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To level up access to nature we need to act for people as well as wildlife

Louise Hartley, Senior Programme Manager at Earthwatch Europe, tells the story of the Tiny Forest programme, and shares thoughts on inclusive solutions to level up access to nature.

May 2022

The benefits of nature on our mental health are well-evidenced. Wildlife-rich environments reduce stress, improve mood, and reduce social isolation. Just 20 minutes of nature experience has been shown to significantly lower stress hormones, and research has demonstrated that people with high nature connectedness are 1.7 times more likely to report that their lives are worthwhile.

But people in the UK also face stark inequalities in their access to nature. The most disadvantaged and excluded neighbourhoods are the least likely to have accessible nature-rich spaces within a short distance. Minority ethnic groups are twice as likely to live in nature-poor neighbourhoods. And these disadvantaged communities are overwhelmingly found in built-up urban areas.

Earthwatch planted the first Tiny Forest in the UK in March 2020. Now 149 communities in some of the UK’s biggest cities, from London and Bristol to Glasgow, have a forest on their doorstep. And although that number is an achievement in itself, the real celebration is in the unexpectedly powerful social aspect of the Tiny Forest movement.

A Tiny Forest consists of 600 trees, selected from native species and densely planted using the Miyawaki planting method, in an area typically the size of a tennis court. It is perfectly suited to built-up urban environments where space is at a premium.

At Earthwatch, we were initially attracted to the Tiny Forest concept because of its potential to bring quality green spaces to urban areas. Over the course of two years we have learned that the power of these forests is very much in the involvement and ownership of them by the local community.

Schools and community groups are invited to join the planting of each forest. At a planting on the grounds of Queensmead Primary School in Leicester, one of the students said that she was most enjoying “how we were working together for the trees and the planet.”

Beyond planting, schools can continue to use the forests for outdoor education, and each forest has a team of volunteer Tree Keepers, who help maintain and their Tiny Forest and inspire their local communities to stay involved using citizen science monitoring surveys. The forests are fast becoming community assets, connecting people with each other as well as with nature.

One of the latest forests is at Littlemore Mental Health Centre in Oxford, which provides specialist care for people experiencing a range of mental health difficulties. Martin Brimacombe, Estates Officer for the Littlemore Centre, has taken on the role of Tree Keeper for this Tiny Forest. He will be involving patients and staff as fellow Tree Keepers and engaging them with maintenance work and monitoring activities. “We all look forward to seeing the developments of this wonderful area, measuring the growth performance and recording wildlife and flora within it,” says Martin.

There are many barriers to engaging with nature for those who need it most. Multiple societal barriers exist around awareness of and confidence in accessing green space, even when it is nearby. By facilitating ongoing engagement with a natural community asset, we have found an impactful way of overcoming some of those barriers.

It has shown that, to truly level up access to nature, we must design solutions that are inclusive and designed with communities in mind.

Earthwatch is a supporter of Wildlife and Countryside Link’s 'Nature for Everyone' campaign to guarantee a legal right to local nature for everyone. Sign the petition here.

Louise Hartley is Senior Programme Manager at Earthwatch Europe.  

Image credits: MINI UK

Follow: @Earthwatch_Eur

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