By Rob Cowen
When I was a child, our house backed onto scrubby, steadily sloping bracken fields that rolled up to the fringe of Ilkley Moor. It wasn’t much to speak of, certainly no grand Lake District fell or sweep of stunning Cornish coast, but like all the other kids in my neighbourhood, my brother and I used it daily.
We were turfed out of the house to go play, to climb trees or build dens. Rummaging around in the leafy humus, wood and bracken we would startle deer laying-up and stumble across grass snakes, badger setts and shallow ponds alive with newts and frogs. All imparted a sense of magical ‘otherness’ to us, a perspective in contrast to our otherwise urbanised reality of classrooms, kitchen tables and TV.
It was clear grown-ups valued the bracken fields too. You could see it in the way they paused to listen to birdsong in summer or froze in delight as a roe deer stepped gingerly into their garden on a misty morning. Whether they consciously realised it or not, it was a realm outside the day-to-day, a different world that allowed them to cast a measured, objective eye back towards the pressures and stresses of their work-lives in the town. Problems that they thought towered above them somehow diminished through exposure to nature’s powerful rhythms. To all of us, the humble bracken fields were a frontier, a wild untouched edge only a stones throw from the front door.
Countryside at risk
Amid the fierce point and counterpoint that surrounds the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), the question of what will happen to such places has been somewhat forgotten. Headlines allude to ‘the countryside’ in general and conjure images of vast rolling dales and virgin, deep forest, yet the CPRE suggests that it is the undesignated ‘ordinary’ fields and green space lying on the brim of our conurbations that are at the greatest risk; they constitute 55% of the land that will be unprotected if the policy is pushed through in its current form.
Having spent the last two years writing a book about the importance of our connection to nature, I know the value of protecting these urban fringes. They are every bit as essential as ensuring Helvellyn remains building-free because whatever your conviction about planning in this country and how the UK can best meet the undeniable housing shortage, let’s not lose sight of a true fact: we all need nature and wild spaces in our lives. The proximity of it is essential to our well-being, physically and psychologically.
Need for nature
The human animal evolved to live in grass and fields, woods and rivers, mountains and coasts. The depth of our symbiotic relationship with these terrains can be seen in the way we have adapted to live in the most inhospitable places on the planet. It explains the inquisitive wonder we feel in nature as children and how a youngster can be bored by man’s greatest works of architecture, yet be entranced by a simple cave, igloo or woodland den.
Most of us however are forced to live urbanised existences dominated not by the rhythms of the seasons or the parameters of night and day, but by the daily grind. We move from the false light of laptop screens to gadget-filled homes in air-conditioned vehicles; we shut out the call of the owl or bark of the fox and watch Attenborough through the 2D filter of a TV screen; we eat plastic-packaged food from around the globe. In the struggle to establish a place in the world, there is irony in the fact that we all too often lose our connection to our closest surroundings.
It is an unhealthy divorce and one that spawned my book ‘Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild’ written with Leo Critchley. Working and living in central London, we shared an innate yearning to discover the simple activities that allowed us be in nature in the same profound way we had as children; to slow down and be physically and mentally present in the landscapes that surround us. From building and sleeping in dens to tracking animal prints through a wintery wood, ours was a journey through the UK to find and share the techniques we can all use to reconnect with nature. As well as acting as a ‘how to’ by detailing the activities themselves, the book describes the places we went in detail and looks at the wider philosophical and scientific reasons why nature has the power to transform us so completely.
Nature and health
And here’s the rub; we all instinctively know nature is good for us. Even the most die-in-the-wool urban planner would choose a hotel room with a view over one facing a brick wall. Recent research supports the facts: people who exercise outside report feeling less anxious, stressed or depressed than those who do the same distance in gyms; patients recover quicker in hospitals that face green space; birdsong affects our mood profoundly. Yet perhaps the greatest impact can be seen amongst children. Statistics in America show that on average, children spend just four to seven minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day and more than seven hours in front of an electronic screen. Natural England recently published figures that show less only 10 percent of UK children play in natural spaces. It’s no coincidence that rates of obesity, ADHD, childhood depression, anxiety and anti-social behaviour have gone through the roof since we moved our existences almost entirely indoors.
Some educational organisations have started to try and redress the balance and the findings only further support the case for greater connection to nature. Schools with environmental education programs have been found to score higher on standardised tests in maths, reading, writing. Exposure to environment-based education significantly increases performance on tests of critical thinking skills and imagination. Children’s stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces and they become less anti-social. It seems nature is vital for our sense of community.
Outdoors on our doorsteps
Many urban dwellers aren’t in a position to travel out into our national parks on a regular basis and, in any case, after twenty years of wrapping our children in cotton wool, most adults and children now lack the knowledge of how and why they should access such spaces. In towns and cities the rural fringes provide just such a space, an opportunity for outdoor play close to hand. The government should be encouraging their access and use in the same way that they espouse five fruit and vegetables a day in our diets. These ‘ordinary’ fields are a vital escape.
Of course, it is hard to quantify their ‘value’ on paper. You can’t bottle nature and sell it for a profit, otherwise people would fight to protect these edges. No, what you can do is turn the earth into mountains of money through granting permission to build on such sites. The current wording in the NPPF is putting our land at just such a risk and in the hands of financially desperate councils and recession-weary developers looking to kickstart their industry. It is not only an irresponsible move by the government, it is the exact opposite of what would be a progressive policy towards nature and planning. We should be looking to re-nature our surroundings wherever they are, not to further de-nature our towns and cities.
Building on greenfield just doesn’t make sense when there is still no shortage of brownfield sites in the UK. England has 66,000 hectares, which could be used for building, and while there is unquestionably a need for more well designed, sustainable dwellings, there are some 750,000 homes lying empty and 22 million homes that could be retrofitted or redeveloped. Some 330,000 dwellings have planning permission but have not been built. The issue, as ever, is profit. Brownfield sites yield less than greenfield developments.
However, the National Planning Policy Framework has a duty and responsibility to avoid being short-sighted and state its commitment to urban renaissance, to retrofitting cities to provide real forms of sustainable development. This is the only way to protect our cities from falling further into dereliction and the countryside that fringes them from being eroded. Furthermore, government should make a commitment and give financial incentive to developers that make urban redevelopments greener. Proximity to nature is, after all, one of the main draws of greenfield sites and re-naturing sustainable brownfield developments may yield less in profit but it would be a positive step forward. Nature is surprisingly forgiving and given the right conditions, it colonises even the most unthinkable sites again.
For me, perhaps the most worrying element of the current NPPF wording is that I’ve seen how the relaxed, ‘power in the hands of local councils’ policy can translate. One day in the late 1980s, planning was granted for a new cul-de-sac of ‘executive’ homes to be constructed over the bracken fields. Neighbours fought it not out of any sense of NIMBYism, but because it didn’t make sense: it benefited neither the future or current residents nor the land. But the developers had the council sewn up, this was, after all, ‘dead’, unprotected green space in the eyes of the decision makers.
So, all too quickly and predictably, the bracken fields were gone and up sprung a street of carbon-copy houses with high walls, fenced-off grass, tarmac drives and double garages. Someone made a lot of money but gone were the roe deer, badgers, rabbits and birds, the playgrounds and the hidden tracks, the dens and the trees for climbing. There were more kids to play with, but fewer places to play.
I know now that we all need the tangible, first-hand awareness of the natural world that comes from such ordinary spaces. How else can we expect our children to grow up to love our fields and forests, our seas and streams; how can we expect them to be responsible custodians of the planet? We all need to take the time to experience the world outside the city. Our children need nature and nature needs our children too.
Rob Cowen is co-author of ‘Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild‘, published by Hodder/Coronet.