Being in nature is good for you. All the evidence is there, it improves physical health, it lifts your mood and your spirits. Recent research, over a very long timescale, shows that the brains of older people who spend more time in nature (specifically green spaces in towns and cities) stay healthier for longer. Age-related mental decline, as it’s known, will be an ever more significant health issue as our nation ages. Interestingly, the researchers found that the effect of nature on cognitive decline was stronger in women than men. (As someone who is approaching their 54th birthday, I take some comfort from knowing the time I spend in nature will help my brain stay moderately active for longer.)
But what kind of green spaces, what kind of nature really helps people? After all, there are green spaces, and there are ‘green spaces’. Some urban parks retain that Victorian mentality of tidiness and municipal flower beds; the grass is clipped very short; any wild plant that makes an appearance in amongst the Petunias is given short shrift, or a quick squirt of herbicide. Are these the kind of places which keep us happy and healthy? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Because these places are keeping nature at bay, they are green spaces in name alone.
With these thoughts constantly swirling around my slowly declining brain cells, I made a long overdue visit to the Eden Project last week. The Eden Project is well worth a visit, if you haven’t been – and a million visitors a year also think it’s worth seeing. Originally established (in a large hole in the ground created by extracting China Clay) with Millennium Commission funding, the Eden Project is maturing into something very special. Its mission is to celebrate how fantastic nature is, and in particular how amazing plants are. Having spent a career in plant conservation, you can imagine this is something I enthusiastically support.
But I wasn’t just visiting for fun. Because the Eden Project has become an adoptive parent to another very special project, which was recently orphaned. Another beneficiary of Millennium Commission funding, was the National Wildflower Centre (NWC). The NWC was created by a fantastic charity called Landlife, whose mission was to bring nature, and especially flowers, into urban landscapes.
Landlife, like The Grasslands Trust where I used to work, succumbed to the severe impact of the Global Financial Crisis on charity funding, and went under last year. The National Wildflower Centre was left in limbo. Thankfully the Eden Project has stepped in to take it on, or under its wing.
There was a celebratory atmosphere at the rebirth of the National Wildflower Centre – perhaps there is always a celebratory atmosphere at the Eden Project. Among a number of speakers we heard from Richard Scott, who set up the NWC and will continue to lead its important work, including long term projects bringing wildflowers to urban (and often deprived) areas of Manchester and Liverpool.
Professor John Rodwell gave the main talk – emphasising the value the “ordinary” landscapes that people live in, rather than special landscapes of national parks or especially valuable wildlife habitats. Echoing those findings about nature and wellbeing I mentioned earlier, Prof Rodwell argued that “landscapes need to knit together human wellbeing and ecological vitality. Green (spaces) should be about finding Nature within 50m of your house – to inspire and sustain people.”
Rodwell also called for the restoration of natural processes in urban areas, in contrast with the conservationists and landscape architects’ tendency to want to keep everything as it is; he illustrated this with a story about an old coal mining area in the Ruhr area of Germany.
The colliery had been left to return to Nature. The physical structures of the pit were left to slowly decompose, allowing Nature to heal the scars left by industry. In stark contrast with the UK, people were encouraged to visit the place, to remember their own histories and their family’s intertwinement with the coal mine. There were no security fences, or ‘Keep Out’ signs. A safety team did the minimum necessary to reduce any significant risks, otherwise people were just expected to act sensibly. Here, the opposite usually happens. All traces of industries are cleared away as quickly as possible. Landscape architects design something new and better, to erase all trace and memory of what went before. How does this help communities come to terms with their loss?
The Eden Project’s founder, Tim Smit, appeared as if by magic at the end of the day and gave a rousing rallying cry of a speech. He wants people to be angry about the loss of nature. He called for everyone to take action, praising the guerilla gardeners putting flowers back wherever they can grow – which is, of course, everywhere.
As I left Eden, I noticed the road verges had been sown with cornfield annuals – Cornflowers, Corn Marigold, Corn Chamomile and others – plants which were so common a hundred years ago they were hardly noticed (aside from being cursed by farmers for stopping their crops from growing.) Now they are gone from our countryside – sprayed out in the name of food production.
But organisations like the National Wildflower Centre can bring them into our towns and cities.
People Need Nature looks forward to working with the Eden Project and the NWC to bring nature into people’s everyday lives.
this article first appeared on Lush Times.