BBC Wildlife Magazine

Urban parks

Green by name but depleted in nature, urban green spaces are now battle grounds in the fight for biodiversi­ty.

- By Alex Morss Illustrati­ons Dawn Cooper

Is it time for a rethink when it comes to green spaces in our towns and cities?

It is time to wake up and smell the grass – to recognise that Britain is slumped, somewhat obliviousl­y, in a blurry, lime-green hangover that’s been going on for so long that we no longer seem to recognise what’s not natural and normal.

Protests this year have prompted concern, by scientists and campaigner­s, about how Britain cares for its half a million hectares of urban green land, and what we perceive as ‘nature’.

With Britain having lost about 97 per cent – three million hectares – of its wildflower-rich grasslands since the 1940s, our closely strimmed parks, greens, school fields, university lawns, squares, landscaped grounds and sports fields could offer alternativ­e refuge to declining wildlife.

We have more than 84,000 hectares of publicly accessible urban green space, and 62,000 parks and green spaces. However, the Wildlife Trusts has estimated that two-thirds of amenity grasslands are close-mown. Significan­t amounts of them are wildlife depleted, chemically treated or environmen­tally worse than they could be.

“It was surreal to compare the level of public outcry at digging up a few square metres of barren lawn, to almost apathy towards inaction on the climate crisis.”

Ironically, there has been repeated public outcry over damage to short grass, caused by environmen­tal protestors during demonstrat­ions, not matched by a whisper of public concern about those same places often being ecological disaster zones in the first place. In February, when a stampede of more than 15,000 Greta Thunberg followers squished the short turf on College Green in Bristol into a muddy mush, there was public rage at the ‘damage’.

It emerged afterwards that there was no serious damage – unless you count years of wildlife declines. The fury was the second high-profile example that month of mass rage – the other being at Trinity College in Cambridge. In both cases, a more important concern was overlooked – some of our urban greens are so barren that there is comparativ­ely little wildlife left to harm or lose.

But we can fix this. There is an exciting twist to Greta Thunberg’s visit to Bristol that addresses this concern – wildflower­s will be growing in the young activists’ footsteps. The community ploughed more than £20,000 into a crowd funder to transform College Green and other green spaces, in an attempt to bring more wildlife back into the city, bring people closer to it, and inspire them. Bristol was, of course, the first British city to declare both a climate and ecological emergency.

Chris Packham, TV naturalist and cofounder of Wildlife Rebellion, said: “This is a superb example of community spirit and people coming together to make a positive impact for green spaces across Bristol. We’re excited to be working alongside Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate and partners to help transform College Green into the best it can be, for wildlife and for people.”

If a challengin­g, heavily used city centre space like College Green can be improved for wildlife – and it can – surely almost anywhere can. Simple steps all help drive up the wildlife richness of an urban space, such as adding native British wildflower­s, carefully choosing nectar-rich ornamental­s instead of pretty but poor exotics, reducing mowing, reducing light pollution, adding wildlife shelter areas, good bee nesting spots, bird or bat nestboxes, native trees or a modest pond with native plants.

In the Cambridge case, there was public anger when Extinction Rebellion (XR) protestors dug up a manicured university lawn. Three people were arrested and charged with causing criminal damage. XR spokeswoma­n Amelia Halls said: “Lawns are a class and status symbol. There needs to be a complete re-evaluation of what we understand to be heritage, when lawns could be full of wildlife. We should use green spaces to bring back biodiversi­ty.

“The reaction highlighte­d the class divide in Cambridge. The grass was part of a vast expanse of lawns that are ecological­ly barren. You are not even allowed to walk on them. They are there just to be looked at. They require a huge amount of maintenanc­e and watering, giving nothing in return.

“It was surreal to compare the level of internatio­nal coverage and public outcry at digging up a few square metres of barren lawn, to almost apathy towards inaction on the climate and ecological crisis.”

A press spokespers­on for the University of Cambridge said each of its colleges decides its own policies, but added:

“We are working on a biodiversi­ty plan that is in the planning and approval stage.”

Kings College in Cambridge, for example, this year transforme­d the famous Chapel lawn into taller, insect-rich wildflower meadows. It had been short and pristine for centuries. The College gardeners recognised it was species-poor, almost a monocultur­e, and they introduced a riot of summer colour with harebells, buttercups, poppies and much more besides. Here, the ‘keep off’ signs have been removed, making way for public paths mown through the tall meadows.

Buglife’s chief executive Matt Shardlow said: “Many Cambridge University greens have been intensivel­y treated with insecticid­es, including the persistent, and now banned, neonicotin­oids, to get rid of chafer beetles – so, these lawns are generally highly sanitised and sterile. Much more wildlife could thrive in Cambridge if it was given the space to do so on these currently over-manicured carpets of green.”

He added: “Too much of our urban landscape is dull municipal grassland, but several cities are showing the way and planting up large areas with wildflower­s and relaxing the management [of these spaces], to create a safe space for bees and other biodiversi­ty. It would be great if this was done everywhere, and our guidance for local authoritie­s to help them to look after pollinator­s sets out how to do so.”

Buglife research shows that about half of our bumblebee species are in decline (three others have already gone extinct). Two-thirds of our moths are in long-term decline, 71 per cent of our butterflie­s are in decline. Across Europe, 38 per cent of bee and hoverfly species are in decline. The charity’s Urban Buzz project has

“Many golf clubs have introduced the idea of ecological rough areas, managed to enable local flora and fauna to flourish and vital for rare invertebra­tes.”

created an impressive 275 hectares of wildlife habitat across 973 green spaces in eight Welsh and English cities.

A YouGov poll by Buglife and Friends of the Earth revealed that 92 per cent of British people wanted councils to plant more wildflower­s for pollinator­s in parks and other green spaces, 81 per cent wanted councils to help bees by reducing mowing.

Urban pollinator­s researcher Dr Katherine Baldock said: “There is huge variation in how they are managed. This has implicatio­ns for how beneficial they are for pollinator­s and other wildlife. Parks, road verges and other amenity grassland areas have potential to be good if mown less frequently. There are some great examples across the country where this has been done, but this approach needs to be carried out more widely in order to create connected networks of good quality habitat for species to thrive.”

Short turf is a historical relic, handed down as a centurieso­ld tradition from times when lawns were an expensive, labourinte­nsive fashion among the upper classes – later becoming a wider, aspiration­al status symbol after Edwin Beard Budding invented the lawn mower in 1830. And though the Victorians introduced thousands of parks to create green lungs for city workers, their short ‘look’ – with optional stripes – has prevailed like a terrible hangover. The appearance is even replicated in plastic and some lawn lovers spray paint their scorched, yellowing turf.

Professor of ecology Jane Memmott said mowing less would save councils money and green spaces would look “less like a billiard table and more like a floral tapestry”.

These bright-green carpets are often achieved with chemical fertiliser­s, herbicides or pesticides combined with turfing or monocultur­e grass re-seeding, which reduces soil and plant fauna as well as floral diversity. In contrast, a more natural grassland has a greater diversity of grasses and wild herbs, complete with deeper roots, and these feed or shelter a wider array of insects, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Less intensivel­y managed green spaces also cut pollution emissions, store more carbon, conserve more water and save labour and funding.

The short-lived, exotic horticultu­ral beds favoured in some parks have high environmen­tal costs, too – such as frequent watering, use of peat, transport, labour, pollution, carbon emissions – and many are less valuable to pollinator­s than those that champion British species.

The National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces has warned of long-term damage to parks and their wildlife after years of budget cuts. Yet research by The City of Edinburgh Council showed parks can return £12 in social, environmen­tal and economic benefits for every £1 invested in them. Meanwhile, studies at the University of Derby have shown that closeness to nature, including wildlife in parks, enhances human health and well-being, and improves wildlife conservati­on (as people feel more connected to nature).

Rob Acton-Campbell, Chair of Bristol and Bath Parks Foundation, said: “I would like to see a review of all parks, with an aim that hay cuts or rewilding should be the default unless the area is needed for another purpose. All areas need to be properly managed with the timing of cuts considered and sufficient funding.”

Elsewhere, community groups have been fighting hard to protect and wild-up shared spaces. Blackpool Open Green Spaces campaigner­s have been resisting the selling of public green spaces, golf courses and parkland for developmen­t. The town has one of the lowest green space percentage­s in the country and the lowest tree count for any town in England.

In London, Lucy Neal, co-founder of London National Park City, is one of many residents calling on councils to help bring more wildlife into the capital’s 3,000 parks and green spaces: “Fishponds Fields is 10 acres in Tooting offering a densely populated town centre an opportunit­y for reimaginin­g green space for nature connection, increased biodiversi­ty and rewilding,” she said. “Here, there are very few green spaces within walking distance of many families.

“I hope, one day, we will hear bees buzzing, see butterflie­s, grasshoppe­rs, bats, moths, owls, fruit orchards, vegetable growing, children playing and a lively, diverse community gathering. We can make the land work for everyone and every living thing.”

Even a croquet lawn can be managed sympatheti­cally. At Chastleton House and Garden in Oxfordshir­e, the National Trust says no fertiliser­s or herbicides are used, and dandelions, daisies and fairy rings are seen. “Croquet players have learnt to overcome its bouncy nature, and a green woodpecker is often seen feeding on the ants,” says the National Trust’s Sian Thomas. “Surroundin­g grass has longer meadow areas, not cut until summer to support more diverse wildlife.”

Britain’s 3,000 golf clubs – covering 125,000 hectares of green space – are

also being encouraged to be wilder by the RSPB’s business conservati­on adviser, Dr Marie Athorn: “Small alteration­s in intensity and timing of management could provide valuable habitat for at-risk species. Many golf clubs have introduced the idea of ecological rough areas, managed to enable local flora and fauna to flourish and vital for rare invertebra­tes, especially bees.”

Nick Marriner of the Chilterns Conservati­on Board has funding to offer clubs ecological support for habitat creation on golf courses. “Golf clubs often get a bad press for their wildlife management but I am really keen to dispel this myth,” he says, citing one Oxfordshir­e golf course where he regularly records over 50 bird species on a morning walk.

For most of the world’s population, daily nature contact is urban. There is no national policy or law to invest in bringing more wildlife back to these green spaces, other than a vague duty on councils to maintain and enhance biodiversi­ty on their land. The efforts

I saw when researchin­g this piece were led mostly by community groups, charities and individual­s. This is where and how ecological emergency transforma­tion seems to be happening.

If a city were viewed as a wild creature, its heart might be its people; the fresh flowing rivers and flower-lined paths its veins. Its immune system and lungs would be in the parks and other green spaces. These would be its natural health system. Where nature breathes and thrives, we do too.

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 ?? ALEX MORSS is an ecologist, science journalist and author who champions wilder parks. ??
ALEX MORSS is an ecologist, science journalist and author who champions wilder parks.

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