Headlines: November 26th, 2004

Town planners are being reminded today that green spaces in urban areas are not created just by professional designers but also by ordinary residents and by the variety of plants, insects, animals and birds that make a home in cities and towns. The message is contained in new research sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council.The study, led by Oxford Professor Sarah Whatmore and Dr Steve Hinchliffe at the Open University, says that what makes urban green spaces green is that they are ‘living’ and this fact, more-than-human interactivity, is key to understanding what makes cities habitable. The researchers say that over the past decade, the ecology of Britain’s urban areas has gained the kind of conservation significance once only found in rural and sparsely populated regions. Scientists, they believe, now recognise that cities sustain important communities of plants and animals and that urban wildlife groups, amateur naturalists and voluntary organisations have played an important part in bringing about this change.

The researchers investigated cultivation, conservation and restoration in allotments, woods and brownfield sites in Birmingham and Bristol. The report describes the benefits of interaction between people, creatures and plants in activities such as allotment gardening, hedge-laying and landscaping.

The study found a great variety of ecological expertise among residents’ groups, allotment associations, and bodies like wildlife groups, including practical skills, local knowledge picked up through everyday observations, acquired know-how and shared enthusiasms. As a result, the report calls for a ‘redistribution of expertise’ to ensure that valuable local skills and knowledge are tapped by scientists and planning authorities.

The report cites examples to back this call, including an informal group of Birmingham residents who are fighting alongside a wildlife trust to save a site threatened by fly-tipping, off-road driving and dog walking. Other projects include working with local people to make better use of community gardens.

Professor Whatmore said the project had shown the levels of practical know-how, passionate enthusiasm and ecological concern that city residents bring to bear in creating various kinds of urban green space. “Our findings challenge policy makers and scientists to engage the knowledge of ordinary local people more constructively in the future,” she said.