Protecting landscapes must be a collaboration of culture, heritage and nature interests

This post is by Alison Barnes FRSA FLI, CEO New Forest National Park Authority.

As we think about and shape the future of protected landscapes, the role they play in the big issues of our time has rightly come to the fore. They are increasingly viewed as ‘engine rooms’ for a greener future focused on recovery of climate, nature and people, and imagined as nodes for an extended network of connected landscapes that could run as green veins across cities and the countryside alike. 

Protected Landscapes are at the forefront of the green recovery
This is an unequalled moment where demand for nature and our connection to it has never been stronger. The inspiration, value and importance of places such as the New Forest National Park where I have had the privilege to work for over a decade, are shining through. The power of our landscape designations is that they encompass natural beauty, cultural heritage and nature, and it is this whole package that has connected deeply with people at this time of crisis.

Dialogue with local people about what they would like to see for our landscapes in the future has brought real focus on the challenges ahead.  At the New Forest National Park, we are harnessing the zeitgeist; there is a thirst and willingness in our localities to build back better, greener, healthier and wilder.

We are implementing a vision with our communities and partners, to provide a ‘national grid for nature’; a frame from which a green recovery for our area can be inspired and driven.  And we are supporting local businesses and leading partnerships, like the Green Halo Partnership, as the country opens up after the pandemic. We are co-creating plans for nature and climate action which also support the health and prosperity of our communities. 

The four National Parks England delivery plans, published in December 2020 and the recent tripartite agreement between us and our colleagues at Natural England and the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty reflect a strong shared mission. Our attention is now focused on how to deliver more together. 

I am proud of the way that, despite resource constraints, competing priorities and in the context of the pandemic, the family of protected landscapes continues to work with communities, landowners and local partners to achieve positive change and engage with millions of people.

We need to pool resources to harness the power of landscapes
Given this momentum, we need to back the local teams and communities working tenaciously in spite of the disruption of the past 15 months, to place our collective energy and resources into securing action and move beyond sometimes negative commentary to get things done.  Partnerships within protected landscapes are championing nature, but we know we have to persuade more than just nature campaigners and ecologists of the need to work together, across all sectors, to build trusting relationships that work for our landscapes, and pool our skills and resources effectively.

I have found that landscape often reaches the parts that a focus on nature alone cannot. Landscape, defined as “an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors” taps into the things that determine the human fabric of the communities we live and work in: our history, cultures and sense of identity.  It is a dimension beyond the focus on targets for nature, plans and governance.  This was reflected by Dame Fiona Reynolds in The fight for beauty. She makes the case for beauty as “touching emotions that are deeper and more meaningful to us”, and crucial to “raise our expectations of ourselves and each other”. 

It is important to reach hearts as well as minds
This prompts us to imagine the ‘at scale’ opportunities that thinking through the lens of landscape gives us in addressing the big challenges of our times.  In any target driven, scientifically defined approach, the hard and urgent calls for nature and climate need to be handled with an understanding of the human spirit.  A collaboration of knowledge and awareness.

I read recently that one of my heroines, Dr Jane Goodall, had won the 2021 Templeton prize in recognition of her life’s work on animal intelligence and humanity. Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, said her work exemplified “humility, spiritual curiosity and discovery… Her achievements go beyond the traditional parameters of scientific research to define our perception of what it means to be human.”  Dr Goodall calls herself an advocate rather than an activist which, she says, “has a ring of aggressiveness”, adding: “I believe people will only change from within. So to change people, you have to reach their hearts.“

By working consciously as advocates for the whole landscape, of course for nature, but also for cultural heritage and natural beauty, we can tap into that extra something that deeply motivates people; we can develop a shared mission, more connected to the landscapes we are passionate about.  In doing so, we will raise our chances of achieving our aims together, like never before, addressing the climate, nature and health crises by reaching people’s hearts.  Without this, our work is likely to be more adversarial and runs the risk of the problem being considered someone else’s job, responsibility or field of expertise.

Maybe this is the fundamental shift needed to transform our landscapes. It is perhaps one of the hardest because it requires us all to look at the way we work and at the motivations of our communities and of each other.

Landscapes are shaped by people and the way we work with each other and within our communities will determine our legacy. Let’s commit to building ‘bigger, better, more joined up’ human networks for our landscapes to support our drive to protect and enhance nature. We hold the heritage of our past and the possibilities for future generations in all our hands and true success will lie in inspiring many, many more with this vision.

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