Why managing green spaces matters
By Ian Nutt, Earth Trust’s Director for Programmes and Partnerships
This week Ian reflects on how managing green spaces well can make a difference to how much we and the environment benefit from them.
What are ‘green spaces’?
At Earth Trust our mission and vision includes being champions for ‘accessible natural green spaces’ – but what does that actually mean and why is it so important? The term ‘green spaces’ is often open to interpretation, but did you know there is a set of standards that determines what green spaces the English public should have access to? Neither did I until a year or so ago (top marks to those who did!). The standards determine various levels of access that include “no person should live more than 300m from their nearest area of natural green space” through to “there should be one accessible 500 hectare site within 10km”.
These standards are set out for all local authorities to achieve (although many don’t), and there is a rapidly growing evidence base that tells us the quality, size, location, design, usage and facilitated access are all incredibly important if they are to deliver the huge breadth of benefits they offer. It is no longer good enough to have green spaces for green spaces’ sake; the detail behind them is vital and in fact provides us as a population with more than a pleasant place to kick a ball or walk the dog.
Any old ‘green’ space won’t do
For example, a new housing development near to my home has done a wonderful job with the houses built across the previously farmed fields. But two years after completion, the ‘green space’ they provided as off-setting is an open expanse of domed monoculture lawn with no trees or plants, no pathway or benches to sit and enjoy it, no ponds, no flat area for play and clearly no intention of doing anything other than mow the grass. As a result, it’s never used and this green space delivers little to nothing for either people or the environment.
High quality, well managed green spaces deliver a multitude of benefits. For people, they provide physical spaces to exercise, mental health relief, communal areas for social interaction and cleaner air. For the environment, they store carbon, support temperature regulation, help with flood alleviation and host critical biodiversity. A study from the European Commissioner for the Environment in 2013 identified that “In Europe alone, 400,000 premature deaths per year occur as a result of air pollution, at a cost of €330 billion to €940 billion”.
Looking after the land
So how do we tackle this at Earth Trust? Managing green spaces is a bit like looking after your house, garden or car: they don’t simply look after themselves and remain in good condition. It takes time, money, skills, knowledge and a huge amount of care.
Our land management team is normally made up of five staff, one apprentice, and dozens of volunteers, although resources are currently vastly depleted due to the impact of the pandemic on our income and our volunteer activities. Together they manage the amazing mix of farmland, woodland and waterways found at our places, including at five community reserves. We use techniques and practices that minimise negative impacts on the land, maximise biodiversity and actively support environmental issues. All while offering maintained, interactive spaces for people to explore and enjoy. This includes providing habitats and winter food for endangered species of farmland birds; scything meadows and hand-pulling weeds to help reduce soil compaction and improve quality; and restoring and maintaining ponds for the internationally protected great crested newt.
We’re incredibly lucky at Earth Trust to have the largest area of free to access green spaces in Oxfordshire. Our aims are to continue to provide this free access, to manage spaces so that they provide a multitude of human and environmental benefits, and to make sure that access is possible for everyone. We are on a mission to find more ways to make this model sustainable as well as replicable. This will involve politicians, policy makers and developers recognising the benefits and getting behind it with significant funding as they have in other areas. Short-sighted approaches to green spaces that see them as an ‘add-on’ risk missing the point: prevention is better than a cure. As the world faces the possibility of a green recovery, Earth Trust will be pushing for this to include recognising and valuing the precious green spaces we’ve recently come to depend on.
Which green spaces are important to you? Where would you like to see managed differently? Let us know in the comments below or on social media with #LoveItLookAfterIt