How to Make Your Street a Haven for Nature with Practical Tips from Urban Rewilders

isitorganicthough
Published on May 7th 2020
6
A woman plants up a tree pit on a residential street
As the pandemic has gripped the world, many of us have sought comfort in the looping pathways of a public park, found solace in the dappled light of a forest or delighted in the promise of our own back gardens. Yet, depending on where you live, you might also be counting the paved-over front gardens on your daily walks, despairing over the concrete and tarmac that takes you to your nearest green space.
The State of Nature report found that UK wildlife has declined by an average of 60 % since 1970, which led to us being named “among the most depleted countries in the world,” according to the Biodiversity Intactness Index. With our plant and insect life dwindling, we've put together some practical tips on how to make your streets kinder to nature. Hint, there's more to it than scattering some wildflower seeds and waiting for the butterflies to appear.

Scope out your street

A flock of birds standing on top of a map
© Siân and Jon Moxon
For Losing Eden author Lucy Jones, the neglected grassy patch of land behind her Basingstoke home offered prime planting material. Historically a site of anti-social behaviour, Jones and her newly befriended neighbours aim to transform the neglected thoroughfare with an avenue of trees and borders of low maintenance perennials, as well as planting that would encourage biodiversity and make the lawn less of a monoculture.
However, plenty can be done if you don’t live near a larger site. The London neighbourhood group Green The Grid SW18 encourages street and garden planting as part of its mission to be London’s first #FrontGardenFriendly neighbourhood. Karen Gregory, a street rep for the group gave me her advice on how to transform drab tree pit dust traps into colourful floral patchworks.
A group of pink flowers
© Green The Grid SW18
"Choose plants that don't mind a bit of shade, poor soil and someone forgetting to water them for a couple of days. Avoid spiky plants or fence-like structures that will injure pedestrians, plants that could be poisonous to people or animals and very invasive plants that may be removed by the council such as ivy that grows up the tree.
"If the ground is compacted, loosen it up with a fork before planting. Work in fresh compost to provide nutrients for your plants. If it’s dry, you can also water the area a couple of days before planting."
A close up of a flower garden
© Green The Grid SW18
The Rewild My Street website and newsletter is full of easy at-home activities you can collaborate on with neighbours. Founder Siân Moxon says it's ok to start small.
"Consistency is not essential. If most people changed one thing for wildlife, it would have a great impact on species diversity by creating a mosaic of habitats." Moxon suggests creating a water feature (eg birdbath, mini pond or bee bowl) for an instant hit with wildlife.

Enlist the experts

A close up of a map
© Siân and Jon Moxon
Conversely, laying the groundwork doesn’t involve a shovel and a bag of compost (just yet). While it is tempting to get to work with a bag of bulbs, Jones spent those early days buried in her inbox. She emailed her local councillor who, to her surprise, visited the area the very next day and even designed the leaflets and helped deliver them around the neighbourhood.
Gregory says the good thing about working with the council is they can advise on what is and isn’t right for the area as the last thing you want is for your plants to be dug up.
Through Natural Basingstoke Jones met a local conservationist who told her a wildflower meadow wouldn't work because of the soil type. Proving you don’t have to be an ecology expert to attract wildlife back to your area so long as you speak to the people that are.
Organisations such as Bug Life, Plant Life and Trees for Cities can provide valuable information about your plot while RSPB's Give Nature a Home, The Wildlife Trust's Wild about Gardens and, of course, the Candide app are all great resources.
For major alterations or garden structures, Moxon says residents should be particularly careful with listed buildings or those in Conservation Areas. Anything in the street or on public land would need council approval. Check the Planning Portal’s interactive guide to check what changes need planning permission.

Get your neighbours on board

A map of the street
© Siân and Jon Moxon and Viktoria Fenyes
Now you've got a general idea of what you want to do and you've got the correct permissions it's time to enlist some help. With more of us joining or setting up community groups to help our neighbours through Covid 19, now could be a perfect time to open up the conversation around what green changes you'd like to see. Moxon suggests setting up a street WhatsApp group, as well as speaking to immediate neighbours over the fence or during the NHS Big Clap.
The lecturer and sustainability coordinator at The Cass School of Architecture also says drawing up your plans can help communicate an aspirational vision, depict a cohesive proposal and offer practical info – all of which will help get your neighbours on side. However, an evening’s door knocking and a simple poster or leaflet inviting your neighbours to a community litter pick (to clear your chosen space ready for planting) should do the trick.
A flower sits in a parking lot
© Green The Grid SW18
"Think of a catchy name and plan an event to launch your first project. Getting everyone together to create some community spirit will be important." Says Gregory. Green The Grid SW18 keeps people engaged with a sunflower growing competition, an annual harvest event and regular planting days.
For Jones, consulting her neighbours also saved her time, money and resources. They had planned to take up some tarmac but the costly plan was abandoned when some parents pointed out how useful it was for children learning to ride their bikes.
4 Sourcing supplies and funding
A close up of a map
© Siân and Jon Moxon and Viktoria Fenyes
Keep costs low by using neighbourhood sharing sites such as Freegle, Freecycle, NextDoor, where you might get lucky with leftover turf, paving stones, unwanted plants and more for free.
By working with the local grounds officer Jones is able to source bulk bulbs at bargain prices. Hopefully, you'll have someone on your street who knows their way around a pallet and a toolbox. Otherwise, you can source plastic pots from DIY stores and your neighbours are bound to have drawers you can raid for seeds if you ask nicely – even the out of date ones might surprise you.
A group of bushes in front of a building
© Green The Grid SW18
Bare in mind that you will have to make the case for public interest and community if you're applying for LIF government funding – something Jones found jarring. The author of Losing Eden, a soul-stirring defence of nature and its power to heal us says: "making a space habitable for insects and wildlife directly affects the health of people because our life support system depends on plants, so it's funny that there is this disconnect.”
The current tree-planting drive means money is more readily available for this. Try The Tree Council, The Woodland Trust, and the UK governments Urban Tree Challenge Fund. Supermarkets such as Sainsbury's and Waitrose also tend to dish out small sums for community projects.
5 Love your land and lobby your council
A flock of seagulls are standing in the grass
© Siân and Jon Moxon
"It does raise questions about whose responsibility is it to make these spaces more habitable for other species. With more of us living in rented accommodation, it's much harder to put down roots.
As much as grassroots community organisation is great, I think there needs to be a change in mindset within the governmental systems who ultimately have control over these spaces."
A mixture of council and community involvement as well as getting local schools involved could be a good way to maintain the space, even as residents move on. It's also worth lobbying councillors to do more tree planting and stop with the mowing or spraying.
Ongoing maintenance could be an issue for those living in the relative uncertainty of rented accommodation. Conversely, planting something you can nurture and watch grow could also help foster a sense of belonging and ownership.

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