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Poppy Okotcha
via Instagram (@poppyokotcha)

Why Gen Z campaigners are battling to save urban green spaces

‘Humans and nature are one and the same – we need nature in order to thrive’

Poppy Okotcha, 25, is a horticulturalist from Devon. She first experienced “the incredible healing potential” of immersing yourself in nature after enduring a traumatic experience within her family when she was a young girl. “My mum was really negatively impacted, but seeing how tending a garden had this incredible healing impact on her was really transformational to me,” she says, recalling how her mother transformed their garden from a patch of lawn into an oasis for wildlife, brimming with wildflowers and complete with a pond for frogs. Looking back now, she feels that watching her mother tend their garden was a “catalyst” for her.

“Later in life when I was going through difficult times I turned to growing and it stuck. So I think that for me, personally, access to green spaces is so important because they teach us how to grow – and not necessarily growing plants, but how to grow ourselves,” she says.

It would be an understatement to say that not much good has come out of the pandemic. But one small positive is undoubtedly the fact that numerous lockdowns have made many of us far more appreciative of green spaces: research shows 65 per cent of people reported that spending time outdoors benefitted their mental health more during lockdown than before. As one in eight Brits have no access to a garden, it’s essential that we all have fair access to nature. Plus, mental and physical health benefits aside, it’s also vital that we protect these spaces where possible to aid in the fight against the climate crisis.

But in spite of the myriad reasons to preserve these pockets of nature, urban green space in England declined by 7 per cent between 2001 and 2016. A new report published by CPRE, the countryside charity, is seeking to address this by calling on local authorities to use the ‘Local Green Space’ designation clause to protect green spaces in urban environments against development. Within the national planning policy framework, Local Green Spaces are defined as small parcels of land, close to where people live, that are demonstrably special to their community.

According to CPRE, the south of England has benefitted from the designation far more than the north, while inner cities and densely populated urban areas are the least likely to have unprotected green spaces. Some of Britain’s biggest cities – including Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool – have no designated [and therefore protected] Local Green Spaces at all.

Crispin Truman, chief executive of CPRE, said: “The poorer you are and the more nature-deprived your neighbourhood already is, the less likely you are to have any protected Local Green Space. It’s time to address this imbalance and level up everyone’s access to nature.”

This lack of protection for urban green spaces hasn’t gone unnoticed. In recent years, many young campaigners and activists have been pushing forward the movement to save these areas, such as Okotcha, who has been involved in a number of movements to preserve urban green spaces including Nature is a Human Right and Dream Green. “Humans and nature are one and the same. We need nature in order to thrive. Urban spaces should be designed with that in mind,” she says. “Currently, there’s hugely depleted access to green space in so many urban areas.”

“We know that this has huge, negative implications for human mental and physical health and wellbeing: from life expectancy through to behavioural issues. This disproportionately affects those who are less economically well off and those in marginalised demographics, for example, people of colour. From a sustainability perspective, thriving green spaces have this incredible ability to sequester carbon while being rich biodiverse spaces, which are a really important buffer when we start to look at mitigating against the negative effects of climate change,” she continues. “So, I think that the preservation of green spaces is not only necessary because humans are part of nature, but also necessary in a political sense because if we don't have access to green spaces, humans cannot thrive.”

“Green spaces are a place to remember what it’s like to be without capitalism stresses – even just for a brief moment” – Noga Levy-Rapoport

Noga Levy-Rapoport is a 20-year-old activist from London. As well as participating in the UK’s youth climate movement, they were also involved in the Gaia’s Garden project and helped build and tend an accessible community garden in the heart of London. “Developers had their heart set on turning the area into sky rise buildings, but we were able to get access to the space – which consisted of some overgrown, grassy areas and a bit of concrete,” they recall. “By reaching out to volunteers and people who were passionate about preserving green spaces, we were able to rebuild this really amazing green area and create this absolutely unreal community space that was overflowing with nature.”

“Creating that kind of tiny little ecosystem right in the middle of London was a really magical community experience,” they continue. “It really helped to build connections and allow people to learn about the ways in which you can look after greenery that has become a bit dishevelled or left by the wayside.”

Like Okotcha, Levy-Rapoport stresses that these spaces are vital for protecting people’s mental health in urban settings. “They’re a place to remember what it’s like to be without capitalism stresses – even just for a brief moment,” they say. “It reminds us how to take care of ourselves and how to take care of each other, because we see the way in which nature does that for herself. Those of us stuck looking at the ground in the middle of a city’s grind need that desperately: cities are huge, they make you feel so small. Green spaces as oases and community spaces make all of that manageable.”

This is ultimately why the CPRE are calling on local authorities to do more to protect green spaces. “Our iconic national parks are rightly celebrated and protected. But research repeatedly shows they are not accessible to all – and that the poorest in society benefit the least,” Truman surmises. “That’s why it should be a national priority to protect our local parks and green spaces so that everybody, no matter where they live, has access to the benefits of nature.”

In the meantime: if you don’t have access to much green space, Okotcha suggests getting creative. “There is so much opportunity to think outside the box and grow on balconies, doorsteps, window sills. Joy, healing, and beauty can still be obtained from growing on a really small scale, even if it’s just sprouts on a windowsill. We’ve all got to start somewhere and if that’s all we have capacity for then that’s fine,” she says. “On a practical note, when we look at engaging with green spaces, it can be on any scale. It doesn’t have to be swathes of woodlands in the middle of nowhere. We can do what we can with what we have.”