The Nuttery

What do you think of when you think of the Reading Festival? Rock and roll? Loud music? Mud and debauchery? A haven for biodiversity? Perhaps not. But the Festival site, known the rest of the year as Little Johns Farm, a working cattle farm, has some hidden secrets. One of which is an old nuttery, a nut orchard, which Reading Borough Council, The Conservation Volunteers and Reading Tree Wardens are restoring.

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As part of the Biodiversity Management Plan for the site, Reading Borough Council proposes to plant nearly 300 hazel trees in the nuttery. However, before the new trees can be planted, existing trees and shrubs – such as blackthorn – need clearing and coppicing to open up the site enough to accommodate the new trees. It is hoped that the nuttery will increase biodiversity on the farm, which is largely grazed pasture in the floodplain of the River Thames. Habitats, such as badger setts and log piles for invertebrates are also being created. Little John’s Farm is a private site (apparently the Council work closely with the site owners due to the community interest in the Festival). It is a shame this nuttery won’t be accessible for public use.

However, nuttery creation can be an effective way to increase biodiversity on public sites. Like fruit orchards, nutteries can also be used to create community orchards, which can complement and create diversity in community resources. Some examples of community nutteries can be found in Bath and in Clare, Suffolk. Advice on how to start a Community Orchard can be found here and if you are in the Reading area and would like to learn more about planting fruiting trees, you could join in the restoration of an orchard in Prospect Park with Transition Town Reading on 2nd February. Details can be found here.

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More community planning resources

“If you want to know how the shoe fits, asks the person who is wearing it, not the person who made it…” (communityplanning.net)

 

I’ve had some really interesting conversations about community planning this week. I believe it is very important that all communities are encouraged use the tools available to them, to reduce them being used solely for political posturing or just given lip service by developers and decision makers. I thought I would share a couple of very useful links:

CommunityPlanning.net   is a fantastic resource from, amongst others, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Royal Town Planning Institute (or RTPI, the chartered professional body of planners). Particularly useful pages are a good overview on policy and legislation on community planning in the UK (interesting the site also provides overviews for the Czech Republic, Italy and Slovakia). There is a rather detailed A-Z section on sources and mechanisms for funding for community-led neighbourhood projects. And I found the section on low carbon communities particularly interesting.

If you are in England (outside of London)   Planning Aid England   is run by the RTPI and can give you 15 minutes of  free advice from a chartered town planner and then assess if you are eligible for any further free assistance. Their site includes short guides to aspects of the planning system and a jargon busting section. But the section on Neighbourhood Planning is quite comprehensive (I found the list of where Neighbourhood Plans are currently being developed particularly interested, especially after my post written last year). There are also sites for Planning Aid London (a separate charity run organisation to Planning Aid England), Planning Aid for Scotland and Planning Aid Wales.

 

If you know of any other useful sites, please let me know and I’ll also add to this list as I find them.

The power of joining in?

Back in June 2012 I wrote about taking part in my first Green Gym session. Today for the first time I led (on my own) a Green Gym session, which was the first of a programme of Green Gym activities that I have arranged for The Conservation Volunteers.

I find it easy to get enthusiastic about the Green Gym. My motivation to work with The Conservation Volunteers is to gain experience in running community projects and in leading activities that are focused on improving local surroundings plus learning how to teach and improve my own environmental conservation skills. But the Green Gym also considers improving helping the self through conservation work, both physically and mentally. A free for participants health resource that I think is much needed in a lot of communities

In October 2012, The Guardian Healthcare network published a fascinating article about the work Green Gym programmes have done in Leeds and Birmingham. It is well worth a read. I have been keeping this article in mind when working on this season’s programme for our Green Gym. I am minded of the importance of keeping sessions interesting, varied and, most importantly, fun and friendly. But I also believe that it is important that our Green Gym session are accessible. Unlike many other Green Gyms around the country we do not work on a single site, and cover a large part of West Berkshire, a predominately rural area. We now have some fantastic and wonderful ‘regulars’ but I don’t want location to preclude more participants joining in. Participants that might not otherwise get involved in other conservation activities in the area, but would really benefit from the scheme. So the new programme includes reducing the number of sites we visit and having as many sites that are accessible by public transport as possible, while still keeping interest and variation.

Transport isn’t the only hurdle to accessibility, and am continually looking for other ways to help the project reach as many people as possible. But it is a start. And hopefully some of our Green Gymers will get the benefits those in Leeds and Birmingham have experienced.

If you have any suggestions how to make community projects accessible to as many of the community as possible, I’d love to hear them?

The 2013 programme for the Newbury and Thatcham Green Gym can be found here.

The Community Orchard

This part of West Berkshire is now most famous for being the kind of place that produces princesses. But amongst the grand houses and rolling countryside, one West Berkshire Parish Council is working on a unique community resource – a community orchard.

Cold Ash Community Orchard

An orchard is a collection of fruit trees. In particular, a community orchard may be owned or leased for or by the community (or held by agreement) by a community group, parish council, or by a local authority or voluntary body. Community orchards should be open and accessible at all times. As well as enjoying the place, local people can share the harvest or profit from its sale, taking responsibility for any work in the orchard (Source).

Cold Ash Community Orchard is run by Cold Ash Parish Council. We visited the site with the Newbury and Thatcham Green Gym, to help the Parish Council by planting a new hedge along one of the orchard boundaries. The new hedge comprises native species, such as Spindle, Hazel, Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Cherry and Dogwood Rose. As well as planting the hedge whips, the Green Gym also protected them from hungry wildlife with rabbit guards.

Hedge planting

The habitat values of hedgerows are well documented. But what particularly interested me about this site was the community resource being provided. Community orchards are currently being actively encouraged by the Department for Communities and Local Government as part of the localism and decentralisation agenda. Community orchards strive to be the focal point for community activities. As well as the provision of acessible open space, they can promote the health benefits of fresh produce and outdoor exercise. Additionally there are opportunities for access to land for food growing and opportunities for assisting those who want to grow their own food (Source: DCLG).

Despite being a relatively affluent area, this part of West Berkshire, like many rural areas, still has residents that don’t have access to open space and places to grow food, which can have health implications and also increase vulnerability to food poverty. It will be really interesting to see how this community project developed and how similar schemes might be able to be implemented elsewhere.

The Department for Communities and Local Government produce two guidance documents on community orchards: A PDF ‘How to’ guide can be found here and a collection of case studies about of community orchards around the UK can be found here.

The Folly

Originally posted on 3rd October 2012

As a rather proud (albeit ex-pat) Essex girl, with her heart firmly wedded to the Essex coast, I couldn’t resist reading more in to the reports that Grayson Perry has had planning permission granted for a holiday home in Wrabness, near Harwich. But this proposal appears to be no ordinary holiday home. it is proposed that the house will be an artistic interpretation of Essex culture, depicting the fictional life of one Essex woman called Julie, who eventually found contentment in her house by the coast.

In the most simplistic planning terms, it is important to point out that the proposed house is on the site of existing dilapidated farm house. Therefore it is a replacement dwelling, a normally uncontroversial planning consent, even in a rural location. It is also important to note that North Essex needs its cultural and tourist offer diversified in order to facilitate regeneration and has planning policies to support that. But this proposal seems a lot more romantic than just the standard planning considerations to me. The House of Essex revitalises the lost art of building follies.

A folly is defined, by the oracle known as Wikipedia, as

“a building constructed primarily for decoration, but either suggesting by its appearance some other purpose, or merely so extravagant that it transcends the normal range of garden ornaments or other class of building to which it belongs”. 

And Essex is full of follies and extravagant buildings, like Bateman’s Tower in Brightlingsea or Belchamp Hall Folly in Belchamp Walter. You could even include Layer Marney Tower near Colchester – which was originally built as merely the gatehouse for a dwelling that was meant to rival Hampton Court, but was never finished.

The Essex Coast is a beautiful and dynamic place. It is diverse and it is romantic. It stimulates and its remote location evokes a sense of adventure. People have travelled to the Essex Coast to find contentment for centuries, from the Chapel of St Peters in Bradwell to the Kursaal in Southend. The county of Essex is much maligned and underrated. The building of the House of Essex isn’t necessary, but in a county dominated by building solely to meet housing targets, it is refreshing to see a proposal that is just for its own sake. In my opinion, any opportunity to celebrate, diversity and create new heritage should be wholeheartedly embraced. Even if it is a folly.

All the planning documents for the House of Essex are available to be viewed through the very good (other Local Authorites, please take note) Tendring District Council website.

A303: Highway to the Sun

Originally posted 2nd October 2012

nLast night one of my favourite documentaries was shown again on BBC4 – A303: Highway to the Sun.

A documentary about the road between Basingstoke and Honiton, you may think? But the beautiful thing about this documentary is that it goes much deeper than the tarmac and white lines, used everyday as a route to the West Country. It is a fascinating landscape study and cultural history of the area the road travels through, showing that roads are much more than highways but are also an important part of place-making.

If you have a spare hour, do give it a look. It is beautiful made and one of those slightly eccentric documentaries that make you grateful that we have a national broadcaster that is willing to make things like this. You can find it on the BBC iPlayer, for the next seven days, here or I have also found it uploaded on Vimeo here.

Enjoy.

Days like this

It’s hard to be motivated sometimes. Especially on a day which is forecast to be the wettest day of what has already been one of the wettest years on record. It’s hard to be motivated when the rain breaches your raincoat and your waterproof trousers start leaking. It’s hard to be motivated when there is no longer any point wearing your glasses because they need windscreen wipers and your hands are covered in nettle stings, because all you have done is cut back nettles for over two, wet, long, soaking hours.

Some days are like this.

But what you need to remember is why you are doing this, why you are out in the pouring rain. And it’s to make something for everyone. People now have access to a bird hide, along a path that has probably been inaccessible all summer. People are now able to safely go and watch birds, maybe see a bird they have never seen before, maybe learn something they never knew before, maybe they can just be able to take some rare moments away from their normal lives and enjoy something different. With clear paths and improved accessibility you create access for all, you take access to wildlife and nature and beautiful places away from just those with privilege. And that’s something that can keep you going, even in leaky trousers.

Well at least until tea break anyway.

More on private public spaces

Last week I shared a link to The Guardian article about the increased incidence of private organisations owning and managing public space. Over the last couple of day I’ve been mullling over why this is a problem, if it is a problem at all?

Our public spaces, such as streets and parks, are typically managed by local authorities and, in a climate of reduced budgets, alternatives to this public management is naturally being sought. The management of public spaces by private organisations is not entirely new. For the last decade local authorities have increasingly used Section 106 (planning obligation) agreements to ensure that private developers are responsible for new public spaces in developments like new residential areas or business parks. The local authority is able to ensure the responsible management of these areas through a legal agreement. However, this is rarely used in perpetuity and responsibility often eventually falls to the local authority.

You also need to consider the quality of the publicly managed spaces around you. Are they really anymore accessible than the private public spaces mentioned in The Guardian? When thinking about publicly managed public spaces, I often think of concrete planters full of inhospitable spiky plants, low cost to maintain but also a deterrent to vandalism. I think of numerous ‘no ball game signs’ and the complete failure of post war developments to realise Le Corbusier’s vision of the Radiant City. What is the problem with private organisations, with their increased capital, providing and managing these spaces instead?

The problems lies in the lack of accountability privately managed public realm has to its community. The Guardian article criticises the private approach as just providing spaces that will meet commercial interests, such as increased footfall to retail areas. The function of these spaces is of great importance. What may seem today like a perfect multifunctional space, suitable for providing a good retail experience or modern surrounding for an office, runs a great risk in not being future proof.

With these large areas of public realm remaining in private ownership, they also remain within the unequal system of land distribution and their private owners will undoubtedly, eventually, try to realise their optimum land value. There is no onus for the private landowner to permanently bequeath their space to the community and community interests are rarely effectively represented through market economics. Many towns are already populated with declining retail and office spaces awaiting private redevelopment or, increasingly rare, public intervention. There is no guarantee that the kind of developments mentioned in The Guardian will not eventually meet this fate.

Today’s modern, and often beautifully designed, pedestrianised spaces provide little opportunity to respond to the changing needs of the local community if it is not controlled by a body that is accountable to them. They will provide no opportunity for the community to use that space, no opportunity to use the space to build community resilience in challenging and changing economic times. The private public space will only evolve in response to its owners and not evolve to meet the needs of people, and that is the real risk with this approach.

Wildflowers at the Olympic Park

Originally posted 21st August 2012

Wildflowers and the River Lea in the Olympic ParkWildflowers in the Olympic Park

Wildflowers and the Stadium in the Olympic Park

When visiting the Olympic Park in East London last month, the wildflower planting took my breath away. We visited the park the first weekend of the Olympic Games and I’ll admit to expecting a sea of concrete. Instead when we left the Greenway from West Ham station entered through the Park security and ticket checks, we were greeted by Nigel Dunnett’s astonishing golden annual wildflower meadows. A complete move away from the muncipal planting I am so used to.

The Olympic wildflower meadows are the largest areas of annual meadow ever to be used in a park setting and the associated promotion from the London Games Organising Committee encourages people to plant wildflowers in their own area. It will be interesting to see if there is any resulting ‘olympic legacy’ from this endeavour in the Park.

Want to know more?
More information about the planting on Professor Nigel Dunnett’s website.

More information about Wildflower Planting on the London 2012 website.

All photos by Jon Hall

The Green Gym

Originally posted 25th June 2012
An extra dose of The Conservation Volunteers this week as this morning I took part in my first session at the Newbury and Thatcham Green Gym.

The Green Gym concept is quite intreging. Most TCV activities are focused on improving local surroundings and sharing and improving environmental conservation skills. But the Green Gym also considers improving the self, both physically and mentally. The TCV website outlines these benefits:

  • 100% of participants interviewed during the current National Evaluation agree that taking part in the Green Gym has benefited their mental health, boosting self-esteem and confidence through learning new skills and completing new tasks
  • Green Gym provides moderate physical activity: People who are regularly active at this level are 50% less likely to suffer from a heart attack or stroke than inactive people
  • Working out in green spaces is a great way to relieve stress and can help to combat depression
  • Taking part in the Green Gym improves muscle strength, which is particularly important for older people, helping to maintain independence in later life
  • Participants report feeling fitter and having more energy than before
  • Almost a third more calories can be burnt in an hour of some Green Gym activities than in doing a step aerobics class

I’m really fascinated by the third bullet point, about combating depression. The Mental Health Foundation outlines a huge range of benefits of exercise from the release of mood improving hormones, to providing opportunities to meet people and having an opportunity to escape day-to-day life.

Personally, I enjoyed my first session. Despite feeling rather daft doing warm-up and warm-down in the middle of Newbury’s main park – it was hard work, but I’d rather be outside in the fresh air. Even though the focus of my volunteering has been looking at improving public spaces, I do find it uplifting and invigorating. I get home exhausted but in a really buoyant mood, feeling happy and fulfilled. It’s not something I have considered before but it is interesting that my volunteering might be improving my mental health too. If this looks like it might be working for me, it would be interesting to see what kind of health resource the Green Gym might provide for the local community.