Doorstep wildness - our nearness to the natural world

Addendum Oct 2007

NeighbourWoods - Good practice in urban woodland planning and design 2004

Urban Woodland Management Guides – Woodland Trust 2002/03

Addendum Nov 2007

Childrens' play in natural environments (wild play)

In the periods that I worked in a city-centre office, I would walk out at lunchtime looking for the derelict and neglected spots that wild nature was beginning to reclaim. Sad to say, this would be regarded as evidence of a city in need of regeneration and, sure enough, a few of those larger spaces were waiting their time for the heavy machinery to move in and turn them into shed complexes. But there were still little pockets where a few small trees had taken hold and had escaped the eye or reach of the “tidy mind people”. Often, a triangle of unused land would become a riot of buddleia, buzzing with bees and scenting the street, this extravagant display lasting a few years before the slashing and poisoning of the “tidy mind people” created a clean sheet – and where the buddleia could start all over again.

Sometimes you come across a bit of wild-like planting that was deliberate: an embankment clothed mostly in native trees was a better solution than open ground that needs yearly management. I was also impressed with the variety and structure of roadway median plantings, creating as they did wild food and refuge as linear woodland near to the city centre. But then the “tidy mind people” came along and grubbed out all the shrubbery below the trees as it trapped litter that they were far happier to see float away in the wind (and perhaps as far as over into the next city). Someone came along and scattered cabbage seed all over the bare soil, but what could then have been a superb harvest was destroyed by the new mowing regime.

Trees have a lean time in cities – the fabulous cherries behind city hall, and the few trees and shrubs in front were sacrificed to a remodelling that laid down vast expanses of stone paving that is a slip hazard when wet, but at least we now have a large, windswept “event space”. Trees in the shopping streets were also taken out because traders complained that their customers were in peril from bird lime. And now it is all change again as the ambitious makeover plans for the city centre envisage a lake next to city hall –downgraded to a shallow “mirror” pool - and it is unlikely that the parkland vision on a spur from city hall will be anything other than some tightly controlled landscape planting. In spite of all this, I bet I could lead a lunchtime walk around the city, as I did in those days when I worked there, and still find those derelict and neglected pockets that wild nature was beginning to reclaim.

Cities as living organisms

David Haley has been doing this for sometime now in Manchester with his portfolio of 9 and 1/2 Wild Walks that completed this weekend with a walk in the Irk Valley. The walks were an Arts & Ecology exploration of the city’s wildlife, searching the urban landscape for plant and animal habitats. Time was made on the walks for drawing and field studies, giving the walkers a feel for Manchester as a living organism. David is program leader for the Masters degree in Art as Environment at Manchester Met. He describes these walks as events that present a WILD SIDE to Manchester, seeing how creative nature can be, and giving people the chance to develop an urban wildlife aesthetic. The crowning of the walks will be a Wild Futures exhibition in summer 2008 at Urbis, an exhibition centre focusing on city life and located at the heart of Manchester (1).

All cities have their advocates for wild nature. London saw the founding in 1993 of the charity Trees for London, working with communities on tree planting projects. In 2003, the charity increased its geographical remit and changed its name to Trees for Cities, and it currently has projects underway in Leeds with the Mean Fiddler festival organisers and the Co-op Society; in Manchester working with the Red Rose Community Forest; and in Bristol and Reading (2).

As we have seen, a reason can always be found to fell urban trees but with few balancing actions of replanting – one estimate has it that 40,000 trees have been felled in London in the past five years. And wherever trees are felled in urban areas, local people end up mourning their loss. Mary Combs along with her neighbours in Bracknell expressed outrage when a local woodland was cleared within hours in May (3). The woodland was cut down by the private landowner and is currently under investigation from the Forestry Commission. But this incident sparked Mary into action because she believed that the green corridors that trees provide in Bracknell are an important part of its landscape, screening busy roads and providing refuge for wildlife. She has set up a website whose mission is very powerful (4):
“Green Corridors aims to protect, preserve and improve the linear green spaces that softly define community boundaries and which join up larger natural areas. We will work to provide animals and birds with contiguous ‘wildlife runs’ that prevent fragmentation of the natural environment by the built environment.”

Thus the website sets out to gather information and examples that will help people to protect their green spaces by knowing who to contact, what to tell them and how to use the appropriate agencies. Good for Mary who in adversity has come up with one of the better definitions for the new planning agenda of green infrastructure.

Coming back to London, it has its own Biodiversity Partnership, established in 1996, which has audited the wealth of wildlife in the 1,613 square kilometres of the capital city, and which includes extensive wild areas of woodland, heath, wetlands and marshes, and the wild fauna inhabiting the more formal parks and city squares and informal private gardens (5).

In celebration of this wildness, the Museum of Garden History and the London Wildlife Trust (a member of the London Biodiversity Partnership) held a symposium in May this year entitled “London - Wild City”. The keynote speaker was Richard Mabey whose book the Unofficial Country from 1973 is regarded to have begun the urban wildlife movement. I would like to have heard the discussion in the afternoon where they considered what wild in the city really does mean, and does London have an indigenous nature or not?

The London Wildlife Trust itself manage a range of nature reserves for public access and, while I have never been to one of them, I expect the wildlife trust are not into presiding over the self-shaping and raggedy wildness that can go on in neglected and derelict urban spaces (6). However, their more manicured efforts do meet our psychological need for a connection with wild nature (7), and the reserves will be somewhere in between on the spectrum from formal park land to uninhibited wild nature.

Spatial values for access to greenspace

English Nature (now renamed Natural England) have even put a spatial value on this psychological need in their Accessible Natural Greenspace Standards in Towns and Cities (8). At base, the standards require that no person should live more than 300m from their nearest area of natural greenspace of at least 2ha in size. That is quite a challenging standard to live up to, considering that the original layout of cities and towns has never had that as a priority. In aiming to meet that standard, would a city area demolished for regeneration ever be considered instead for greenspace – as could be the case for the recently opened up area in my local city? Could the psychological needs of healthy people ever outweigh the commercial imperative of redevelopment?

The standards go further in considering the type of greenspace when they say that there should be a provision of at least 1ha of Local Nature Reserve (LNR) per 1,000 people. An LNR is an area of wildlife or geological features that is of special interest locally, and in which the local authority has a legal interest through ownership, through leasing it, or through a reserve agreement with the owner (9). There are over 1,280 LNRs in England, covering almost 40,000 ha and ranging from coastal headlands, ancient woodlands and flower-rich meadows to former inner city railway lines, long abandoned landfill sites and industrial areas now re-colonised by wildlife. The key to their existence is that they are reserves that are “capable of being managed with the conservation of nature and/or the maintenance of special opportunities for study, research or enjoyment of nature as the priority concern.” (10)

Since over 80% of people in England live in towns and cities, the standard would argue for a total of 40,000 LNR. Thus while the current number of LNR is derisory by comparison, its total area is not far off. But 1ha has to be the minimum size of provision (the guidance from Natural England is that an LNR should normally be more than 2ha) and the standards go further by requiring that there should be at least one accessible 20ha site within 2km from home; one accessible 100ha site within 5km; and one accessible 500ha site within 10km. This is obviously a job for the geographers amongst us to get their Geographical Information Systems (GIS) cranked up and to start to map out how the regions and local government can begin to fulfill these standards.

As they will have to with the standards for provision of playing space, known as the Six Acre Standard and put out by the National Playing Fields Association (11). This is a guide for planners to ensure that sufficient land is set aside in appropriate locations to enable people of all ages, especially the young, to participate in outdoor play, games, sports and other physical recreation. The standard advocates 2.4 hectares (6 acres) of outdoor recreational space for every 1,000 people, of which 1.6 hectares should be for outdoor sport and 0.8 hectares for children’s play.

I am especially interested in that latter provision as the local urban environmental charity that I chair has just received three years funding for a wild play project entitled Wild, Adventurous, Safe Play Space (WASPS – see 12). The aim is to facilitate free play with groups of children in natural open spaces in and near the city, such as parks and woodlands (and see the briefing sheet in the Addendum below - Children’s play in natural environments). The children will be able to explore the natural world at their own pace, and it allows for fun activities such as rock-hopping up gills and becks, mini-beast hunting, den building, and art/craft activities using found natural materials. We very much want to bring nature education out of the school classroom and grounds and into the fun, natural play spaces. The project will greatly benefit from the 620ha of woodland owned by the local authority, much of it ancient and which, as an overgrown kid myself, I really enjoy walking in and learning from.

Getting woodland closeby

As we developed our ideas about this project, we moved more towards integrating the use of wild spaces and especially forest education into our overall approach to environmental literacy with the children and families that we work with. Sure enough, we came across another set of standards, in this case the Woodland Access Standard that came about from the Woods for People partnership of the Woodland Trust, the Forestry Commission and the Environment & Heritage Service (Northern Ireland) (13). The Standard is explained in Space for People (14), a Woodland Trust document that reflects the importance of woodland to human health and humour, numerous studies having shown the link between access to woodland for exercise, but also that woodland visits make people ‘happy’ and ‘relaxed’ and ‘close to nature’. Moreover, woodland next to the urban built space helps people to feel less stressed on their way to work/school/shops.

Visits to woodland occur more frequently when woodland is near to where people live so that 59% of woodland visits occur with roundtrips of less than five miles (8km). Beyond that distance, the frequency of visits drops markedly, tying in with the fact that more than half walk to woodland. On the back of this, the Standard therefore suggests that no person should live more than 500m from at least one area of openly accessible woodland of no less than 2ha in size, and that there should also be at least one area of openly accessible woodland of no less than 20ha within 4km (8km round-trip) of people’s homes.

Having set the standard, a 'provisional' dataset of openly accessible woodland in Britain and Northern Ireland was created by gathering from a wide variety of sources including local authorities, NGOs, statutory agencies, woodland management companies and private landowners. This has then been analysed to the spatial requirements of the standard: in England, about half of all woodland is openly accessible (perhaps permissive in some cases), but only 10% of the population has accessible woodland of 2ha within 500m. This goes up to 55% for accessible woodland of 20ha within 4km (in my own local authority area, the figures are respectively 4% and 48%).

What this study showed was that there is a lack of community woods within easy walking distance in the UK. Even if more of the existing woodland in England was made available to open access, then the proportion with nearby community woodland only goes up to 36%. Assuming that all woodland had open access, the Woodland Trust have estimated a minimum of extra, new woodland that would be required to ensure that we all had easy access to community woodland in England, and that comes out at about 48,000ha, but its location would have to be very well targeted. To give you some idea of relative size, that is a 5% increase in current woodland area, and represents 0.3% of the total area of England. I reckon that must be pretty well achievable. (While there is variation in the percentages and new woodland required in the other home countries, the overall trend is the same as England).

I got my ruler out to see how I fared with the various standards. My nearest woodland is about 1km from my doorstep as the crow flies, but it is 2.7ha of ancient woodland and part of a chain of four ancient woodlands that are publicly owned and have open access, and so the little extra distance to walk is no hardship. Moreover, this band of woodland adds up to 104ha and all of it is within 4km from my doorstep. Thus I qualify under the second standard of the Woods for People.

My nearest open greenspace is 500m away as the crow flies, and this is the 300ha or so of publicly owned moorland that as a registered common is also open access. In addition, the larger of the publicly owned, open access ancient woodland of 88ha at the edge of the moor has the local designation of Site of Ecological or Geological Interest (SEGI) and so I fit in the middle of the table on provision of a type of local nature reserve.

What adds excitement for me is that time is on my side for meeting the local community woodland standard. Since the FMD cull of commoners sheep on the moor, the much reduced return of grazing over the last six years is leading to widescale seeding of the moor with native trees, many hundreds of rowan and some hundreds of oak. Birch and ash regeneration is more localized to where there are seeding trees. The prospect is of a brand new wildwood developing on the moor, and I can see it develop from my study window - peaking through the houses between me and the moor are three, metre-high, rowan saplings on the horizon. What a fabulous prospect.

Mark Fisher 14 June 2007

(1) Urbis – the city centre

(2) Trees for Cities

(3) Outrage as patch of woodland stripped, Bracknell News 10 May 2007

(4) Green Corridors - Championing green corridors and joining-up the natural spaces within and between communities

(5) London Biodiversity Partnership

(6) London Wildlife Trust reserves

(7) Human well-being, natural landscapes and wildlife in urban area English Nature Science No 22, 1994

(8) Accessible natural greenspace in Towns and Cities, English Nature Research Report 153, 1995

A framework for the future:green networks with multiple uses in and around towns and cities, English Nature Research Report 256, 1997

Accessible Natural Greenspace Standards in Towns and Cities: a review and toolkit for their implementation. English Nature Research Report 526, 2003

(9) How are Local Nature Reserves declared? Natural England

(10) What are Local Nature reserves, Natural England

(11) The Six Acre Standard, National Playing Fields Association (now known as Fields in Trust)

(12) WASPS

(13) Woods for People, Woodland Trust, Forestry Commission and Environment and Heritage Service (Northern Ireland)

(14) Space for People – Targeting action for woodland access, Woodland Trust 2004

ADDENDUM - 28 October 2007

A number of resources exist to support creation and management of of urban woodland.

NeighbourWoods - Good practice in urban woodland planning and design 2004

The European Urban Forestry Research & Information Centre (EUFORIC) aims to co-ordinate, promote and develop urban forestry research, practice and education in Europe. The EUFORIC website hosts the output of a pan-European project on urban woodlands called NeighbourWoods. As the project introduction explains, urban woodlands in Europe are a primary means of keeping city dwellers in touch with nature and natural processes. The woods offer pleasant environments for rest, relaxation and recreation, and visits to woodlands and other green space can improve people’s mental and physical health. These urban green areas mau salso help to improve the urban climate, reduce air pollution, and protect city drinking water resources.

While the local park may be the place most people would visit frequently, there is evidence that urban dwellers are increasingly looking for more natural, larger areas such as urban woodlands. A woodland at urban people’s doorstep, providing multiple goods and services to the local community, could be called a NeighbourWood. These woods are not limited to areas traditionally defined as forest, but range from smaller woods to large, peri-urban wooded landscapes.

The NeighbourWoods research & development project between 2001 and 2004 identified existing good practice in urban woodland planning, design, management, information provision for decision-making, as well as public involvement. It then provided a range of tools and guidance, as well as woodland case studies from across Europe where these tools were evaluated in use.

Urban Woodland Management Guides – Woodland Trust 2002/03

Urban woods suffer a high level of public use and misuse. These pressures are similar in any wood with public access, but the key difference between urban sites and those in more rural situations is both the sheer scale of pressure and the public’s expectations of site management. The Woodland Trust has thus produced a series of five guides (PDF) as a resource for managers creating or managing urban woods:

  • Damage and misuse
  • Litter and fly-tipping
  • Complaints and queries
  • Tree planting and woodland creation
  • Thinning and felling

Addendum - 19 NOVEMBER 2007

Children’s play in natural environments

The Children's Play Infomation Service has published a gem of a briefing facsheet on wild play. It discusses what are natural environments and their playful qualities, how children interact with them, their sense of wonder and place, and useful approaches for supporting children's natural play.

Children’s play in natural environments, Martin Maudsley, Nov 2007

Factsheet of the Children’s Play Information Service, National Children’s Bureau