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Britain’s public parks are a green lifeline – stop fencing them off for the summer | Rebecca Tamás
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Britain’s public parks are a green lifeline – stop fencing them off for the summer | Rebecca Tamás

My local green space, Brockwell Park in Brixton and Herne Hill, south London, is an oasis of calm in the busy city. Friends catch up in the walled garden, where wisteria trails over pillars and roses and bluebells explode from the earth. In the community garden, local people work together to grow vegetables and run sessions to connect nature-deprived children to the land.

In the centre of the sometimes crushing metropolis, this park means everything to me – it keeps me sane, and it gives me hope. But this green lifeline is, every summer, taken away, as I await the arrival of the park’s music festival season with dread. As huge metal walls go up, dividing us from the green, and HGVs begin flattening the grass and soil, I feel a genuine sense of horror. A large part of the park is cut off for weeks, and our community’s heart is pulled out as people stream into events whose expensive tickets most people living round here could never afford. And the same is happening in shared green spaces all over the UK.

Recently, Lambeth council admitted it had expedited the felling of 22 trees in Brockwell Park, despite the fact that many of them are home to nesting birds. Local people have risen up to protest against it, suspecting that biodiversity and wildlife are being sacrificed to make the events possible.

The rural, working-class poet John Clare responded to the mass enclosure and privatisation of common land that took place in the 19th century; writing that where once “the field was our church” and there were “paths to freedom and to childhood dear”, now “A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’.” Clare may have been pushed into a breakdown by the loss of his connection with nature, showing us just how precious these intimacies can be. Natural spaces aren’t just areas to relax in – they are profoundly necessary to our wellbeing and our mental health.

As we confront a worsening climate crisis, it has never been more important for people to connect with nature, to learn to love it and recognise its benefits, so that they will want to protect it. Yet in the UK, one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, it is getting harder and harder to forge vital connections with our planet.

In recent years there has been an upsurge of environmental activism in the UK, with campaigners fighting for the right to wild-camp on Dartmoor in Devon, and trying to save their local rivers from the onslaught of sewage that makes them dangerous to swim in. This activism has focused on the right that every human has to connect with nature. Yet, for a majority of British people who live in cities, moors and rivers feel distant. For them, local parks are the only regular contact with the natural world that they have – and now even this accessible connection is at risk.

Urban parks, once protected havens for humans and wildlife alike, are being privatised, with access to their spaces sold to promoters in what amounts to a new form of enclosure – as all over the UK, huge areas of parks are cordoned off for music festivals. Not only are these precious spaces taken away from the community, the wildlife within them can be damaged too. In Glasgow, residents have complained about TRNSMT at Glasgow Green and gigs in Bellahouston Park leaving “1,000 wildflowers” destroyed and footpaths broken up. In Newcastle, damage to Leazes Park has left locals “heartbroken”, saying that the events were “no good for wildlife”, and “no good for people”. In Wolverhampton, residents have been up in arms about the potential for festivals in Bantock Park to cause littering, as well as bringing noise pollution and unmanageable crowds. The problem is devastating and endemic.

In my local borough, Lambeth, more than one in three households live in social housing, often with little or no access to green space. Urban parks are our community’s lungs, where children and teenagers can explore, be with their friends and connect with nature in some of the last free, shared spaces that exist in neoliberal Britain. I’ve seen teenagers burn off energy in the basketball court, play football under the flow of apple blossom, or sit on the grass catching up. Families of all backgrounds set up outdoor birthday parties, with trestle tables full of snacks, as nearby, people turn an unused bowls green into a volleyball court. When the park’s swans finally finish nesting and give birth to cygnets, the neighbourhood group chat lights up with pictures and heart emojis. On my commute through the park I listen for robins, wrens, dunnocks, sparrows, long-tailed tits, blackcaps, blackbirds, starlings, chiffchaffs, mistle thrushes and redstarts; making sure to keep an eye out for frogs crossing the path.

Rich locals can spend time in their private gardens or go away for holidays in rural beauty spots – while the most disadvantaged in our area are left without. Defending urban green spaces is just as crucial as keeping sewage from our rivers, and fighting for the right to camp on the moors – because it is within urban parks that our vital love for nature can be kindled. However cash-strapped UK councils are, these spaces should be sacrosanct. After all, what is the point of local government if it acts against the interests of the very people it’s meant to serve? We need to fight these new enclosures now, before we too are left cut off from what matters most.

  • Rebecca Tamás is a writer of environmental nonfiction and a poet. Her most recent book is Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman

Source: theguardian.com