Fairer society & environmental stewardship: land & parks

16th May 2022

Author: Professor Janet Haddock-Fraser, PhD

Janet Haddock-Fraser photo

During the COVID-19 pandemic, more people came to both experience and appreciate the benefits of green spaces to both their mental and physical wellbeing. In the UK, we saw visitors to urban parks and the countryside go up considerably.

For the two organisations where I sit on the Board[1], we saw unprecedented numbers enjoy our natural assets and facilities. The Land Trust recorded over 2.5 million visits across its fifty urban parks during 2020, the largest rise in its history, while visitor numbers for the Peak District National Park doubled previous years. 

While increased engagement in green spaces delivered societal and individual benefits, it came at a cost to the environment. The sheer volume of visitors and their behaviours put some pressure on the natural state of the environment. In enabling widescale access to green space, we must therefore make concerted efforts to protect the natural environment through careful stewardship. This tension between wanting to be open to the public and protecting nature is a key agenda for both the organisations I support as a Board Member.

Here, I consider the notion of environmental stewardship and equitable access to natural green spaces from my experiences in the UK.

As a starting point, we need to understand what is meant by stewardship in this context. In its original meaning, it described the guardianship or keeper of the house. Now, it tends to be used in relation to responsible planning and management of natural resources. In moving towards industrial, urban societies, while we are less directly connected to our natural environment we tend to become more aware of the need to conserve, protect and manage it. Stewardship therefore represents guardianship of planet Earth – our house, and speaks to our responsible use today as well as its protection for future generations.

However, when we talk about the value of 'green space' or the 'environment' what do we really mean? Environmental economists categorise values into use (e.g., food, forestry, recreation) and non-use values (knowing it exists, protecting it for future generations). Stewardship looks to both, balancing our use of the environment now with maintaining its quality for the future. When we consider a fairer society as a concept, we then need to consider fairness to current and future societies. I believe we are best placed to do this by ensuring as much of society as possible understands, appreciates and respects the natural environment. To get there, experiencing our environment is critical – an opportunity that is in fact not readily or freely available to all.

In the UK, industrialisation and urbanisation in the nineteenth century effectively severed widescale engagement with our natural environment. Although the countryside has many ancient paths and tracks, some dating back to the Neolithic age and many to Roman or Medieval times, access to the public was restricted. Citizen action in 1932 by a group of some 400 Manchester factory workers changed this. They were keen to escape the smog and pollution of the city, breathe fresh air and exercise. What followed was a 'mass trespass' onto the privately-owned moorland east of the city (the 'Kinder Trespass'). Their lobbying catalysed legislative change in the UK, creating 'public footpaths' and rights of way across the countryside available to all – estimated to be some 140,000 miles worth[2]. In 1951, the UK created National Parks for the benefit of all, the first being the Peak District, to protect open space and the countryside between the industrial northern cities.

The new National Parks were established with the dual purposes of, (a) conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the areas, and (b) promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of those areas by the public.”[3] Since 1951, the National Parks have sought to balance stewardship of the natural environment (the first purpose) with public understanding and enjoyment. So how has it gone?

There have been many achievements. Historical inequities in British society in relation to access to public green space have been overturned. National Parks have become successful stewards of their green space whilst accommodating visitors. Indeed, visitors have been part of enhancement at times through their volunteering on restoration and ecological enhancement projects and infrastructure maintenance. Active environmental influence and education of visitors has grown, moving some towards co-stewardship with the public. 

So, is this Happy Ever After? Somewhat. Nevertheless, there are still issues of equitable access and enjoyment of the Parks.  Removing physical and psychological barriers for those with disabilities, from lower socio-economic groups and non-white British cultures remains challenging (whether increasing the number of accessible paths and tracks to a greater appreciation of and working with non-dominant cultural norms). Additionally, there are tensions in terms of the pressure of visitor numbers. National Parks remain free to enter and enjoy, with no restrictions on visiting (e.g., permits, quotas, etc.); in economic terms, a 'free good'. However, this unfettered access during the high numbers experienced during the pandemic led to more land erosion, more litter and more anti-social behaviour.

Our focus on fairer access and encouraging more people to benefit from visiting the countryside, must emphasise the notion then of being a responsible visitor, through education and engagement before, during and after people visit. For this to resonate with currently underserved segments of society, it is vital we understand messages and perspectives from their point of view. While there has been progress, more needs to be done.

The UK government-appointed members of the Peak District Board are currently 50:50 male: female and 25% non-white. Staff, rangers and volunteers increasingly come from underserved communities and work with groups, youth and schools in surrounding urban areas to raise awareness about the benefits of enjoying access to the countryside as well as how best to respect it. There is more targeted social media messaging on key issues such as dog control and barbeque etiquette as well as raising awareness of the presence of fragile species and ecosystems.    

It is fundamental that stewardship includes the sustainability of the natural environment for future generations, not just its use in the short-term. In the Peak District, a major priority in this regard is how to address climate change vulnerability of the ecosystems and protected landscapes, as well as seeking to increase carbon sequestration in the landscape. Leveraging public support for funding to undertake this vital work, and to change visitor behaviours to help – rather than hinder – these key priorities is key.

We cannot 'close our doors' to land and parks, nor would we want to. However, would it be fair to restrict access today so that future generations can experience blanket bogs, or water voles, curlews and dippers in a national park? I think not. Rather, let's focus on responsible visiting using engagement with the Park as a means to both educate and develop inclusive environmental stewardship societal for a fairer society.


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