Catrin Rathbone (University of Birmingham), Ivan Eikelenboom (TU Delft), Owain Rose (University of Birmingham)
Green spaces provide areas for nature to thrive within our increasingly anthropogenic world. In Dakar, the sacred baobab trees have stood bold amidst the urbanisation around them and continue to hold religious and pre-colonial ecological significance to the people, as do the Princess Vlei wetlands in South Africa. The value of these spaces is also seen in Cologne, where the people have petitioned to save an ancient chestnut tree which they recognise as a “resting place” and “life giver”. In Birmingham, parks designed to be “lungs” of the city by the Victorians are still enjoyed today by people of all ages for exercise, socialisation and mental respite. The impressive stretching views of the Brecon Beacons are scarred from the footfall of those immersing themselves in the depths of the national park.
These green-spaces can help us to reflect on the past and learn about who we are, whilst the Groenkracht permaculture gardens in the city of Delft are helping us envisage a more sustainable future for our cities. As such these areas are so much more than just green spaces, and the phrase ‘biocultural hubs’ better encompasses all that they offer for both the well-being of the local people and environment.
Looking forward towards the growing climate crisis, we ask ourselves how can these biocultural hubs, which already offer us so much, provide further assistance in this climate battle? And what are the challenges and conflicts that may arise in using these spaces as decarbonisation tools to also enhance global well-being?
A balancing act: Birmingham parks
Across the English Channel in the heart of Birmingham City Centre is Aston Park. Navigating the roadworks under the overpass of the busy A38 motorway that cuts through the deprived ward of Aston, the green and open space of Aston Park provides a brief peace from the din of the road. Within, a family plays in the basketball court, a group of young lads train with their football coach – laughter and shouts from both. People walking alone, with partners, with dogs. Some in silence, others in conversation, some with music in their ears. The local football academy provides a starting point for a potential journey to playing in the adjacent Villa Park Stadium, home to the Premier League Aston Villa team.
Whilst the vegetation, trees and soils can capture and store carbon, aiding the decarbonisation of the city, its capacity is not limitless: physically constrained by the din of the A38 motorway and namesake football stadium. A broken bin overflowing with littered beer cans signals that all is not in balance. Through the enjoyment the park and football stadium provide to residents and football fans alike, the well-being of the space itself is often in jeopardy. When trying to find ways to improve the decarbonisation capacity of green spaces, it is important to respect the space and the natural species who call it home, and not negatively impact upon the vital well-being services provided. How can we improve, whilst not taking away?
A Conflict of Life and Nature: The Brecon Beacon
The Brecon Beacons is one of three national parks in Wales. The park has an interesting topography involving the second highest mountain in Wales known as ‘Pen y Fan’, which is denoted as the heart of the park. Amongst the area, excited hikers, curious tourists, local farmers, and sheep with growing lambs can be seen. The wide range of communities come together to this park, some to find joy, and others for survival. In addition to animals and humans, the park itself could be noted as alive, alive through soil, plants, trees and especially peatland bogs.
The park provides food to some, an experience to others, and finally, a solution to the carbon storage demand, mitigating the green-house effect via its peatland. This could be expressed as a way for the park to self-heal, as the effects of climate change have dried out the lakes or flooded agricultural land in recent seasons.
At the top of the mountain, at the centre of nature, a 360 view was visible. Tourists and hikers were happily taking photos at the top, so excited that they’d reached the summit. In a time where social media has so much influence, people were proudly happy to post that they’d achieved such a goal; once again, nature provided a way for humans to feel joy, and improve their well-being.
For humans to reach the summit, a path was created. Although the pathway was beneficial to human life, it influenced other communities in the park. Soil erosion and increased permeable surfaces left the soil to dry out in the glistening sun. No Peatland could form; therefore, the well-being of the park could be seen as unwell. Peatland allowed the park to heal itself, however the joy of human life came at a cost, particularly to local carbon storage.
Two sheep could be seen in Brecon, both stood together happily eating the grass beneath. The well-being of the sheep and lambs appeared positive. The grasslands allowed them a place to survive, whilst allowing the farmers to have a place for their agriculture practices to progress. The two sheep stood above solid soil, if the soil had been saturated, peatland would form. Fortunately for the sheep, but unfortunately for the earth, this was not the case.
Overall, the park needs to find a way to live in harmony. All communities need to have access, whilst sharing the space in an efficient way. No single community should be prioritised, as well-being for all in the national park is so important.
Being subject to
The wind is howling over the empty plain in between the buildings in Delft, The Netherlands. Sand is blowing up and forming a dune next to the concrete blocks spread over the area. Scarcely spread over the plain, mostly in groups of two people with orange vests were doing their work.
He was standing there on the other side of the fence. Fierce but vulnerable. Alone but surrounded by fellow sufferers. His thoughts were going back to better times. Before that terrible moment. Before this suddenly happened to him. Going back to that moment still gives him the chills.
A month ago this was his place. His place where he lived in harmony; for decades. He provided shelter for people in times of warmth, food for animals in time of need. Countless summers he shared his fruits. To what did he deserve to be treated like this? Some of his neighbours, which he knew for years have been decapitated. He was lucky. None of them saw it coming.
He looks through his branches full of unripe apples, although a lesser amount than last year, to the sign on the fence in front of him. There, he could read the plans for his previous home. Yes, he will get a place not far from his previous home, but what about his neighbours in the past? He did not, they did not get a say in what was going to happen to their home.
The plans are focussing on giving his former home a more multi-functional space. A test centre to track and adapt the park to climate change is included as well. It is run by the local university. All is thought of: sensors, places to play, to read, shadow… But it’s all for humans. Where is the multi-functional place for him?
Green spaces in cities currently assist humans as decarbonisation spaces. But most people do not experience these spaces in that sense only. They make use of the green spaces for leisure, meditation and sports in order to increase their wellbeing.
All over the world, people want to make use of nature and green spaces; in the UK, The Netherlands and in Cape Town. So green spaces are designed in such a way that humans can benefit from them. In designing and using these spaces, the well-being of the other stakeholders like animals and plants are overlooked as described in the being subject to and part of this blog. Not overlooking the other stakeholders is making a difference in our well-being, but also in the well-being of the whole planet. And that influences our own well-being again.
So when designing and using a green space, a trade-off needs to be made in a smart way. There should be thought about using the right amount of space for humans in a green space, but also for the right amount of plants and wildlife. In these green spaces currently, there is space reserved for humans and their activities. Make such places for wildlife and plants as well. And in this process, teaching people respect for these reserved plant spaces will turn out in more experienced value for the places which are reserved for nature.
Living in harmony with nature brings well-being for humans as permaculture initiatives display. It also brings well-being for local nature, animals and ultimately the planet. So give all stakeholders the space they need, not only the humans.
About the authors
Catrin Rathbone, University of Birmingham, MSc Air Pollution Management and Control – Having come from a background of air pollution, I have a grounding in understanding the value green spaces can provide within urban spaces helping to clean the air and store carbon. Through this SPOC, I have learnt how much more value they provide, and the importance of them for local community well-being.
Ivan Eikelenboom, Technological University of Delft, MSc Industrial Design Engineering, Co-Founder Unifix Care – In my study, well-being was mainly connected to products and how they interact with humans. This course and the research subject taught me to look with a broader perspective at well-being and taking more different stakeholders into account. Additionally, it taught me to better connect with other cultures and viewpoints due to the multi-cultural setup of the course.
Owain Rose, University of Birmingham, MSc Air Pollution Management and Control – The release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is problematic for both air quality and climate change. Green spaces have a substantial potential to be mutually beneficial for both global issues. The SPOC provided me an opportunity to view green spaces through a variety of academic lenses, with respect to well-being and the environment.