Maxwell Ayamba’s speech at the Natural England’s reception, Houses of Parliament, March 23rd 2022.
“When we lose nature, we lose a greater part of what makes us happy as human beings, because we are part of nature” – I call it biocentric.
Where I came from originally, we have this saying, “He who plants a tree with the knowledge that he will NOT live long to sit under it has indeed discovered the TRUE meaning of life” – this what I will refer to as Nature Recovery
The Sheffield Environmental Movement which I founded in 2016 is a signatory to 60+ organisations in a major new cross-sector campaign warning Government’s levelling up plans will fail unless they include levelling up access to nature.
These more than 60 nature, planning, health and equality organisations have on 21 Feb 2022 launched the new ‘Nature For Everyone’ campaign, calling for a ‘legal right to nature’ to be a key component of the Government’s Levelling Up reforms.
New research finds 85% of people in nature-deprived areas say more natural spaces would improve their quality of life
83% of Brits want greater protections to stop nature loss to development, and 85% say accessible natural spaces should be a much higher priority in new developments.
80% of Brits want a ‘legal right to local nature’, with 83% saying having access to local natural spaces is more important post-pandemic
Research from Wildlife and Countryside Link evidence how access to nature shows a huge public demand for more and better natural spaces (particularly the most deprived and excluded) and the need for national and local leaders to deliver.
Therefore, working as a local leader what does nature really mean for people and how is this transforming lives in communities we represent and serve?
The answer is simple – it is about how local nature and access is made relevant to the physical and mental well-being of people in these communities.
To quote Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, “The Government says levelling up means pride of place and equal opportunity. But for many people, this ends the moment they step out of their door. So many lives are worsened or shortened by disconnection from nature. So many lives could be improved by the chance to get active, get together and get in touch with nature.
I have always described access to nature ‘Our Natural Health Service”. But how do we make this service accessible and relevant to people in deprived communities who are less privileged and historically disconnected from nature, yet suffer from the worst impact, for example air pollution? It is on record that there’s greater disparity in the quality of natural green spaces between the more influent areas and deprived areas. But also, people in deprived communities’ ability to access the great outdoors and wider countryside. I have often said the poor did not choose to live where they live but live where they do because they are poor.
And as David Attenborough once said, “No one will care about what they have not experienced”. And this is a truism, because people in deprived communities have socio-economic and psycho-social problems to contend with daily, so caring about their local environment is the last thing on their minds or venture into the great outdoors or wider countryside.
Nonetheless, from our observations, this mind is shifting since the pandemic, with increase in demand placed on local nature and access. We noticed Covid-19 has contributed to this. It highlights how detrimental respiratory diseases such as high levels of air pollution and living a sedentary life necessitates the need to care and access local environments and the great outdoors including the countryside.
To make nature relevant in these communities we deploy create ways to highlight the intersecting aspects of spaces people live in, or near to that they would not normally access. We employ use of the Imperial College’s OPAL Explore Nature Citizen Science as a participatory tool to help people investigate their local environments for example, the impact of air pollution.
In doing this, we use bio-indicators such as lichens (xanthoria lichen) and black tar on sycamore tree leaves as evidence of air pollution where participants can see visually, helping to raise awareness. Prior to undertaking participatory walks to zones of air pollution we show images of how breathing in polluted air such as nitrogen dioxide has an impact on their health and wellbeing.
We then provide participants with digital cameras as photovoice to capture evidence of pollution to share with family or friends. And in fact, most participants either suffer from some form of cardiovascular disease such as asthma or know of someone. For example, the death of Ella Addo Kissi in 2013 aged 9, from Peckham was the first death in Britain ruled by the courts linked to air pollution. Bad news such as this encourages people to want to go for walks in the countryside, in other less polluted areas of green spaces or care for natural local spaces.
By undertaking creative walking with people has helped mitigate isolation and anxiety thus helping to improve people’s mental and physical wellbeing, enhance social connectivity, facilitate cultural empowerment – thereby address social exclusion. For example, the 100 Black Men Walk for Health Group set up in 2004 which inspired production of the national play Black Men Walking by Eclipse and Royal Theatre Production in 2018/19 was the first people of colour walking group in Britain – it is now called Walk for Health.
Another method used to make nature relevant to people in communities is what I call “Harvesting Our Heritage”, which involves foraging. Participants are supported by a certified Medical Herbalist to learn about local plants and their medicinal uses which helps them to understand the importance of caring for nature in local environments as their heritage. Participants exchange oral knowledge sharing uses of traditional plants in the UK or back in their countries of origin. In conclusion, it is therefore fair to say we have already been practicing Green Social Prescribing before it was launched by Government. But above all, we have made nature relevant to the lives of people by reconnecting them through various participatory methods.