Rewilding: How Cities Are Prioritizing Green Space for Better Well-Being

By Tom Lawson, environment and social justice journalist and former editor of Positive News – the constructive journalism magazine

green city park rewilding

The idea of grizzly bears prowling sidewalks in Chicago may not appeal to the average citizen (or indeed the animals themselves). However, recent years have seen numerous projects seeking to use aspects of rewilding to help nature claw back some of the urban environment.Through the process of rewilding, cities can improve both human and environmental health. —@words__by__toml Click To Tweet

The concept of rewilding emerged in the early ’90s and has since led to the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park and wood bison to the boreal forests of Alaska. The original idea, according to conservation organization The Rewilding Institute, was to reintroduce “apex predators and highly interactive species” to large wilderness areas to restore natural ecosystem balances. The benefits of reintroducing these keystone species include stabilizing populations of other species and reducing overgrazing of native vegetation.

But of course, our cities were once wilderness too.

In the U.K., conservation charity Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust is hoping to make Nottingham the country’s first “rewilded city,” starting by transforming what was a massive concrete shopping mall built in the 1960s, Broadmarsh, into a haven for wildlife.

“There’s a lot of talk about sustainable cities—clean energy, carbon reduction, sustainable transport,” says Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust’s Broadmarsh campaign leader Erin McDaid, “but the missing link in these plans is green space itself. To have proper green recovery you have to have restoration of the natural environment.”There’s a lot of talk about sustainable cities—clean energy, carbon reduction, sustainable transport…but the missing link in these plans is green space itself. —@EmcdNotts Click To Tweet

Of course, any green space—be it a park or public gardens—is likely to attract some wildlife. But at Broadmarsh, instead of the usual monoculture of neatly clipped grass, plans are to restore the area to its natural, historical state: a wetland. A proposal was submitted to the Nottingham city council in December 2020 and is under consultation. Proponents hope it will bring back a number of species now absent from the city of 330,000, including the Nottingham crocus and birds such as reed warblers and reed buntings.

Connectivity is another key principle of rewilding, and long-term plans are to use the Broadmarsh site as the first in a number of habitat stepping stones to link the city with the 1,000-acre Sherwood Forest, some 22 miles north.

However, the trust is realistic about its vision of an urban wilderness. “This is right in the heart of the city so it would need management,” McDaid says. “Rather than turning the clock back completely, we’re looking to bring elements of wildness back, both to the city and into people’s lives.”

With the vast majority of the U.K. population living in urban areas—84% in 2019, and that number is on the rise—the well-documented benefits of natural spaces on human well-being form an important element of the Broadmarsh plans. Time spent in nature is known to lower blood pressure and stress as well as improve immune system function. Getting local residents on board seems to be working: So far, more than 14,700 have signed a message of support for the vision on the trust’s website.

Lucas Rushton, a student at Nottingham University, is one of them. “When you go into the city center it’s just concrete, it’s all gray,” he says. “I don’t see [the Broadmarsh plan] as a normal park. I see it as trees and flowers everywhere and grass growing a bit mad in places, but still with spaces for people to walk. For mental health, having a green area near you is so important, especially in times of COVID when people are struggling.”

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