On wondrous trails of greenspace – access to nature in the UK through the lens of inclusivity

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In this opinion piece, ICON’s reporter/researcher Ida Vaisanen takes a look at inclusivity of greenspace from her native cultural perspective.

 

Since I started working in sustainability, and around words at that, one of the most foreign concepts I’ve come across so far has been the word ‘greenspace.’

As a concept, it does not naturally roll off my tongue. Born and raised in Finland, the most forested country in Europe with 188,000 lakes and a sparsely-placed small population, nature has a central and largely unchallenged role in everyday life.

This starts from childhood where you learn which plants are edible and that common plantain leaves can be used on a scraped knee, continuing into adulthood where spending time in the forest is an activity so common it does not warrant a separate mention. The thought of greenery being at times sparse resource to be planted, maintained, and increased was incomprehensible.

However, like any person of privilege, I came to realise that my casual entitlement to instant access to nature and nifty plant trivia are not universally acknowledged and widely available experiences. According to Friends of the Earth, almost 10 million people in England live in areas with very limited access to greenspace.

Furthermore, only 57% of adults who took part in Ramblers charity and YouGov research in 2020 said that they lived within five-minutes’ walk of greenspace, whether a local park, nearby field or canal path.

Maybe this is naivety on my part, but the thought that nature could be anything but a self-evident birth right equally divided to all should be alien in the UK, one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

However, access to nature is not equal. The 57% figure in the Ramblers research fell to just 39% for people from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background and 46% for those with a household income of under £15,000 (compared to 63% of those with a household income over £35,000 and 70% over £70,000).

This was a culture shock, and a sad one at that. Besides coming from a country where you are constantly surrounded by woods, Finland has a concept called ‘everyman’s rights.’ It means that you can walk, pick berries and camp in nature regardless of land ownership.

Thankfully, the multi-sided value of greenspace access is starting to be recognised in a societal level in organisational and governmental policies. More recently, a ‘landmark’ Forest Research report estimated the mental health benefits of visiting UK woodlands at £185m. 

Regardless of the angle this is examined from, the business case for greenspace is justified, and worthwhile. Besides widely recognised environmental benefits of biodiversity, climate resilience and carbon capture greenspaces provide, inclusivity deserves to have a more vocal role in action plans and strategies. It is easy to forget that S in ESG stands for Social.

What is building a more sustainable world if it is not for all?