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How city dwellers and living things put the green into our urban open spaces


Urban planners must recognise that green spaces are not produced by professional designers alone, but by ordinary residents and all manner of plants and insects, animals and birds making themselves at home in our cities and towns, says new research sponsored by the ESRC.

What makes urban green spaces green is that they are ‘living’ - and it is this ‘more-than-human’ interactivity that is key to understanding what makes cities habitable, argues the study led by Professor Sarah Whatmore of the University of Oxford and Dr Steve Hinchliffe at the Open University.

Over the past decade, the ecology of the UK’s urban areas has gained the kind of conservation significance once reserved for rural and sparsely populated regions. Scientists now recognise that cities sustain important ‘communities’ of plants and animals drawn together from many different routes and places. Urban wildlife groups, amateur naturalists and voluntary organisations have been key players in bringing about this change of emphasis.

For the study, researchers investigated cultivation, conservation and restoration activities in the allotments, woods and brownfield sites of Birmingham and Bristol, including producing 60 hours of video footage recording social and ecological changes through the year. Their report describes in detail, among other things, the benefits of interaction between people, creatures and plants in activities such as allotment gardening, hedge-laying and landscaping.

Professor Whatmore said: “Our research has highlighted the ecological and social diversity of urban landscapes, tracking some of the flora and fauna of cities. These plants and animals are not only valuable in conservation terms - some of Britain’s rarest species, like water vole and Black Redstarts, live in cities - they are also key components of urban life. Whether rare or abundant, people put a lot into and take a lot of pleasure from urban green spaces.”

Importantly, researchers found a great variety of ecological expertise among residents’ groups; allotment associations, and others such as wildlife groups, including practical skills and local knowledge picked up through everyday observations, acquired know-how and shared enthusiasms. As a result, their report calls for a ‘redistribution of expertise’ to ensure that valuable local skills and knowledge are tapped by scientists and planning authorities responsible for green spaces.

Among examples of local action they describe are an informal group of Birmingham residents fighting alongside a wildlife trust to save a site threatened by fly-tipping, off-road driving and dog walking. Others include a project aimed at working with a local community to make better use of community gardens, many of which have been long abandoned and are a danger to public health. And they cite examples of people who organise regular wildlife surveys and clean-ups in their local woods.

A forum entitled ‘Living cities: a new agenda for urban natures’, was staged by the research team in December, 2003. It was favourably received by participants as a rare opportunity for people making decisions at national and city level to talk face-to-face with local residents’ and activists’ groups.

Professor Whatmore said: “This project has strengthened our grasp of the practical know-how, passionate enthusiasm and ecological concern that city residents bring to bear in creating various kinds of urban green space. “And our findings challenge policy makers and scientists to engage the knowledge of ordinary local people more constructively in the future.”

Becky Gammon | alfa
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