Do we really want wild nature in our towns and cities? Are we prepared to make space for it, live with its untidiness, pay for it? What's in it for us? The Transition Town Kingston (TTK)/ Kingston Environment Centre event "Living Landscapes – making space for nature in the urban environment" on Saturday 13th October explored these questions – in displays about wild flowers, bees and other pollinators from River of Flowers, local beekeepers, the Environment Trust and other charities, and in an hour-long panel discussion chaired by local ecologist and TTK supporter John Fellowes.

The discussion began with a welcome and thanks from Kingston Councillor Sharon Hartley (member responsible for sustainability, amongst other things) and an introduction from John which reminded the audience of the need to be proactive about conservation in a changing climate, and to recognise the spiritual and aesthetic value of nature as well as its many practical services to humanity. He also noted the balance needed between conserving the vulnerable ecosystems and species we have, and the challenges of restoring past systems or creating new ones.

Both John and the first expert panellist, Kathryn Lwin of River of Flowers, pointed out that in parts of China fruit trees now have to be pollinated by hand, a service normally provided by insect pollinators and worth £150 billion worldwide. Kathryn emphasised that there are simply not enough people in the world to pollinate all our food crops – so helping pollinators by planting the kinds of flower they like is also helping ourselves. Most of us today live in towns and cities, which have some advantages for wildlife as they are warmer than the countryside, less dependent on insecticides, and contain masses of green spaces with potential for planting indigenous wild flowers and encouraging pollinators and birds – roundabouts, verges, parks and one million hectares of private gardens…. These are where we have to recreate the wildflower meadows we have lost, by planting more imaginatively and mowing less in order to provide nesting sites as well as forage for bees. Kathryn showed slides of beautiful urban meadows and examples of creative thinking such as an "edible bus stop" (see left), and described her late mother’s memory of cycling in a "cloud of butterflies", sadly something none of us were likely to experience today in England.

The next panellist Marie-Claire Edwards (Green Spaces Service Manager, Kingston Council) described some of the borough’s conservation projects and wild spaces, which are managed on a tiny budget, and recommended residents to go and see some of them to enjoy their biodiversity. Maintenance of many of the borough’s parks and verges is carried out by the contractors Quadron, who are interested in and willing to foster biodiversity – but there are difficulties. Meadows are not easy to create, being ecosystems with distinctive soils, small mammals and other wildlife. The machinery used by contractors is not always suited to meadow maintenance, the flower meadows that can look so lovely in summer can look messy when they go to seed and are largely made up of annuals that need replanting and nurturing – and residents tend to complain about lack of maintenance if parks and verges look untidy.

The final expert speaker, Jacqui Weir of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, had researched the impacts of a range of habitat management regimes on house sparrows and other wildlife.  25 trial plots in London had been managed as short grass, long grass left to set seed, native wildflower meadows (with traditional haymeadow management) or 'wildlife seed plots'. Jacqui’s findings so far include: that adult sparrows and other seed-eaters benefit most from long grass and other plants left to seed; that insects (and insect-feeding birds) benefit the most from flower meadows; and that pollinating bees and butterflies thrive on the wildlife seed plots. She found that meadows do cost money and effort, but costs fall as they become established; and that public reactions to less mowing are very varied and depend a great deal on the quality of on-site information.

There was much common ground between the speakers and much useful evidence that we can build on in Kingston. Suggestions included mowing closely alongside paths and roads to demonstrate that that maintenance was not being neglected; using evidence (and people’s appreciation of nature) to encourage acceptance of long grass and "weeds" and seeds; persuading sponsors of bedding plant displays to consider wild flowers instead; and engaging with other sectors of local government, such as housing and transport. The popularity of the Olympic meadow and organisations such as Plantlife and River of Flowers have done much to raise awareness of the importance of meadows and biodiversity and should make it easier to continue and improve the conservation outlook in Kingston.

See also:
RSPB London House Sparrow Parks Project

River of Flowers
Royal Horticultural Society: Wildflower meadow establishment; Wildflowers and the garden 

More about the issues at: