What Was That All About Then?
A suburban garden on a sunny summer’s day in the early 80s. A dozen or so people* from all over the United Kingdom discussing their passion for bringing nature conservation in from the countryside to the towns and cities, where nearly everybody lives, and linking it to the quality of their lives.
Although more of a re-discovery than an invention, this was at the time a radical notion, ignored and derided in equal measure by all but the more enlightened ecologists and conservationists of the day. The result of the discussions was the formation of the Fairbrother Group, named for Nan Fairbrother whose book ‘New Lives, New Landscapes’ presented a radical vision of what modern townscapes could be.
For a few years from about 1995 the organisation, now named the Urban Wildlife Partnership, was fostered by the Wildlife Trusts, and staffed with funding from the National Lottery. Local groups were supported, there was a national newsletter going out to about 200 organisations, conferences and training events were organised, and policy and campaigning activities were undertaken. When the funding ended the Wildlife Trusts decided not to continue their support. This left a core of enthusiasts to carry the Partnership forward. It became the Urban Wildlife Network, promoting its ideas through a website and the personal contacts of its active members.
Fast forward to 2011. Some of those same people who were at the initial meeting, together with others now comprising the Urban Wildlife Network, contemplating the successes and setbacks in the intervening years. Amongst the successes the plethora of organisations now embracing the original principals and philosophy. There is now much greater integration of nature conservation in urban areas both with mainstream conservation and with social and economic well-being. Time, it was decided, for the Network to be wound up, its original aims having been more than met. Not that there is room for complacency: there are plenty of problems and shortcomings to address. The point is that these are now more generally recognised as being in need of attention. The drum does not need banging so much as the orchestra needs conducting, and there are others who are doing that.
At this point it should be acknowledged that the Network and its members cannot claim all the credit for the changes. But it and they can claim to have had a significant influence at all levels from neighbourhoods to national governments.
Founder-member and President of the Network Chris Baines has this to say about the life of the organisation:
‘It is half a lifetime since the very first meeting of the urban wildlife fellow-travellers who established the Fairbrother Group. Its continuing influence under various labels is a real testament to the commitment, enthusiasm and skill of a small band of exceptional people. So much of what we were dreaming of all those years ago has now become mainstream thinking. The whole concept of valuing the natural life support system in towns, with its acknowledged link to climate change moderation, healthy living and economic sustainability is a real measure of theirs’ and the organisation’s achievements.
The decision to wind up the charity does feel like the right move at the right time. There will always be more to do – especially in the eyes of such passionate people. There are still far too many conservationists who see towns and cities as grey patches on their biodiversity action plan. There is still a need to convince more planners and engineers that soft engineering and creative ecology can really deliver sustainable land and water management. The challenges of health and safety, parental paranoia and nature deficit disorder are still rife. Nevertheless, the changes in attitude that the Urban Wildlife Partnership and its predecessors have helped to deliver are profound and permanent.
Next year is the centenary celebration of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts. We need to remind everyone that urban nature conservation has been one of the most significant achievements for almost a third of that period.’
One of the organisations principally involved in nature conservation in towns and cities is the Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country. Its Chief Executive Neil Wyatt offers these thoughts:
‘With the National Ecosystem Assessment, Making Space for Nature and the Natural Environment White Paper we have some incredible evidence for the value of urban wildlife and habitats. Landscape-scale conservation means that the whole of the UK now has to deal with nature conservation on a scale where people live, work and play. We've understood the implications of this for years, but I think the wider conservation world is still playing catch up.
In some sense 'our work here now, is done', but equally I think that, in the future, urban conservation is really going to be where the action is. Something like nine out of ten illustrations in the White Paper show urban habitats. Urban conservation has changed beyond all recognition, and despite its early vigour and several mutations, the Network is no longer in a position to lead the way.
The urban movement is in a different place; there is still a value and need for sharing and documenting best practice amongst a wide range of stakeholders and what are now thousands of urban groups, from Wildlife and Groundwork Trusts to local friends groups. There is a huge resource there, but now a new generation has to find its own way to harness their collective energy, perhaps through Facebook, Twitter or ideas we don't even know about yet.’
It is intended that the assets of the Network are passed to the UK-MAB Urban Forum. This is possibly the only United Kingdom wide body where individuals, statutory agencies and voluntary sector organisations meet to progress the policies, principals and practices of nature conservation in towns and cities.
The answer to the question ‘What was that all about then?’ is therefore the successful embedding and acceptance of the value of nature conservation in the places where most people live, providing benefits both to the people and to wildlife. The Network is no more, but its legacy, as Chris Baines says, is profound and permanent.
* People present included Chris Baines, Liz Baines, George Barker, Grant Luscombe, Alison Millward, Richard Robinson, Chris Rose, Peter Shirley and Celia Spouncer. Apologies to those whose names should be here but aren’t.