I’ve been reading various sustainability journals and magazines for over twenty years now. That is not a boast about length of time nor can I claim to be an expert on sustainability – yet I am an enthusiastic supporter of it. Yet every time I put the journals down I am back in reality of inner city districts with little or no local projects in the way of nature and biodiversity support actually exist. Having lived in urban areas I ponder how the disappearance/reduction of nature has disconnected people particularly children, teenagers and adolescents and they grow into adults assuming the concrete jungle is the norm.
I’ve believed in green cities since the 1970’s when I passionately read (then) ‘book of the future’ that spoke of solar roofs, self-sufficiency, wind turbines, greener cities, vertical farming, electric cars etc. My expectations of how the early 21st-Century would turn out and the reality check are somewhat very different.
Just going off the subject of nature for a moment; having undertaken investigation into many social situations in human life the last ten years and having undertaken sustainability projects. Please note I don’t use the word ‘eco’ and prefer to use word ‘green’ sparingly as it often has a backlash of too many negative social connotations; images of idealism, re-invented hippies, failed ‘eco-projects’ that will not function in the real world – all of which conventionalist/contemporary good people (90% of us) just disengage from all too frequently.
What started off as community garden project has expanded quite well over the decade. Starting with a few indigenous seedlings sourced from accredited organisations, with each successive year the wildflower population expanded which would then be distributed across the emerging projects. Up to twenty indigenous wildflowers were grown including:
- Devisbit Scabious
- Lesser Knapweed
- Oxeye Daisy
- Ragged Robin
- Field Scabious
- Greater knapweed
- Purple Loosestrife
This list of wildflowers is not a comprehensive one – merely a starting block.
The Island Project.
I did not like this project title as people immediately assume an island in the middle of the sea. It is actually a green island in the middle of a busy inner city – yet the analogy of peaceful island in the middle of a busy sea/road is apparent.
When I became aware of this place fifteen years ago, it was always cluttered with rubbish and dog fouling. There were a few bushes and trees there, yet the soil was bald and very compacted from years of destructive people walking, sleeping and urinating or worse there.
Plants were regularly destroyed, where drunks or vagrants would sleep there or just rip them up. Litter was prolific and a battle to keep on top of. The council did make efforts to clear it every month along with the rest of the street cleaning – yet I more interested in prevention as opposed to cure. How could the littering and nature destruction be reduced?
I did ponder what positive actions could be taken? I did add some seedlings of an indigenous nature yet they were small and soon destroyed. Having matured some plants and shrubs to one metre high I added them in successive years. These were not destroyed and gave an opportunity to begin to ‘in-fill’ the spaces between the new shrubs and the original ones.
Given the very dense compacted nature of the soil, holes were dug and several hundred dendra/composting worms from Nursery1’s established wormery were added each few months. They would no doubt procreate and increase the worm population to make the soil more pliable.
The usual ten species of indigenous plants were slowly added and checked upon each few months to see if they’d be destroyed or not. It was an uphill battle, with more plants added, this deterred people from trying to sleep on the (now minimised) bald soil areas and therefore lower levels of litter were prevalent.
Field scabious, foxgloves and Greater knapweed seedlings were attracting bees and other beneficial insects which passersby would comment on the beauty of the nature and enjoying it so close the city centre. The brighter colours were cited as a reason to enjoy looking at the plants as commuters walked past the island.
Over the course of recent years I began to notice a lack of drunks or destructive members of the community were being replaced by students and professionals beginning to sit there on the island walls. By us complimenting a green space with a few indigenous species supporting seedlings and shrubs access became more widespread and appreciated.
University Planting/Biodiversity Project:
Even though I’ve been on the payroll of a traditional university for the last nine years I do not claim to be an academic (I’m sure many people would agree with that!) It has annoyed me constantly that as many universities thump the proverbial tub about the need to implement sustainability measures on all fronts of social inclusion, economic stability and environmental benign activity – it frequently smacks up as ‘all talk no action’ or a total lack of ‘practice what you preach’: all this talk about green implementation – I never actually see it happening about the University site.
For this I approached the Estates Department of this particular university and made some inroads. It is important to note you cannot just wade in like John Wayne and demand that you want to implement something; it is important to understand where the organisation is coming from. The Estates division were very supportive of indigenous planting initiatives yet had more questions on how to fund it and how to maintain it, particularly in a challenging recession and reduced University budgets.
It was explained that they fully recognised that existing plants around any UK University may not necessarily be indigenous or species supportive – yet they are kept as they are easy to maintain and require (relatively) little effort as they are, for the most part, perennial therefore just requiring the yearly ‘haircut’. This concept is known as ‘soft landscaping’, it is embraced by many organisations as understandably they wish to have a green appearance to their precious green spaces 365 days a year as part of a positive business face.
We did offer to do all the work, cover the costs of seedlings, growing, maintaining, observation and any possible data collection. The Estates division very kindly allocated some space, dug out all weeds and put fresh soil down near to one of the universities faculties.
Planting began in the mid to late 2000’s and monthly check ups were made to ensure all plants were developing okay. This was one of few projects where we did not have to constantly check for vandalism due to the universities decent security measures and a very hard working porter’s team!
A flooding issue was identified in one of the pockets of the land and we specifically added teasel plants (amongst other plants) there to specifically absorb as much water as possible, make the soil more stronger and absorbable (this is an experiment and we’ll get back to you with results on this in a few years time) and reduce the pathway flooding. Many of you would recommend a sink hole be added by digging up the ground and throwing rocks in, then covering the ground again – that may be an option for another time, for now the interest is how the plants progress.
The end result? This is a token implementation pilot scheme which will encourage the staff and students in the mid 2010’s to encourage planting around university buildings, the locale, the halls of residence or other buildings people may consider. I strongly recommend that the British Universities lead by example on this.
Producing a small article in the local student rag as well as the universities internal memo’s will communicate the efforts being made and encourage others to join in or begin their own initiatives.
If the response rate is low? So be it – this was always recognised as a long term initiative and the subtle touch of people seeing the indigenous species and doing their own research and learning about the plants will encourage more sustainable land management and support systems in place.
It is intended that student conservation organisations will spread the work out. It is great that UK student bodies have gone out and executed some verge bashing and got rid of weeds etc. For decades now – so why not supplement this with an indigenous seedling planting programme for species support mechanisms around the university.
It only takes a few people in each university to begin such a process and hand it down to their successive peers each few years. It literally is a tokenism of a few hours per person can generate a strong signal to others and the results will obviously benefit our precious eco systems in urban built up areas.
College and School sanctuary:
This was one of most contentious issues and a real challenge. To work in a ‘good school’ is almost a pointless venture (read on first!!) the good schools invariably have good management, efficient with money, they have a general positive culture backed by parents who will side with the school and all pull together quickly and efficiently to ensure an excellent education and upbringing for the 5-18 year olds.
Although I greatly praise these good school practices, I more interested in inner city tough and poor performing schools. Invariably in tough city districts you will find many a teenager disconnected from nature and actually rebelling against it; preferring to be at home in front of video games or on street with their mates bored out their minds.
This is not rebuke of our teenage nation, merely an observation of how things have evolved of the last thirty years. Many of you acknowledge this as a British cliché – yet we feel helpless and assume nothing can be done about it so we just get on with our own thing. Believe me when I say I am astounded by what our teenagers can pull off when they are empowered with the right tools.
I should point out that one particular school outwardly refused to have a recycling programme (as of 2010 when the other schools in the same district have implemented their own schemes in the mid 2000’s!) The local authority, Keep Wales Tidy, Wastesavers and other beneficial organisations offered to provide (for free) resources and services. Still an absolute ‘No!’ was given as the response to all these social and environmental improvement initiatives. It was little wonder morale was so poor. A change in management gave an opportunity to get things finally rolling.
The waste onsite had collected in the shrubs, trees and bushes over a very long period of time (and I mean ten to twenty years) so teams of litter pickers went out. Assuming one hours work per child, twenty pupils per group, and ten trips to the nature area equated to 200 hours of litter collection (150 black bags). This barely made a dent – yet with a few more years work they should have whole area cleared. This was not entirely the schools fault that the litter had accrued there, rather a combination of the wind, local industry and the main road had contributed to the build up of litter.
The soil structure was very dense and much clay was there. Composters were added which would create soil over time. The final stage, some months later was adding some 200 indigenous species of seedlings which would support local insect populations. All this was explained to the pupils who were well aware of declining bee/butterfly/ladybird etc. populations, and now empowered with skills to actually do something about it.
The feedback off the 11-15 year olds was significant and they felt a connection with nature, mainly due to hands on work and a feeling of empowering skills. All things progress – this may be common place in primary schools and nurseries for creating nature reserves, yet the main target should be secondary schools where many teens go through a period of social disconnection. They will get behind it when the project is spearheaded correctly.
Our children deserve every opportunity to connect with nature. Please do not assume all our children have access to fields, parks or even a garden. Please get in touch with your local schools, they may be grateful to have local experts or enthusiasts on board and support landscaping the nurseries/schools grounds. Together we can reconnect communities on some levels by supporting nature.
The point of sharing this is – I’m doing nothing new, none of this is trailblazing or radical – merely a biodiversity practice that many of us could easily engage on their own. There is no point people complaining about how bad the locality (in Nature related terms) is – when we start doing something about it, like wildflower planting, only then will improvements become a reality. I’m not saying planting wildflowers is the only solution, yet commencing such initiatives will help improve your locality in small steps. If you start something positive, others will continue it in their own way.