The Guardian’s take on urban rewilding: when nature takes over | Editorial
TThe news that Derby has approved what promises to be Britain’s largest urban rewilding project to date is welcome. The 320-hectare Allestree Park will, subject to extensive consultation, be devoted to a range of habitats and may even see the reintroduction of species such as dormice and red kites.
Urban rewilding – which is not the same as neat green space, however large it may be – can take many forms. They range from the goal of stemming the rate of species loss by incorporating swifts and sparrows boxes into new construction (there are now 247 million fewer house sparrows than in 1980) to the designation of areas the size of Allestree Park.
In fact, some of the most successful projects have been accidental. Canvey Wick, an abandoned area of the Thames Estuary, has reverted to a ‘rainforest’ that is now home to nearly 2,000 species of invertebrates, at least three of which were previously considered extinct. Rivers create natural corridors for wildlife, flowing through towns and then connecting them to the countryside – to the highlands where they begin and to the lowlands where they end. Guardian columnist George Monbiot gives the example of the Wandle River, which in the 19th century was home to as many as 90 factories (including that of William Morris), and was described as “the most worked river for its size in the world”. Today it is teeming with wildlife and local authorities have considered introducing beavers.
Urban rewilding, in and of itself, won’t make a huge difference to global warming. Only about 6% of Britain is actually built. But giving more freedom to nature in parts of cities could help alleviate flooding and slow the loss of species. It is important to note that around 83% of us live in the part of the UK territory classified as urbanized, and access to nature has also been shown to improve psychological well-being. A recent Canadian study found that adding just 10 trees to a block had a big effect on people’s perceptions of their health; research is beginning to discover that increasing biodiversity can increase this impact. And on a more general scale, those who encounter savagery are more likely to fight for it.
Pressure for development means there will always be tensions with commercial interests: Kent’s Swanscombe Peninsula, another untamed brownfield site that is home to 1,992 species of invertebrates, of which 250 are of conservation concern, is now reserved for the London Resort, the capital’s putative response to Disney World. There is resistance to “disorder” – nature does not obey the tidy ideas of gardening; and sometimes there is fear – that rewilding means an increased presence of unpopular species, perhaps. Some want more green space for community use, while purists may argue that rewilding means no human at all.
In these times of a post-Brexit mid-pandemic and austerity, financial arguments may be the hardest to counter for cash-strapped councils, but proof that “we need nature as much as it needs need us, ”in the words of Jo Smith of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, is surely overwhelming. With a little imagination, flexibility and commitment, there are many other urban areas that could follow Derby’s lead.