Bristol had been given this status, and don’t really know what it will mean to the city. However, here's an interesting fact: 90% of our UK population live in urban areas. We are a democracy, so we need to engage those 90% (and the rest!) with nature if we want people to vote for green issues and nature. We cannot hope to engage people in nature issues if they are not inspired and educated on the importance of nature on our well-being  Making nature a natural part of our urban environment is one of the main ways in which we can engage people in nature. We need to increase our green spaces, and we need to make our green spaces work for us, and engage people with our urban nature.

Bristol City Hall fronted by a large 'pond' & lots of greenery
It was beautiful weather in Bristol for the panel (shame we couldn’t have had it outside), and as I walked through the beautiful leafy streets of Bristol, and the wide green spaces filled with people, making the most of the sun and the green spaces, I thought about our connection with nature. Outside Bristol City Hall is a wide green space with trees & flowered borders, all ordered and neat, and a big stretch of clear water. I sat on a bench looking at the nature around me, and I thought… here is a space that we could make more of – plant the borders, not with neat rows of flowers, but with pollinator-friendly flowers & plants, turn the huge space of water into a thriving pond that attracts dragonflies & other water loving creatures. Then anyone sitting in the open green space would see wildlife around them, buzzing bees, flitting dragonflies, and the birds that are attracted to the insects… swifts, swallows… put up panels to explain urban wildlife, run events to engage the public with the urban wildlife & what we can do to help it.

Gardens are also a great opportunity for nature, a resource that is little considered. I have a very small garden & when we were choosing plants I had no idea of what to plant, we chose plants quite randomly. But there are lots of ways that we can make our gardens wildlife friendly [e.g. see this 'give nature a home where you live' campaign by the RSPB] – leave a bit to go wild & plant wildflower pollinator-friendly seeds, put in a small pond & let it self-colonise with plants & insects (and amphibians if you’re lucky!), make a compost heap – it’s not just good for putting on your garden to help it grow but is home to lots of bugs too, make a bee hotel, install a bird-box (here are guidelines for where to place them - don't put them in direct sunlight or you will end up with cooked chicks!), leave piles of stones & dead wood for other bugs, and whatever you do DON’T USE PESTICIDES. I think this is a topic I will talk more about when I’m talking about farming practices. But our pollinator species are really not doing well – without pollinators (which aren’t just honeybees but other wild bees, butterflies, moths, flies & even beetles!) we wouldn’t have fruit, vegetables and cereals. Pesticides are designed for killing pests, i.e. our bees, butterflies, moths (& caterpillars), flies, beetles… it is a NO BRAINER in my book – of course our pollinators are in decline when they get clobbered with pesticides  - and us gardeners are a large part of that problem. The pesticides don’t just kill or build up in our inverts, but get into water courses and kill our stream invertebrates (dragonflies, mayflies…), & build up in the soil and affect other species too. And let us not forget that a lot of our wildlife, birds, mammals, survive on eating these bugs – so no bugs, no pollination, no crops, no wildlife… & no us…

As gardeners we have a responsibility on par with farmers – a responsibility to work with wildlife not against it. And if we can both manage our gardens for wildlife, and stop using pesticides on our garden we can help nature right there, and it’s immediate… by stopping pesticide use and letting our gardens work in balance with nature we can have a more natural garden with thriving wildlife, and see the benefits right there on our doorstep. In the words of buglife ‘hug a slug’. See the beauty in a slug (& all our other garden invertebrates… yes even aphids) ;) Join the RSPB campaign to give nature a home where you live.

But back to urban nature… I don’t know what the solution is for engaging our 90% of urban dwellers in nature, but it is our responsibility as nature loving citizens to try to do our bit to engage people with nature in our cities. Through increasing the benefits to wildlife of our green spaces, making more green spaces, valuing and protecting our important wildlife habitats within cities (the State of Nature report highlighted the importance of brownfield sites for rare species of plants and invertebrates), and running wildlife events that get people up & personal with the green spaces in our urban environments… these are ways of engaging people with nature & helping to educate people in the importance of nature to our survival (e.g. the Wild about Plymouth events & events run by organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts).

Daisy planting flower seeds
One of member of the audience at the panel highlighted the importance of nature to our health and wellbeing. There are studies that show the importance of getting out in nature for our own physical and mental wellbeing. As I said in an earlier blog post, I see this with my children, cooped up inside they are sullen, grumpy, tetchy & difficult to manage, but outside in nature, my daughters are animated, happy, fascinated. I have spent 15 minutes with my then 2 year old watching a slug slowly slither its way across a path, she was fascinated. Just writing this makes me realise that I don’t get out & in the dirt in nature enough with my daughters. I spend too much time turning on the tv to entertain them while I sit and keep up with nature issues on twitter – not engaging with them (to be honest it is usually first thing in the morning when I am rather lacking in energy! Am I allowed to make excuses?). But engaging with nature is critical for us adults too – I get crabby stuck indoors all the time too. And yes, I am a nature hugger, and pre-inclined to love nature, but just getting outside in touch with nature, whether just in Mutley Park while the girls are playing on the swings and slides while I get absorbed listening to the vibrant song of the blackbird, or in the cemetery trying to control the dog as a rabbit hops past making my dog salivate… or go to a beach where little sandeels wriggle out of the sand onto my toes,… nature is reviving. It lifts the spirits. And there is scientific evidence to show this.

So urban nature is essential for (i) supporting urban wildlife; (ii) getting that 90% of our population engaged with nature so that as a democracy we can vote for nature-friendly policies; (iii) for our health and wellbeing.

So get out there, hug a tree, build a wildlife garden, lie and roll in the grass & watch the clouds go by overhead, marvel at a slug, help a toad to cross the road, protect our remaining urban green spaces. Be advocates for nature. DO IT!

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this, Clare - I knew most people lived in urban places, but not 90%! I am now inspired and need to get out in that garden and make it as wildlife friendly as I can! It sounds like being on the Big Green Week Panel was interesting, too.