Building a green recovery through communities, nature and jobs

Fay Holland, Policy & Research Executive at Groundwork UK, details the benefits of creating more and better green spaces which are accessible to the UK’s left behind communities

At the end of last year, the Prime Minister set out his ‘10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’. The ambitions in the plan covered energy, transport, buildings nature and carbon capture and were intended to set out the government’s stall in the run up to the UN climate summit due to take place in Glasgow next November (COP26).

To make these ambitions a reality, we need local communities up and down the UK to understand not only the threat that climate change presents, but how the transition to net zero will affect them – and how a greener way of doing things can change their lives for the better.

While talk of carbon capture might seem abstract to most people, changing the way our homes are heated and how we get around will – at some point – be material concerns for us all. If these changes are not planned and orderly there is a risk that they will exacerbate inequalities (the pandemic has demonstrated what happens when big social changes are made in a disorderly way). Last year’s citizens assembly on climate change demonstrated that when people are equipped with information and time to consider and discuss it, there is no shortage of appetite for climate action.

Lower carbon lifestyles
Some of the developments we’ve seen over the last year may hold a clue to the way forward. The government funding for emergency transport measures in 2020 led to more low traffic neighbourhoods popping up in towns and cities across the UK. By closing residential streets to through traffic, the schemes reduce air pollution and make more space for people to walk and cycle, making local journeys safer and more pleasant. While a noisy minority have objected to the schemes, they’ve proved popular with the public and demonstrated that different ways of doing things are possible.

The government should continue to invest in initiatives like this, that encourage us to adopt lower carbon lifestyles while making our neighbourhoods greener, healthier and happier.  

Making more space for nature in our local areas is an important way of doing this. Green infrastructure lowers carbon emissions and increases our resilience to extreme weather such as flooding and heatwaves. It’s also vital to our health: spending time in green spaces boosts mental health and wellbeing and our parks and playing fields provide safe and pleasant spaces to exercise for people of all abilities, whether they’re taking a gentle walk, training for a marathon, or playing with young children.

Currently, our access to parks and green space is highly unequal. Surveys show that people on lower income and people who are black, Asian or from minority ethnic backgrounds are less likely to have green space close to their home. Analysis has found that 2.69 million people do not have a green space within a ten-minute walk from their home and this is likely to increase with population growth over the next five years. We urgently need to increase the amount of accessible, high quality green space in urban communities, and put in place support for people to develop their confidence spending time in nature.

Creating community hubs
Across the country, a wide range of initiatives have been developed to connect people to nature in their local areas. For example, Groundwork’s Wellies in the Woods programme works with young families to build their confidence exploring nature together, managing risk and learning through outdoor play. The Better Place Bradford project is all about involving local people to develop safer and healthier outdoor spaces for expectant parents and families with children under the age of four to enjoy.  Future Proof Parks brings together young people aged 16-24 and Friends of Parks groups to improve their local green spaces. While many activities have had to be paused due to the Covid-19 pandemic, young people have stayed engaged through developing social media pages for parks, researching their history and identifying the species of plants and wildlife they see on their walks. This has benefited the Friends of Parks groups, but the young people have also benefited, reporting that the activities had helped them manage their mental health through a really challenging time. Initiatives like these have the potential to be replicated and scaled up and contribute to communities’ recovery from Covid-19.

Green spaces can also become community hubs. Groundwork manages community gardens across the UK which provide opportunities for people to come together, learn new skills and improve their health and well-being. When we visited some of these ‘green hubs’ for our Growing Spaces report early last year, volunteers told us how spending time in the community gardens had helped them develop their social networks, regain their independence and build their confidence. Some of the spaces are used for wellbeing courses and as places that people experiencing poor physical or mental health can be referred to through ‘social prescribing’. The NHS’s increased emphasis on prevention and social prescribing offers new routes into green wellbeing activities for people experiencing or at risk of poor health.

The local authority is often a key strategic partner in the running of these hubs. Where services such as adult education, health advice services are ‘co-located’ with community gardens, it helps to maximise funding and buy-in from strategic partners. It also helps residents to feel that these services belong to them. When a service is offered in a place that is familiar and that they come to for recreation and social activities, it removes some of the anxiety around asking for help.

@theGrange is based on the Grange Park estate, one of the most deprived parts of Blackpool. The local council leased the building to Groundwork in 2018 and the centre has quickly become a vibrant hub of community life. The outdoor space has been developed into Grow Blackpool, a community farm where volunteers benefit from the therapeutic effects of working together in the outdoors while growing fresh produce for use in the community café. Blackpool Council provides core funding, including for the library and adult education services, and other organisations operating from the centre bring in rental income. Additional income is generated through grants and partnerships   to deliver projects and activities at the hub.

Net zero ambitions
Investing in climate action also has the potential to counter some of the economic effects of the pandemic, by creating high quality green jobs in a range of industries. The government estimates that its 10 Point Plan will create up to 250,000 jobs. We are calling on the government to put in place support and training to ensure that these jobs are accessible to the people who need them most – particularly young people who have been among those most likely to lose their jobs in the pandemic. The Kickstart programme is an important first step towards this, but without conditionality to ensure that the roles created are low carbon there is a risk of leaving young people with skills which will soon become redundant.

Much of the emphasis in the conversation about green jobs is on roles in low carbon energy and manufacturing, but there is huge opportunity to create jobs repairing and enhancing our natural environment. The sector has united around the concept of a National Nature Service, which would create entry level roles in conservation and land management. These jobs are ‘shovel ready’ and would be among the most accessible roles, providing opportunities for people to learn on the job and develop skills which would enable them to progress in the sector or transfer to other roles.

Of course, if we are to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, every organisation must be run in a way that is low carbon and protects our natural world. To achieve this, we need to ramp up training in carbon literacy and environmental awareness across the board, making every job a green job. Sustainability should become a core employability skill, valued by employers. Government should use the levers at its disposal to incentivise public and private organisations to value sustainability skills, for example through the public procurement framework and providing more support for SMEs to reduce their environmental impact and transition to low-carbon technologies.

We start 2021 in a fresh lockdown, looking ahead to what will no doubt be a challenging year on many levels. But it will also be a year of opportunity for climate action. The decisions we make about the kind of recovery we want will have far-reaching implications for our ability to meet our net zero commitments and build stronger, fairer and healthier communities. Empowering communities to shape a low carbon future, making access to green space more equal, and investing in green jobs are important next steps.

Further Information: 

www.groundwork.org.uk