Sitting on the top floor of Barton Hill Settlement yesterday, watching the tree tops fly around in the summer wind, Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees, told us about his childhood nature adventures in and around the city.
Marvin described walking from his home in Easton to the weir in Eastville Park to spend a summer’s day swimming in the River Frome with his cousins. “No-one swims there anymore.”
The mayor had joined a meeting of community and nature groups designed to find out more about how communities connect to nature in the city.
Nature and conservation groups traditionally tend to serve the same middle-class, white communities. We want to know how to break out of this mould and how to welcome more of Bristol’s families and individuals to enjoy and care for their local wild places.
So, in partnership with the Bristol Multi Faith Forum, Black2Nature and Bristol Green Capital Partnership, Avon Wildlife Trust invited groups from across the city to tell us what we could do to support communities to connect with the nature and wildlife right where they live.
It turns out, there is already a lot going on we don’t know about.
The gathering was buzzing. Many voices shared their joyful experiences of connecting to the natural world. Angela, a regular at the Companion Planting project held on Speedwell Allotments, told us how she has now planted vegetables in her own garden, despite having had no interest in gardening before getting involved.
Angela gave a huge smile while she explained: “My children were interested so we went along. Now I go even when the children are at school, and I’ve surprised myself by growing courgettes in my own garden.”
Zehra Haq from Dhek Bhal, which supports South Asian elders and their carers, explained how members of her community enjoy being out in nature. She described the visits to nature reserves and local parks that she organises: “Elders, carers and families want to have fun and take respite in green space but where do they find out about that?”
Bristol is a green city compared to many in the UK. Yet in areas like Easton and Lawrence Hill, the most disadvantaged wards in the city, the wild places are not always cared for by all in the community. Up Our Street’s Wellbeing Research reports that 56 per cent of these communities said they relied on parks and green spaces for their wellbeing, but a similar number thought that people didn’t respect these places.
“We have a lot of drug and alcohol use going on in these places and local people do have to deal with that. A fairly regular comment from residents was that you wouldn’t see that being allowed to happen in Clifton.” said Zakiya McKenzie, a researcher on the project.
The mayor agreed these challenges are real, and that access to good quality nature is vital for improved life chances. He described his outward bound trips to the Brecon Beacons as a child, telling us that this experience of a world bigger than Bristol drove him to look outside the “urban prison” he felt he was trapped in.
“Do we need to make sure every child in Bristol has experienced being in the countryside, get them outside of the city?” the Mayor asked.
Maybe, yes. There is something primal and life affirming about climbing a hill and taking in a landscape-scale view. But something life changing can also happen when people connect to everyday nature, to their local urban landscapes, and notice what they can do to care for their own place.
From the 20 acres of heathland and woods at Troopers Hill in St George; the kilometres of leafy green cycle path winding across the City; Oldbury Court and Stoke Park in Fishponds; Netham Park in Barton Hill; Eastville Park and Snuff Mills, to the allotments and squares, gardens and wild patches in between, this is just some of East Bristol’s natural landscape.
There is a demand to know more about these places, where they are and how to enjoy them. Many ideas were shared yesterday for how people can connect, from an Open Gardens Trail to a Wild Camp in Eastville Park.
This new conversation in the city feels exciting and fertile. Bristol itself has the potential to become a world-leading urban nature reserve. Nature can improve mental and physical health and wellbeing. Nature can help us to learn together and work together. Nature can help communities to integrate at many levels: a connector, a leveller, a classroom, a playground, a hub.
Can nature help to remove barriers of race and class, and mend the fracture lines that run through Bristol?
Sarah Moore is director of communications for Avon Wildlife Trust.
Read more: Festival of Nature returns for 2017