If you go down to the woods...
The Capital Woodlands project
Wendy Brewin, Sensory Trust
In 2005/2006 we were commissioned by Trees for Cities to be involved in the early stages of the Capital Woodlands Project. Our work was running community consultation sessions as part of the Heritage Lottery Fund bid to improve community connections with six ancient woodland sites around London. We targeted socially excluded groups, people who were non-users or were under-represented within the visitor profiles of the woodland, to explore the barriers that prevented visits, or that reduced the quality and number of visits. Participants provided ideas and views on how those barriers could be reduced or removed and these, together with the issues, formed the Access and Audience Development Plans for the HLF bid. As part of those plans, we provided a list of all the groups we had consulted with and any contact details to Trees for Cities.
At the end of 2008, we received a copy of the Trees for Cities Annual Report and were delighted to read about how they were working with the participants of the original consultation; involving them in practical activities to improve access within the woodland sites. Trees for Cities and site managers were building on the relationships previously established with the groups – creating stronger connections between themselves, the communities and the woodlands.
For example, during the consultation process based on Morden Park in Surrey, we made contact with members of the local mosque, The Baitul Futuh Mosque. Situated within minutes of the park, they spoke about how they would use the open spaces of the park on occasion for celebrations. Members would picnic and have family activities in the park but never made use of the boundary woodland. It was an area that they didn’t feel safe in or felt that they no use for.
Photo: Capital Woodlands
Yet two years on, the Trees for Cities Annual Report showed a different story. Members of the mosque were involved in planting 100 hazel trees in the woodland area as part of celebrations to mark 100 years of Khilafat, a system of spiritual leadership in Islam. An activity that had been arranged between them and the park management that was specific to their group. Activities such as this are useful for demonstrating how specific groups can be encouraged to make more use of their local public space. It will encourage the members of the mosque to increase their visits to the woodland section of the park, where they will be able to regularly see their trees growing, hold events and experience a deeper sense of the woodland as a community space.
Through all the work that we do the Sensory Trust strongly recommends that green space managers build long-lasting relationships with local community and disability groups. We include contact details for all consultation participants who want to remain active within a project, in our reports and plans. The majority of participants are people who regularly experience a reduced quality of visit to their local green space because of factors such as poor physical access, social stigma attached to their peer group, or lack of access to information. They are often keen to continue helping a project past the consultation stage and offer their services eagerly.
Photo: Capital Woodlands
We advise green space managers to set aside time to develop and maintain communication with these groups. Yes, initially it takes time and effort to involve them but after a short period of time only a small amount is required to maintain these relationships. As a reward, groups will be more willing to be consulted on other projects and issues. They are a relatively low cost resource on the doorstep and can provide links to further groups and individuals within the community.
Sadly, in our experience, this contact often fails to go beyond the consultation stage and so we were delighted that the Capital Woodlands Project took this on board and continued to involve local community groups in the work to improve access to these woodland sites. This is a project in which communities clearly feel involved and valued, so we must shout our praises from the rooftops – sorry, tree tops – and congratulate the Capital Woodlands Project for being an example of good practice in developing stronger relationships between green space managers and local communities. We can only hope that other project managers recognise the benefits and take up the flag!
About Capital Woodlands
Capital Woodlands is a three-year London Biodiversity Partnership project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project aims to raise appreciation of London’s woodlands and increase public benefit and participation in woodland events and activities.
Key areas of work are the dissemination of good practice in the management of London’s woodlands, training in woodland management skills, strengthening links between woodlands and communities, supporting the educational use of woodlands in London, and the support and recruitment of volunteers.
The project is managed by Trees for Cities, which works in partnership alongside the Greater London Authority, Forestry Commission, BTCV, the Peabody Trust and the London Boroughs of Bromley, Croydon, Haringey, Merton and Redbridge.