Spring discoveries in urban Exeter: Access and management of urban green space for biodiversity, health and wellbeing

Silver birch woodland, Eastern Fields, Pinhoe, Exeter

I drop my daughter off for one of her regular clubs in Pinhoe, which happens to be near a park. I don’t feel like jogging so I take a walk. In five minutes I go from being in the middle of an industrial estate to this beautiful woodland of silver birch trees, ethereal in the early evening sunlight. Although I must have jogged near it multiple times I have never noticed it before – but at walking pace I discover new and hidden delights.

Pin Brook, Eastern Fields, Pinhoe, Exeter

I find other revelations along the way – a stream I didn’t know was there (the Pin Brook) but must have passed right by many times. And on this mid-April day I see the striking juxtaposition of the hawthorn in spring with its young bright green leaves, next to the blackthorn with its snow-white flowers, but completely bare of leaves.

White blackthorn flowers next to hawthorn leaves in spring, Eastern Fields, Pinhoe, Exeter

I feel inspired to look up the silver birch, the hawthorn and the blackthorn when I get home, and discover a wealth of ecological, botanical, folklore and plant use information about these native species (see especially the inspiring book Flora Celtica). The silver birch with its silvery white papery bark has long been a symbol of purity and fertility. The hawthorn and blackthorn are hedgerow trees, providing food and shelter for diverse species of moths, caterpillars, butterflies, birds, small mammals and bees, and interestingly both also have associations with witchcraft and paganism.

The hawthorn, with its flowers appearing in early May is closely linked to fertility and spring (e.g. hawthorn flowers are integral to the pagan Beltane festival still celebrated at the beginning of May; as I saw for myself as a student at the spectacular Beltane Fire Festival in another city renowned for its green spaces, Edinburgh). Its berries (haws) provide essential winter food for birds (and are edible along with the leaves, although not highly prized as human food). The blackthorn, with its sour fruits used to make sloe gin (it is an ancestor of the plum), can live for up to 100 years. The blackthorn has long been associated with witchcraft – it is said that witches’ wands and staffs were often made using blackthorn wood (as many Harry Potter fans will undoubtedly know).

But how can these precious green spaces be managed, improved and funded to maximise their benefits?

Urban green space is crucial to health and wellbeing in urban areas and includes parks, woodland, fields and allotments as well as natural features including green walls, roofs and incidental vegetation. Urban green space delivers multiple benefits including improved air and water quality, buffering of noise pollution and mitigation of impacts and resilience to extreme events. In addition, urban green space supports and facilitates health and wellbeing through enabling relaxation, stress alleviation and physical activity, improved social interaction and community cohesion. Health benefits include improved levels of mental health, physical fitness and cognitive and immune function, as well as lower mortality rates in general.

The wider benefits of green infrastructure and nature-based solutions for urban areas are increasingly being recognised, including through regreening (e.g. see the University of Exeter’s REGREEN project here) and increasing the connectivity of urban natural environments as well as through a range of other mechanisms (see also Beyond Greenspace). Nature-based solutions deliver climate change resilience in addition to health and wellbeing benefits, and support biodiversity, according to a new report just out by the European Environment Agency (2021). A new report by the University of Exeter’s SWEEP Investing in Nature for Health programme and the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, available here, also details a range of alternative mechanisms for funding green space.

There are several online tools for assessing the health and wellbeing value of urban green spaces (e.g. Greenkeeper; see also the WHO HEAT tool) as well as their recreational value (see e.g. NEVO, formerly ORVal). These are extremely useful for the purposes of planning and cost-benefit analysis, as the health and wellbeing and recreational benefits of well-visited and managed green spaces are typically large (e.g. using Greenkeeper a valuation for a green space in St Albans estimates £5.8m of benefits for around 270,000 visitors annually).

What about green spaces and Green Infrastructure locally?

Devon County Council (along with Exeter City and District Councils) has developed a Green Infrastructure Strategy with Guiding Principles and aims to promote a planned, co-ordinated and consistent approach to the provision and management of green infrastructure across Devon, with a particular focus on the areas with most growth – including the Exeter and East Devon Growth Point Area. The local strategy aims to create alternative greenspace to maximise flood and climate change resilience, and to take the pressure off already popular areas such as the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths and the Exe Estuary. It also aims to promote increased nature connectivity, regreening of the Clyst Valley and enhance green spaces across the Clyst Valley area, as well as increase connectivity of access, including trails, cycle paths and public transport. Pinhoe is just beyond the western edge of the planned area of the Clyst Valley Regional Park (for which the consultation ended in January 2021); the draft masterplan includes parts of the Pin Brook (pictured above) downstream from Eastern Fields. Some of this has been made possible by the statutory requirements related to new housing developments – and the need to mitigate the additional visitor pressure of those occupying them.

Improving access to green space

However, access to green space is still a critical issue in some urban areas (see the 2020 Public Health England evidence review here), especially in the context of Covid-19. The pandemic has made all of us more aware of the benefits of visiting our nearby green spaces but has also exacerbated existing inequalities in access to green space. Disadvantaged groups appear to gain a greater health benefit and have reduced socioeconomic-related health inequalities when living in greener communities, so greenspace and a greener urban environment can also be used as an important tool to reduce inequality. Despite its negative effects, the pandemic has provided important opportunities to engage with new groups of visitors to our green (and blue) spaces (see e.g. my recent health and wellbeing report discussing this briefly here).

Widening access and maximising health and wellbeing benefits of our green spaces is also not without its management pitfalls and challenges. On my walk I see, for example, a broken and abandoned tent (complete with empty beer can); and separately a group of young adults sitting around a fire in the middle of a small coniferous woodland (which because of the recent spell of good weather is looking tinder dry). These seem to be isolated occurrences in this park at least, despite its being well used, but these sorts of challenges have been widely recognised in both urban and rural areas. They have, amongst other things, led to an awareness-raising campaign and a recent update and re-publicising of the Countryside Code (see also my blog post on Woodbury Common / the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths on management challenges). But in order to facilitate increased access and to ensure that visitors respect our green spaces, increased investment in infrastructure, staff presence, time and effort to engage positively with visitors are likely to be required.

At the end of this walk full of new discoveries I feel much more relaxed, and the stresses of sitting in front of a computer and home-working have dissipated. On reflection, I also feel extremely grateful for the existence of this green space and the network of green spaces across Exeter and East Devon, and to all those who have the vision to improve, manage, look after, and respect them.

Blackthorn in full flower, Eastern Fields, Pinhoe, Exeter

I go back a week later and find the blackthorn in glorious full bloom. I also find the coniferous woodland intact – you can see the remains of the fire (the scene complete with an empty beer can) but to my relief no damage to the trees. And as I leave this bit of woodland it feels like I’m emerging through the thick forest into Narnia!

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