By Veronica Wignall
Since the coronavirus pandemic struck the UK in early 2020, many of us have come to value our local greenspace more than ever before. For people living in a city or town, local parks in particular have been a refuge, a place to exercise, breathe and decompress from the pressures of lockdown.
Even before the pandemic however, research has shown time and again that access to urban parks improves both mental and physical health. These effects have been shown to be greater than purely those resulting from physical exercise, meaning green areas give us something extra to the benefits of stretching our legs and lungs.
Parks and public gardens bring us closer to trees, birds and other wildlife, and scientific evidence has confirmed what we often feel instinctively: immersion in nature, even through a simple walk in the park, can reduce stress and bring us a sense of peace and happiness. Is it a case of ‘any green space will do’, then? It seems not – where there are more species of plants and animals, benefits to psychological well-being are enhanced . Of course, allowing greater diversity also means that more wildlife can survive in urban centres. Parks can be oases, providing homes and highways for plants and animals within concrete jungles.
In the UK, however, public greenspaces often fall victim to an ingrained cultural focus on neatness, with short grass, regimented borders and nature under strict control in what has even been called ‘Obsessive-Tidiness Disorder’. In these spaces there is little chance for wildlife to flourish. Lately, however, there has been a surge of interest in urban re-naturing, enhancing nature within urban areas to create vibrant ‘Bio Cities’. In the Bio City, nature thrives alongside human life. Not simply a theory, cities and towns across the world are becoming ‘bio’, reconnecting people to nature and improving quality of life while increasing climate-resilience. Wilding public parks and gardens is one exciting aspect of this movement.
So how can our greenspace be ‘re-natured’ while maintaining benefits for users of the space? There will always be some areas that require a higher level of management, for example those that are a heavily-used throughway, such as the Level in Brighton. However, even these can provide havens for wildlife. The Level has gardens with insect-friendly plants, a flowering green roof above its café, and walkways lined with rare Elm trees.
In larger spaces, the opportunities to promote wildlife are correspondingly greater. Here, wilder management styles can create a mosaic of habitats to support different types of life, including those with larger territories. A diversity of flowering trees and large areas of native wildflowers can provide food and shelter for insects. Ponds can host newts or frogs, and aquatic invertebrates. Birds are able to nest in areas buffered from urban noise and pollution. Areas left to grow wild allow butterflies to lay their eggs on nettles and grasses, dormice to nest in brambles and a further myriad of secret wildnesses.
Brambles left to grow in Wild Park, Brighton, support bees and other wildlife
Creating wilder greenspaces requires a meeting of social and ecological factors. Outcomes may be messier than people are used to and there may be conversations regarding litter, safety and aesthetic ideals. ‘Friends of’ networks can help with these issues: for example, the ‘Friends of Preston Park’ group allows information-sharing and a place for regular park users and locals to communicate any concerns or suggestions. Creating clear signposting of management for wildlife is also key, as are landscaping ‘cues to care’ – framing wilder areas to show they are being deliberately managed in this way.
Creatively-enhanced wildlife signposting in St Ann’s Well Gardens, Hove
‘Cues to care’ include mowing to frame wilder areas (Wild Park, Brighton)
Managing for wildlife requires creativity, care and an understanding of the local area. Reducing contracted management and involving local voluntary groups can have social benefits as well as creating a more sustainable long-term management plan for wildlife. Wild and beautiful public spaces can also spring from reimagining neglected land. The Railway Land Nature Reserve in Lewes is a hub of social, educational and ecological projects that grew up around community restoration of derelict land no longer used for rail yards.
Two thirds of the population is expected to live in urban areas by 2050 according to the UN. Currently, publicly accessible green space accounts for just 4.9% of urban area in Great Britain . More, and wilder, greenspace should be an indisputable part of our present and future.
· The (previous) Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) produced a report in 2006 called Making contracts work for wildlife: how to encourage biodiversity in urban parks. This is a thorough guide to encouraging biodiversity in parks and green spaces, focusing on practical and social aspects, with seven successful case studies. Available here
 Fuller RA, Irvine KA, Devine-Wright P, Warren PH, Gaston KJ (2007) Psychological benefits of greenspace increase with biodiversity. Biology Letters, 3:390–394.
 Chatterton P (2019) Unlocking Sustainable Cities: A manifesto for real change. Pluto Press, London
 Nassauer JI (1995) Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames. Landscape Journal, 14:161-170.
 Office for National Statistics. UK natural capital: urban accounts.
Veronica Wignall is a PhD Researcher at the University of Sussex’ Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects. Her work focuses on key ecological and human dimensions of improving floral resource availability for flower-visiting insects.