I have been musing gently for some time during lockdown in the UK on a potential living memorial to the lives lost in the Covid-19 pandemic. It would be fitting to honour the resolute bravery of those medics and care home workers saving lives and supporting the sick and dying in this unprecedented period of history - as well as those who have been forced to sacrifice their livelihoods in the economic downturn. It contains elements that will hopefully engage with some of the critical issues that arose during the pandemic; namely, the inadequate provision of sufficient accessible urban and urban fringe public open space for all and its strong linkage to better public health both mental and physical. It will draw on the observed positives of urban streets reclaimed by children and families on bicycles, cleaner air, audible birdsong, clearer night skies devoid of pollution haze, communities looking out for each other and sharing newfound skills, baking bread, swapping food plants and giving away allotment produce. My living memorial idea is a localised type of National Park, a ‘National Healthscape’, a green ring around every suitably sized human settlement (from large village to city) where the gentle benefits of better health through prevention of illness and mental balance through the joyful experience of nature can be realised. These repurposed landscapes would be linked to every household by equitably provided traffic-freed streets converted to public open space, trees, places for nature and food growing.
This is a new title but it is not a new idea.
In the nineteenth century, two of the co-founders of the National Trust, Robert Hunter and Octavia Hill, recognised the critical qualities that urban-fringe landscapes offered to their arguments for improving the nation’s health. Robert Hunter was a leader in the mission to save the last of the country’s vast stock of common land from enclosure but saw these saved commons such as Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest as a ‘folk land’, an encircling repository of fresh air, green spaces for improving the lives of people in smoke-choked Victorian industrial cities like London and Birmingham. Birmingham was the location of Robert Hunter’s speech in 1884 ‘A Suggestion for the Better Preservation of Open Spaces’which proposed the formation of corporate Land Companies to acquire commons around major cities, and disused churchyards and burial grounds to form town gardens, for the health of their citizens. This speech was reprinted and circulated in the USA leading to the creation of the Land Trusts such as that in Massachusetts in 1891. Hunter in turn borrowed its model constitution to develop the National Trust’s constitution.
Hunter’s ideas therefore melded with Octavia Hill’s thoughts. In ‘Space for the People’ Octavia Hill asked,
“Whether we cannot find remedies more thorough, and in some measure supply the healing gift of space…This space it seems is a common gift to man, a thing that he is not specially bound to provide for himself and his family; where it is not easily inherited it seems to me that it may be given by the state, the city, the millionaire without the danger of destroying the individual’s power and habit of energetic self-help…I think we want four things. Places to sit in, places to play in, places to stroll in, and places to spend a day in”
The ‘healing gift of space’, as Octavia so poetically put it, is now more relevant than ever since the Covid-19 lockdown and medical research studies continuously add to the volume of evidence that contact with green space and nature not only extends our physical lives but improves our daily mental wellbeing. The initiatives that she started in squalid and polluted London in the late nineteenth century, ‘places to sit in’ now known as pocket parks, the now ubiquitous children’s playgrounds and parks as ‘places to play in’, Green Belts and urban fringes as ‘places to stroll in’ and nearby AONBs/National Parks as places to spend a day in, are established in legislation and practice but still not equitably distributed nor easily accessible for everyone.
As Octavia Hill said in the 1880s
“Men, women and children want more than food, shelter and warmth. They want, if their lives are to be full and good, space near their homes for exercise, quiet, good air and sight of grass, trees and flowers...”
Her concept of ‘places to stroll in’ was clearly intended to focus on the edge of cities where space was available and where people could walk in the summer after work (or, in her time, on Sunday after church) with their families to enjoy fresh air, wild flowers and the sight of far-off hills. Octavia called this a ‘green belt’ of land that she envisioned could be created around every city by repurposing it for wider public use. She invented the expression ‘rights of air and exercise’ for use in such circumstances. Much of this remained hypothetical in her era as the outward built spread of cities proceeded to cover the beautiful urban fringe meadows and scattered woodlands (such as Swiss Cottage Fields) with new housing and roads – much to Octavia’s distress. Her childhood green spaces that so stirred her spirit are now buried beneath Greater London’s remorseless expansion except for those precious green gems like Parliament Hill that she, Robert Hunter and others in the Commons Preservation Society managed to fight for and acquire.
In the 1930s John Dower and his wife Pauline Trevelyan developed, with other thinkers, the idea for British National Parks. These concepts of national landscapes were well articulated and supported by an alliance of interest groups although there was little progress apart from intellectual debate. The grave national emergency that followed in 1939 and, in six years of war that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of British civilians and combatants, and the millions of people that perished across the globe, caused a respectful reflection on a suitable national memorial that would be available to be shared by all. Official discussions on a suitable national war memorial had (surprisingly) been commenced as early in the conflict as 1941. That national memorial was to be the creation of new National Parks.
After the establishment of the National Health Service in 1947, by a landslide mandated Labour government, thoughts turned towards other radical changes. In 1949 the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed to give effect to the wartime emergency and its sacrificial exhortations to fight for the country. Although National Parks had been around in the USA since the creation of Yellowstone in March 1872 none had been created in the UK. In 1951 public rights of way were created for the first time, the Countryside Code was published, and the first English National Park Authority was established in the Peak District on 17 April 1951.
Sixty-nine years later, in another national emergency and global pandemic, albeit one with an invisible enemy, thoughts similarly are turning towards a suitable memorial to those innocents who have died and those national heroes, nurses, doctors and members of the National Health Service who have selflessly striven to save many others. Arguably, the Covid19 pandemic has created a stronger case for the repurposing of the Green Belts and urban fringes, taking traffic permanently off the streets and linking people to sufficient park space to achieve these aspirations than even the multiple health crises of the nineteenth century.
There is public support for change.
A survey conducted by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in late April 2020 showed that only 9% of those surveyed wanted to return to pre-Covid 19 ‘normal’ having experienced greater social cohesion, outdoor exercise, less pollution and more wildlife in their lives during lockdown.Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, said:
"The lockdown is far from over and it’s right that the immediate emergency is the priority, but two things are important to note: firstly that the end of lockdown is ever more likely to be phase than a single event, which will take time to pass; and secondly that, amid the awful news and general doom, we must use this time to imagine a better future. This poll shows that the British people are increasingly aware that the health of people and planet are inseparable and it’s time for radical environmental, social, political and economic change.”
With c.90% of our population described as ‘urbanised’ this makes the urban spaces, inter-urban corridors and rural-urban fringe geography arguably themost important places for public health. Locations that are available to facilitate greater public health through exercise and engagement with landscape, land uses such as personal food growing, heritage and nature; thereby stimulating for everyone a sense of involvement in enhancing these places to create a better, more healthier, place for future generations to inherit and to feel a degree of ‘ownership’ and freedom, or, of commemoration and remembrance for loved ones lost.
In the UK, the last Census records that c 81.5% of the UK population live in large towns and cities and 9.1% live in rural towns, making our population over 90% ‘urbanised’. The ‘Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment’ (MENE) (a joint research programme with Defra, Natural England and the Forestry Commission) establishes clear evidence that, although just over half the population (of England) regularly engage with the natural environment through outdoor visits, the majority (c.86%) of those people only visit the natural environment within 5 miles of where they call ‘home’ and c.68% do so within just 2 miles. The vast majority of these visits are by dog-walkers. The most ethnically diverse populations live in cities. The nearest countryside experiences available to these populations are in the Green Belts and fringes of our major towns and cities.
The scale of the peri-urban landscape might be considered daunting but it is merely an identifiable framework space for action and enhancement as government has already decreed.
A key aspect of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan ‘Our Green Future’ is ‘enhancement of the Green Belts’
“Enhancement of the Green Belt to make this land ‘breathing space’ for our urban populations to enjoy, and our diverse wildlife to flourish, while delivering the homes this country needs”
Designated Green Belts alone cover c.12.5% of the English and Welsh landscape. Not every city has a Green Belt. They were originally conceived as multi-purpose landscapes providing some of the facilities and functions that we would now refer to as ecosystem services. They are capable of being an immediately accessible green setting and recreational space for dense city populations as well as a reserve of natural capital capable of enhancement for food production, recovering nature and through woodland creation mitigating climate change excesses. The greatest value of all ecosystem services is, by a long measure, the provision of health and wellbeing.
There is clearly an issue of timing and opportunity. Much of what was known in land management is in transition, climate emergencies have been declared, wildlife is fast declining and urbanisation is increasing. In the 1980s the urban fringes were facing their own issues and challenges at the advent of a post-industrial society. The remedy then was the creation of bodies like the Groundwork Trusts and the rise of the Community Forests instigated by the new Countryside Commission. These experiments are still in operation and with concepts like the Northern Forest are being given greater scope to function now in the Lancashire and Yorkshire Green Belts and urban fringes of the M62 corridor although the 50 million trees planned for it are a long term aspiration.
The Glover Review of Protected Landscapes also recognised and welcomed the initiatives around the creation of the London National Park City and the conceptual West Midlands Urban National Park. Julian Glover also specifically thought that these National Park Cities should incorporate their Green Belts within their ambitions. The government has yet to respond to the Glover Review but it also now represents a possibility to drive forwards the idea for an alliance of landowning charities, local government, national governments and public-spirited landowners to work together within a strategic framework endorsed and funded centrally. There is a strong parallel with National Park establishment in the 1940s. We are all in this pandemic experience together and we have all shown that we care for each other.
“No one will protect what they don't care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced” Sir David Attenborough
We need to establish tangible everyday experience changes to clinch the growing awareness that after the Covid-19 has blown through there is an opportunity to reach for a much better way of living.
Europe’s largest conservation body, the National Trust, prides itself on its promise that it is ‘for everyone’ and ‘for ever’. The legal permanency that Trust assets can bring to people’s lives, particularly through its open spaces, is one of its greatest historical and on-going achievements. However, is the Trust’s landholding geographically and equitably distributed enough to qualify its promise that it is truly ‘for everyone’? Although the results of the urban parks programme and the experimental project with Newcastle City Council‘s creation of a new trust for its parks will be carefully assessed there is arguably a pressing need to consider the scale of recently identified national open space deficiencies and the urban demographic demand for green space with nature and its benefits for better physical health and mental wellbeing. These needs were critically exposed during the pandemic with acute deficiencies in the equitable distribution of sufficient amounts of accessible green space to serve the government-imposed social distancing requirements on urban dwellers. The National Trust laudably kept its parks and gardens open for exercise for as long as reasonably possible but, as soon became apparent, the majority of users arrived by car because most Trust properties are distant from most population centres.
Is there a future solution ready to be activated in the peri-urban fringes and designated Green Belts where the spatial considerations are somewhat different with more available space compared to the heavily built-up urban context? Most of this space currently might be agricultural as well as a multitude of other land uses from ‘country parks’ to sand and gravel extraction but it is not (yet) built on. The other critical difference is the geographical proximity to tens of millionsof people and the potential opportunities for daily healthy walking and cycling - if access was available.
The National Trust’s new Corporate Strategy 2020-2025 contains some key ambitions in this direction.
‘We will address unequal access to nature, beauty and history’
‘Enhance urban green spaces, linking access to countryside’
‘Develop and protect local heritage, expanding access’
‘Develop urban partnerships and portfolio’
As Hilary McGrady, the Director-General of the National Trust, said in January 2020 (albeit in different times):
“In the next 10 years we will plant and establish 20 million new trees and achieve carbon net zero from our operations. We will create up to 20 new green corridors near towns and cities”
“We will make bigger spaces for nature, creating new woodland, wetland, meadows and orchards. We’ll work with local communities and partners to create more space for nature beyond our own land, helping create a landscape that is joined along natural features, like rivers, to the adjoining towns and cities.”
“Success will mean we will create and restore 25,000 hectares for nature on our own land and the same again beyond our land. This will include increasing woodland cover on our land to 17% of the total.”
“Success will mean not just increasing the number of people who visit our places but growing the diversity of people who visit and work with us, and developing the quality of the experiences they have.”
“Success will mean greater recognition of cultural and natural heritage sites that matter to local people and the delivery of 20 new green corridors: large areas of nature-rich land, connected to urban areas by safe and beautiful routes.”
Is providing new local green space now identified much more clearly as an essential national priority? Maybe these should be created as ‘new commons’ in the style of Robert Hunter’s original ambitions for shared land use with owners and the public as a form of commoner?
The Trust’s green corridor ambitions might chime well with the planned Nature Recovery Areas (NRAs), established in the 25 Year Environment Plan, that aim to cover 500,000 hectares (ideally in c20 units of c25,000 ha) of currently non-nature designated landscapes with the transformative ability to create multi-purpose features (including nature refugia, public access and engagement, climate change mitigation habitats and other items). It is possible that targeted benefits from post-Brexit environmental land management schemes will become a key fiscal mechanism using the maxim ‘public money for public goods’ to steer the NRAs towards the places with the greatest nature deficiencies (with the largest measureable improvement impacts) rather than gilding the lily of existing natural plenty. This means a steer towards a scientific analysis of the places with the greatest total of public benefits in particular for Green Belts /urban fringes and as linear inter-city or urban-rural landscape corridors with mutual benefits for wildlife and people. These can be created with imaginative design. The opportunity to now rename and refocus these NRAs as ‘Human Health and Nature Recovery Areas’might be a good one to press and direct towards the most effective public health objectives in the most nature deficient places in the urban fringes and Green Belts.
As Octavia Hill so poetically put it over 100 years ago:
“We all need space; unless we have it we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently”