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How London is shifting the nature debate

Vauxhall Pocket Park Piazza 2 credit Vauxhall OneThis post is by Peter Massini, principal policy officer – green infrastructure, at the Greater London Authority. He writes here in a personal capacity.

The natural environment sector shares a general aim: the protection, conservation and improvement of nature. It has had some notable successes, mainly relating to the protection and enhancement of the most special parts of the natural environment. But, despite the array of policies, protocols and projects the sector has helped to develop and deliver, most of us would admit we haven’t been as successful as we would have liked. Most indicators show many UK habitats and species continuing to decline.

We struggle for coherent and compelling narratives that can be understood and embraced by the wider public and championed by politicians and decision makers. While some of us want to reconnect people with nature to establish a groundswell of public support, others promote rewilding which, perhaps unintentionally, can be perceived as excluding people from the equation.

Nature means different things to different people
The terms ‘nature’ and ‘natural environment’ lack clarity and meaning for most people. They can suggest anything, from the biosphere to local green spaces, from wilderness to farmed landscape. For most people I would suggest nature equals wildlife; and the natural environment is a catch all for landscape and countryside that is not urbanised. For some, nature is a spiritual concept and, for others, it is the sum of the species and habitats that we have so rigorously named and counted since Linnaeus gave us the ability to classify the natural world.

Concepts like ecosystem services can raise awareness and understanding of the importance of the natural environment. Some in the sector are concerned by the potential implications of putting anthropocentric and utilitarian values at the centre of the debate. But it is just what we need to do to provide the growing, and increasingly urbanised, population with better reasons to welcome, and pay for, different approaches to land use and management. This is particularly important given the pressures from other legitimate and necessary demands, like housing, on our limited land resources.

Using the term green infrastructure is one way to increase public appreciation of environmental benefits. It presents features, like trees, woodlands, wetlands, and fabricated green spaces, like green roofs and rain gardens, as useful products providing necessary services that can make our lives easier, healthier, happier and more productive.

It is a way to frame the issue for some of the people we need to convince. As a society we don’t often dispute the need for investment in better and more efficient utility and transport infrastructure; because collectively we understand its benefits.

Changing the way we think about nature
This is most relevant in our towns and cities, where the majority of us live and work. In London we are challenging the way we think about how we plan, design and manage nature and green spaces. The recent report of the Green Infrastructure Task Force aims to encourage a shift in policy, away from the intangibles of nature towards services that address people’s needs, but in ways that also make the city greener and more ecologically robust in the longer term. These benefits include flood mitigation, improving air and water quality, cooling the urban environment and enhancing activities like walking and cycling.

It is an idea that helps to reinforce the premise that existing green spaces and new green infrastructure should address the city’s contemporary and future challenges, rather than simply reflecting historic design and uses. Should we, for example, maintain and manage a park primarily as a place to promenade as its Victorian layout might have intended, or should we turn in into a floodable space because that is the more urgent current and future need?

Nature is not excluded from these objectives; it is bound up with them. A green infrastructure, based on the principles of ecology, requires systems and approaches that are nature based or mimic natural processes. And they are not an attack on heritage and beauty. A space that has high intrinsic heritage and cultural value, including sites which are a refuge for rare species or a designed landscape, should be protected and managed to conserve that value, just as we would conserve a notable painting or a listed building.

Dame Fiona Reynolds asked the question, in a previous blog post, ’Will beauty be the source of our salvation?’ She argues eloquently that “we need to give people…first hand experiences of the natural resources on which we depend, including the beauty of nature and our countryside” and that we should strive for “more beauty in town and country, bringing nature closer to people and people closer to nature”. I agree, wholeheartedly. The beauty and intrinsic value of nature has always been my personal inspiration. But a more consumer orientated, outcome based approach may, for now, prove to be the most persuasive way to bring the benefits of nature into sharper focus.

With thanks to Katherine Drayson for valuable feedback and comment.


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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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