Rewilding our Cities

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These are the parks of the future, a vision of our cities re-wilded that includes helping nature to reclaim derelict, post-industrial land.

Edinburgh based landscape gardener John Frater could hear the new roadside verge he had designed in Portobello long before he saw it. The air was thick with the contented buzz of bees, hoverflies and wasps, all feeding on a profusion of tall prairie flowers. Gone was the monotone of mowed grass that we usually expect from our roundabouts and verges. In its place was a riot of colour on a tiny oasis of urban land that was “literally humming with life.”

For Frater, who has dedicated all his life to gardening and plant design, this small transformation exemplifies a sea shift in thinking about our urban green spaces. Until recently the countryside has been seen as the main preserve for wildlife and the primary focus of efforts to improve biodiversity. And yet private gardens make up as much as 25% of the footprint of our towns and cities. Throw public parks into the mix and you have a huge patchwork of interconnected green spaces.

Of course urban spaces are never going to be truly wild again. But the vast swathes of collective green land within them could be returned to a less developed state. And this doesn’t mean simply stepping back to let nature take its’ own meandering course. Re-wilding our cities demands thought and commitment.

No-one knows this more than John Frater. Born and raised in Edinburgh his most formative experiences of the natural world were digging his fathers’ vegetable  patch and cutting back the hedges in his grandparents’ garden. Spurned on by a growing concern for the general state of the planet he went on to study Ecology at Edinburgh University. 

Ecology is a hard science and Frater spent four years immersed in Latin classifications, statistics and lab work to get through the course. “By the end my sense of wonder in the natural world had been hammered out of me,” he jokes. “I would look at a beautiful waterfall and think abut how many cubic tones of water were flowing over it per second.” But he enjoyed the theory and came away with a profound understanding of how complex organic systems such as plant communities interact. 

For the past ten years Frater has blended this learning with his love for gardening in his plant design business, Plantforms. At the heart of Plantforms is an ‘ecologically informed’ approach to horticulture. This means choosing species that are best suited to the soil and climate and that grow together to form resilient communities that need minimal maintenance. His hardy perennials from the American prairie, for example, are able to offer up a rich bounty of flowers for pollinators once they are established.

The key to this approach is planning. Frater compares the art of bringing a verge, park or garden to brilliant life to composing music. It isn’t enough to throw in a whole load of random notes - they have to work together in harmony. Structure is everything and Frater’s designs typically combine a mix of habitats with open ground, borders, shrubby patches and if possible a high canopy of trees. He also looks at how the network of surrounding green spaces compliment the one he is working on. For example if there is a pond or woodland nearby he might choose to plant up a wildflower meadow rather than double up.

Frater’s biggest challenge is encouraging councils to move away from the Victorian assumption that our parks should be swathes of mowed grass, bordered by gaudy bedding plants such as Begonias. Quite apart from the maintenance required on upkeep they have limited scope for wildlife. Frater would like these spaces to be managed rather than designed, allowing natural plant colonies to re-establish themselves. “You can have a wild picture if the frame is tidy” he comments. “People will accept a more natural space if they know it is being cared for.”

These are the parks of the future, a vision of our cities re-wilded that includes helping nature to reclaim derelict, post-industrial land. Brown field sites such as old bridges and factories could be turned back into new green spaces for the 21st Century. “The pressure is on with the relentless demand for more homes and offices,” warns Frater. “We need to keep pace by building more ‘green infrastructure’ into our cities, or risk them being swallowed up forever.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Green spaces in our towns and cities have a huge contribution to make to our natural capital and our well-being. Patches of lawn in front of terrace houses help prevent water run off and flooding. Planting trees in streets with heavy traffic cleans the air and filters out carcinogenic particulates. And then there is that indefinable ‘Vitamin Green’ factor. The soothing affect that being in natural surroundings has on frenetic city lives.

But our towns and cities also have a real contribution to make to the health of the wider environment.  With the countryside under ever more pressure from intensive agriculture and development, the vast network of allotments, gardens and parks in urban centres can help encourage biodiversity back into an increasingly fractured landscape. “There is a lot of work to be done,” admits Frater. “But every garden is already making a contribution to the natural world and can be quite easily enhanced.”

Scottish Wildlife Trust Magazine, May 2015

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