Are you sitting comfortably? Then I suggest standing up and looking out the window. Or even better out the door. Or better still, down the road and around the block. But before you do, here is a circular story of 120 years of green action that might inspire you to connect with what you see outside.
I’ll put my hands up and say I am shamefully ignorant of my heritage. As the great-great granddaughter of the founding father of a green social movement I should know better than most the benefits of connecting people to their environment. The narrative has been in the background my whole life. But until very recently I hadn’t understood the implications. Or the opportunity.
My ancestor up the family tree was Ebenezer Howard, the founder of the Garden City Movement which began in 1898. Arguably he was a man of concept rather than execution but his role in starting the environmental conservation in urban planning is well known in sustainability, housing and town planning circles.
The Garden City Movement was a method of urban planning where communities are surrounded by green spaces, containing a blend of housing, businesses and land for cultivation. The premise was to capture the benefits of country and city environments while avoiding the disadvantages of both – particularly the disadvantages felt by working class communities living on low wages in ever-growing and polluted cities. The method is visualised in the ‘Three magnets’ diagram which brings people together in town – country communities.
So far so relatively simple. Unfortunately, the financial backing for the planned cities wasn’t sustained by private investors – and the movement wasn’t without its detractors. The developments became the beginning of modern, in some cases ghettoised, suburban life with an over-reliance on transport to nearby cities.
Ebenezer defined the Garden City “not as a suburb but the antithesis of a suburb: not a rural retreat, but a more integrated foundation for an effective urban life”
Maybe the thing he was lacking was an eye for marketing?
Fast forward 110 years and a green eyed descendent emerges from University with a marketing degree and a bold idea to communicate good health and well-being to the masses. And instead, as all best laid plans have a habit of going awry, spent 12 years marketing cars and long-haul holidays.
Whilst on very different scales, neither of our visions went quite as expected. But good things come to those who wait.
Eighteen months ago I started at Semble to manage a fledgling campaign called Backyard Nature (BYN). BYN has a single goal – to connect children from city and country, from all socio-economic backgrounds and all cultures to the nature and green spaces around them for the benefit of their overall well-being and wider community. It was time to channel the OG of environmental social justice.
With financial backing from IFCF, support from a coalition of partners such as Clarion Futures, and a team of movement-building superstars at Semble, we have created a platform where over 13,500 amazing people have pledged to look after nature – whether at home, in school or in their local communities.
But there is so much work still to do. The poverty and mental health crises affecting children and young people coming out of this pandemic is expected to be significant and long lasting. And it will be the communities and key workers close to home who will be able to recognise, respond and take appropriate action. One of these actions will be to help children connect to the nature around them to the benefit of their physical and mental health.
Simply noticing nature has a positive benefit to a young person’s wellbeing. It has a proven and measurable impact and can be accessed in the smallest of spaces. But young people and their communities can only get these benefits with the support from appropriate resources, funding and training – with the right backing.
Whilst the Garden City Movement didn’t succeed at the turn of the 19th century for exactly those reasons, the principle of nature-integrated urban living is just what we need to build back better – and greener in 2021. The ‘three- magnets’ would have different names today but the fundamental idea is more relevant than ever. Urban centres and countryside equally need to be intertwined with accessible green spaces for nature to thrive. These spaces can be defined by the very communities they serve, representing them culturally, economically and socially. And businesses and community groups should work together to attract in co-operation, not repel in competition.
I have often wondered if Ebenezer would be disappointed that we wasted 120+ years and that a campaign such as Backyard Nature is even necessary. That we need to convince businesses to invest in trees over cars and community over capital. But as we end 2020 and start on the long green road to recovery, businesses cannot afford to be a ‘Scrooge’. We need to channel a very different Ebenezer by bringing together local agents of environmental justice and social change for the benefit of all.
Call it utopia, but it’s actually very close to home. It’s right in our backyards.
Want more on the practical, actionable solutions to greening city life for our young people? I wrote a report that was published just yesterday by Semble. Find it through the link below.