Nature for all

Nature for all

Hannah Lee and family walking

We should all have access to nature, but sadly, that isn't the case. Youth Council member, Hannah Lee, examines why nature needs to be for all of us.

Nature is not a luxury. Being in a space full of life should not be a luxury. But it is.

I live in Manchester and over lockdown a small nature reserve near me has been a lifeline. It is not big. There are no ospreys or beavers. But I have found a herons nest, listened to birdsong and learned to recognise cinnabar moth caterpillars. I have learned so much without having to travel for miles and it has been a space where I can just stop. But I have increasingly become aware of how lucky I am to have access to this sort of space.

More young people are growing up in cities than ever before. My generation is increasingly growing up without access to nature, but time spent in nature as a child has a strong correlation with environmental behaviours later in life. We are in a climate and biodiversity crisis: empathy and a strong connection with the natural world built now could give my generation the motivation to act to protect it.

A gatekeeper butterfly resting on a green, spiky plant stem as the sun shines on its orange wings

Gatekeeper butterfly by Hannah Lee

We also know that access to nature has a big impact on mental health, physical health and life expectancy. According to an article in the journal ‘Nature’, a growing body of evidence indicates that greater exposure to natural environments is associated with better health and wellbeing. Living in greener urban areas is associated with lower risks of health problems including cardiovascular disease and mental distress in adults, and lower risks of obesity and improved cognitive development in children. The difference in levels of access to nature is one of the reasons for the gap in life expectancy between rich and poor people in cities, whereas in the countryside, where access to nature is universal, this gap is much less. How is it that only people in some areas should have access to something that improves mental and physical health? In rural areas nature is free and available to all. It needs to be this way in cities too.

Wild spaces in urban areas are also valuable in their own right for conservation and biodiversity. There are thought to be fewer than 3,000 pairs of willow tits in Britain, but their remaining strongholds are mostly post-industrial urban wild areas (especially in the north), like Wigan Flashes. These areas are key to their survival in the UK. When connected, high quality urban natural spaces can become a corridor for migratory species, and species with larger territories. Every pocket of nature we have helps to preserve wildlife for future generations. When UK cities are so deprived of truly wild spaces, the spaces we do have become invaluable both to us and the common and rare creatures that live there.

A footpath leading through a wooded area of an urban nature reserve

Moston Fairway nature reserve by Hannah Lee

Wildlife is incredibly resourceful. It can live in the smallest cracks in our cities, but now our cities are becoming increasingly economical, with the most efficient use of space. Slowly, the cracks are closing. There are no gaps in the roofs for swifts, no weeds in the curbs for caterpillars, nothing. We are squeezing the life out of our cities. But the wildlife was here first. The urban foxes aren't the intruders, we are. Our streets were built over their territories. So we need to make space for them. Insect numbers are plummeting, birds are disappearing. Life should be valued and encouraged. Nest boxes, bee bricks, tree-lined streets. These are not expensive. But they could make a huge difference for declining species and for us. We can’t only value the economic benefits of cities, we have to value the mental wellbeing of the people who live there and the life they share it with too.

Nature is so important for the development of children. But in schools this isn’t a priority. This is because it is not on the curriculum. Young children in urban areas often don’t have access to wild spaces outside of school. This is why it is so important for children to be able to experience and learn about nature within the school day. Children need to form a positive connection with the natural world. Learning about the biology and ecology of the life around them would have an incredible benefit, especially if they could have a practical experience of it: being in natural spaces at school; learning the names of UK wildlife; becoming curious and having fun in nature would be invaluable. Young people need to learn about and, even better, participate in the conservation of their local species. The new natural history GCSE that the government is currently considering would be a great first step. Knowledge and love of the life around you should be valued in the education system. Education is the difference between seeing a butterfly and seeing a gatekeeper; it is learning to stop and look.

Nature is the way the world works. We live in a biosphere. Biodiversity is not just pretty to look at - it regulates the climate, filters our water, pollinates our food. It is totally key to our survival. We need to learn to value it and live alongside it.

“If children can’t recognise a swift, why should they care if it doesn’t come back?”
Jones and Kellaway