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Green spaces - giving access to all

Ian Nutt, Director of Programmes and Partnerships at the Earth Trust, writes on the need to make green spaces accessible for everyone - and suggests how this can be achieved.

October 2020

The term ‘green space’ is, initially, a broad and general one, although when you metaphorically dig beneath the surface, it becomes clear that this simple term is intended to address a wealth of complex issues that are key to how we humans interact with our planet. This interaction is only possible when the spaces themselves are accessible.

At the Earth Trust, in south Oxfordshire, we’re incredibly fortunate to own more than 1,200 acres of mixed farmland, woodland and waterways, as well as managing five community reserves, providing free access to all. This summer’s combination of warm weather and the hyper-localisation effect of lockdown meant we saw not just a significant increase in visitor footfall, but a discernible shift in the profile of our visitors too. The use and need for green spaces has never been greater, as we became more reliant on them for exercise, mental wellbeing support, places to socialise, connecting with the environment and natural world. So how do capitalise on this moment in time and ensure that these spaces deliver equally for populations and truly are accessible for everyone?

The nationally accepted ‘Accessible Natural Greenspace Standards’ lay out for local authorities the required provision of green spaces for their resident population, including the stipulation for a 100 hectare site within 5km and a 500 hectare space within 10km of every resident. This is undoubtedly a good thing, but misses the point of them being ‘accessible’ and particularly with a focus on the equality of that access. By default, a site that is 5-10km away from somebody’s home assumes they will need at least a bike, if not a car or public transport route to get there. In fact, the reluctance to actively support people’s access to the natural environment assumes a further degree of deprivation due to a postcode lottery.

Furthermore, access needs to be facilitated. A bit like arriving at a party where you don’t know anybody, most people who do access green spaces do so habitually, and miss exploring beyond the beaten track, the wealth and richness that large diverse spaces have to offer. It is our duty to make these spaces welcoming, to encourage people to become immersed in the experience and to interpret and apply their experiences so that they make informed choices that invest in a greener future.

This shift in how we view equal access to high quality green spaces clearly requires investment, in the same way that we invest in roads, infrastructure or health care. The impacts are well documented, but currently green space infrastructure is taken for granted as a ‘natural asset’. Our understanding about the critical importance of not abusing these assets has shifted and we can no longer simply rely on them to deliver for us without investment.

If we can balance the investment of time, money and understanding the value of our green spaces, then they really do have the power to deliver a return on our investment. The outcomes they are capable of providing, after all, make up some of the basic building blocks of life: clean air, biodiversity, quality water, physical and mental health, a carbon ‘buffer’, atmospheric coolant, genetic banks.

The Earth Trust is embarking on a strong and exciting future that puts accessible green spaces of high quality at the heart of a green recovery. Engaging people in actively participating, experiencing and learning about their green spaces forms the core of our delivery and we are keen to work with partners who share this vision.

Ian Nutt is Director of Programmes and Partnerships at the Earth Trust

Follow: @earth_trust

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.