Where We Live Next
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Where We Live Next

Localising the natural world

This blog draws on a discussion held on 21 September 2020, jointly hosted by the Royal Society’s Living Landscapes programme and the British Academy, as part of a new programme of work on environmental sustainability, Where We Live Next. The discussion covered some of the key challenges around changing rural land use in the UK and considered which stakeholders and decision-making structures, both locally and nationally, are necessary for a just transition.

Photo by Mike Kemp / In Pictures via Getty Images

The local is not confined to immediate surroundings. It is the arena of belonging, of feeling alive and in touch, and of caring and sharing with neighbours. The local applies as much to the city and town as it does to the open countryside. Indeed, bringing more accessible and energising nature into the settlement is an essential component of living landscapes.

The natural world is therapy. It brings calm and focus. It relieves and energises. It helps to dispel sadness and depression. This is best achieved when there is unease to be removed, and a reason for enabling nature to be given reality.

The departure of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) provides an opportunity for landowners and tenants to regenerate nature. Under the 45 years of the CAP, they were encouraged to remove their natural assets with lucrative financial incentives. These fiscal prompts will steadily decline to zero in the coming five years. In their place will be an element of income support for recreating natural habitats and for linking habitat corridors for wildlife to move out and about, as their accustomed homes become less friendly due to climate altered heat, drought, or flood.

For these regenerated habitats to offer the most benefit to people and nature they should be linked by ecological connectedness and adjacent landowner coordination. This is turn brings in the natural scientist and the property manager. The first provides the justification for mosaics of refreshed habitats for gaining biodiversity and species mix. For example, flower-rich meadows and heaths can be created and joined to support grateful bees, wasps, moths and butterflies. The second helps neighbouring landowners share their ecological bounty with the greatest biodiversity effect based on the advice of excellent field ecological science and management.

Localising nature, particularly in the countryside, is commonplace. Many parishes and urban handkerchiefs have provided churchyards, natural nooks and river margins for local pleasure. The village of Starston in Norfolk purchased and designed its glebe into a restored field meadow and orchard for parents to walk their children safely and for neighbouring parishioners to share peace, friendship and gentle exercise. Bringing together three adjoining villages led to cooperation over many parish communal adventures across a range of newfound common causes. In this viral age, this was the ultimate comfort.

As the COVID-19 virus remains in circulation, so wellbeing is becoming a much sought-after balm. Wellbeing applies to peace of mind, to mental and physical health and to shared companionship. This brings a sense of nurture and compassion, extending to communal support and neighbourly watchfulness and assistance. Such qualities are as available in towns as well as cities and should be given prominence as towns shrink into pedestrian and cycling enclaves. There is every reason why most of households’ essential needs can be obtained from the locality. Working from home, more scope for producing and consuming cooperatively produced food and the participatory enjoyment of community-centred and performed art, all set in new nature, can emerge within a montage of values based on cooperative sufficiency and social exchange.

Fanciful? It depends on the transformations towards social and ecological wellbeing should the virus remain in our lives. There is legitimate funding around. The process of development could generate income on the basis of capturing more of the land value uplift, which the granting of planning permission always creates. Offer these funds the label of community contributions, not levies. Such monies could be channelled into local charities geared to investing, through bids for grant aid, into community betterment.

Setting out the priorities for the distribution locally of such income could be drawn from citizens’ discussions on the lines of town hall debates. If the virus persists, knowing and trusting neighbours will become the blood stream of such conversations. The drive for removing carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides out of our air should result in far less travel, healthy lungs and hearts, much more exhilarating pleasures from appreciating localities, and community-scale renewable energy schemes drawn from wind, solar or biomass fuelling and heat pumps provided on a community scale. All of this transformation favouring sustainability could be funded by the developer’s contribution to charities.

The coming generation may, overall, be less able to move far away from their parental abode as housing could well become more localised, and local employment may be partly based on social maintenance and wellbeing enhancement, as well as ecological renewal. The internet and the robot can free many to enjoy locality for a considerable component of joyful existence. Living landscapes can become thriving communities in enterprising and internet connected localities, rich in ecological neighbourliness and democracy.

We have not properly given localism a chance. It is treated as a point of departure, or a justification for holding onto the past. It has few champions and even fewer democratic adherents. It is the Cinderella of an anxious and disintegrating society. Now its time has come.

Professor Tim O’Riordan FBA




Our new sustainability programme examines people-powered environmental sustainability policy solutions to answer the question “Where do we live next?”

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