Towards the end of 2015, I spoke at an event organised as part of Bristol’s Festival of the Future City, as one of several people offering ‘provocations’ intended to stimulate debate around the challenges and opportunities for making Bristol a more ‘resilient’ city, socially, economically and environmentally. Each provocation was meant to be confined to just five minutes, but of course, everyone overran, including me!
The title I’d been given, ‘What needs to be done in the city to rebalance our relationship with Nature?’ was hardly snappy; so I subvertised it, a little crudely, to ‘Who ya gonna call? Police, Fire, Ambulance, Nature..?’ The aim being to highlight the critical services Nature provides and which sustain human society – at least, when such ‘ecosystem services’ are understood, recognised and protected.
Natural Health Service
With the delegate list showing a preponderance of town planners, civil engineers and ‘urban futurologists’ and the conference format being highly (and unreliably) dependent on web-based SMS polling and voting, it felt a daunting if not futile task as I stepped up to the mic in that air-conditioned, hermetically-sealed room to make the case for nature as an integral part of, rather than merely an adjunct to, the city’s infrastructure.
I cited the familiar, but still compelling statistics, from peer-reviewed studies, evidencing the benefits to people’s physical and mental wellbeing from access to and interaction with nature:
- patients healing quicker after surgery if they have a view of trees or vegetation
- Japanese research showing immune boosting T-cells rising after just 5 mins of Shinrin-yoku (literal translation, ‘forest bathing’) in a woodland setting
- crime rates reduced by more than 50% in housing estates where trees, vegetation, greenery present.
And the ’killer’ fact, that would surely provoke moral outrage and most powerfully make my case that a high quality and quantity of nature should be accessible to everyone in every neighbourhood, that …
…people who live in ‘biodiverse poor’, nature-deprived postcodes die 7 years earlier and succumb to debilitating diseases 17 years sooner than those with homes in leafier, greener areas. Not just because they’re better off financially, but because they are richer in wildlife.
Delegates who weren’t reading messages, texting back or working out how to use the SMS polling system applauded with modest, automatic politeness at the end of my polemic. But not even that last shocking statistic, taken from Sir Michael Marmot’s seminal report, ‘Fairer Society, Healthier Lives’, stirred or shook them. It was clear that despite the organisers having the vision and understanding to put nature on the agenda and give me the opportunity to provide a provocation, for the audience it was no more than that – an opportunity to hear a rather shouty man, the type with a placard and a collecting tin you’d seek to side-step in the street, make a few interesting, occasionally amusing observations but not ones central to the context of the event.
Nature still suffers from the ‘N’ word – nice to have, nice to look at; especially when being talked about by the ‘Nation’s Greatest Naturalist and Nicest Man’, Sir David Attenborough (although he’s getting a bit edgier in his old age, viz highlighting human population pressure for pushing ever more species to the brink of extinction). Nature is seen as nice, but not necessary and certainly not essential for the good of civic society. It lies low on most policymakers’ list of priorities, as per George Osborne’s statement at the 2011 Conservative Party conference,‘We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business’.
Beyond my brief, politely ignored provocation, nature and its value to us humans, never mind its intrinsic value, barely got a mention. The slightly too warm controlled atmosphere of the conference room hung heavy with ‘C’ words – civic society, civil engineering, community, commerce.The consensus defaulted to a moderately adapted version of business as usual: smarter construction and engineering solutions – still primarily the pouring of concrete, rather than any radical rethinking of a future city in which nature was viewed as a critical partner for creating long-term resilience and sustaining the wellbeing of its citizens. George Osborne would have been grinning like the Cheshire Cat in a hard-hat.
I left the event despondent that I’d failed to characterise and communicate Nature as that vital ‘5th Emergency Service’, underpinning all the others – filtering out pollutants from our air, locking away carbon dioxide, slowing the flow of rivers to reduce flooding, storing groundwater for our drinking water, providing tranquil space and respite for our minds and bodies etc. And failed in a city, more blessed than most with a plethora of green and blue space in walking distance of its citizens. Where, despite of, rather than because of, town planners, wildlife weaves its way across, through and over the city-scape: foxes and badgers finding refuge from persecution in the countryside; eels migrating into the heart of the metropolis via the Avon thousands of miles from the Sargasso Sea; otters, hard and hungry on their tails, taking up residence within yards of Temple Meads station; peregrines stooping from their tower-block and cathedral eyries onto unsuspecting pigeons whilst shoppers below go about their business oblivious to the aerial combat above their heads.
Musings on a Monopoly Board…
So why this blanking of nature, this polite indifference, this relegation to it as ‘something nice’ to be turned to only when more core considerations have been dealt with? A clue came to me this Christmas in an unexpected form … via the Monopoly Board. I was looking through the drawer holding all our old family games in search of something to play with my daughter – when I chanced upon the Monopoly box, containing, as I knew only too well, the means to wreck the carefully cultivated community spirit of any family suffused with a little too much sugar and alcohol post the Festive meal. Its capitalist creed spelt out in the games’ rules in CAPITALS lest anyone think there was any other more altruistic purpose, ‘ THE IDEA OF THE GAME is to BUY and RENT or SELL properties so profitably that one becomes the wealthiest player and eventual MONOPOLIST.’ In fact, originally called ‘The Landlords’ Game’, Monopoly was created by a socialist feminist to teach American families how to manage their money in the face of rapacious landlords! In a fine irony, the game was plagiarised, adjusted into an unashamedly capitalist form and then claimed as his own invention by Charles Darrow.
It was only when out of curiousity that I unfolded the game board that the connection came to me: nowhere on the Monopoly Board past or present is any space allocated to nature. The closest it comes to identifying some form of ecosystem service or natural capital is via the ‘Water Works’ – even then under the infra dig description of a ‘utility’, rather than a proper property. With the majority of the audience at the Future City event professionals in their 30s, 40s and 50s; for many of them, the Monopoly Board may well have been the first urban ‘map’ they were exposed to – subliminally (as intended) imprinting its characterisation of cities as places of concrete, bricks and mortar, where the main human activity is consumption, commerce and capitalism.
Certainly, we’re overdue reframing those mental Monopoly Boards. As some conservationists have sought to to do, by coining the planner-friendly descriptor ‘Green Infrastructure’ for championing nature in urban areas – although still a utilitarian term stripping the life and soul out of nature, reducing it to something that can be loaded up from a council depot and deployed like traffic bollards or street lights.
Providing Nature in daily, bite-sized servings
A more compelling and vibrant case for the presence and proximity of nature in cities has been made by Professor Tim Beatley and his team at the University of Virginia through The Biophilic Cities Project. As in the Marmot report, Beatley makes the correlation between the greater presence of biodiversity in a neighbourhood and its lower incidence of mental anxiety and poor health. In a neat characterisation, that I wish I’d found ahead of the Future Cities event, Beatley talks of our need for regular ‘recommended calorific intakes of nature’ – adapting that now commonly understood dietary concept. A minimum daily requirement of nature recommended for every citizen would be, ‘a bite-sized serving of walking to work under a street forest canopy’ . Weekly nature nourishment to maintain a healthy, happy body, mind and soul amounts to a slightly bigger portion as found in urban parks or nature reserves within or on edge of the city; with these extended to monthly deeper immersions out in the wider countryside. The pinnacle experience, as Beatley describes it an ‘annual banquet’, should be spent feeding and replenishing the senses on nature breaks in awe-inspiring places such as National Parks, mountain ranges, coastal areas – those remnant areas of near wilderness, where nature can be seen and absorbed on the grand-scale.
It is no accident that when the early industrialists and bankers – and their modern day equivalent, hedge-fund managers and rock-stars – had enough money, they sought to escape the city’s ‘pavements grey’ where they’d toiled for their fortunes and make their homes in country houses set in carefully landscaped estates – such as those created by the great 18th century landscapers, Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton. Landscapes which closely resembled that of the East African savannah where our species spent 99% of its development – a landscape of grassland, watering holes, pockets of woodland and scrub, with low rolling hills, supporting a vast diversity of wildlife. East African landscapes that neither the plutocrats or their landscapers were likely to have seen directly – yet were lodged in their ‘mind’s eye’. As world renowned biologist E.O. Wilson set out in his book Biophilia – revisited by Dr William Bird in a UK context (Natural Thinking) – human beings are hard-wired over several million years mentally, physically and innately (call it our soul if you wish) to be close to nature – and that has not been entirely eroded over the mere 10,000 years since settled farming started or the few thousand years later when the first ‘cities’ of Mesopotamia appeared.
It’s clearly not possible for city planners to create country estates for every citizen – although it’s noteworthy that two of the most popular places to visit at the week-end around Bristol are the Ashton Court and Blaise Castle estates; now owned and managed by Bristol Council and both landscaped by Humphrey Repton. Those parklands, formerly for the privileged few, satisfy many people’s need for weekly greater nature nourishment as per Beatley’s categorisation. Further afield, Westonbirt arboretum offers the opportunity for monthly ‘Shinrin-Yoku’ sessions and the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s Slimbridge centre set alongside the Severn with its vestiges of semi-wilderness provides connection with a significant diversity and sheer numbers of species other than our own – as I experienced on a recent visit , my eyes and soul hungrily soaking up the visual feast of wheeling flocks of golden plover, lapwing and teal hundreds strong.
Nature in every city’s blood supply
What is in shorter supply are those everyday ‘bite-sized servings’ of nature available readily to every citizen throughout the city. Trees and green spaces should not be seen as just another bit of street furniture or ‘lollipop’ design feature to break up an architect’s drawing, but as a key network of ‘nourishment’ points infusing nature across and through the city like our body’s circulatory system – supplying that innate human need for contact with nature and the benefits it brings to our mental and physical health and wellbeing.
“A clod of earth seems at first sight to be the embodiment of the stillness of death…”
So Sir John Russell opened his unexpectedly compelling book, ‘The World of Soil’ first published in 1957, a year before my birth. I quoted Russell’s words as part of my summing-up at this year’s Land & Food Forum (17/10/15) held at Avon Wildlife Trust’s Feed Bristol site, to show that despite 2015 being the United Nation’s first ‘International Year of the Soil’, the earth beneath our feet and from which much of our food still derives has been of concern for some decades.
Soil was very much the concern of those attending this year’s Forum, with Feed Bristol sitting on the tip of the ‘Blue Finger’ – which as its name suggest is a pointer of land made up of Grades 1, 2 and 3 (‘best and most versatile’) agricultural soils running from the edge of the city out to the great Medieval tithe barn at Winterbourne. ‘Blue’ because that’s the colour used on the soil classification maps to depict these most productive, valuable ‘clods of earth’.
To finish Sir John’s poetic, scientifically underpinned, quote, ‘…but its apparent quiescence is completely illusory; physical, chemical and biological processes are ceaselessly active, bringing about continuous cycles of change, some upgrading, some downgrading, but buffered and saved from violence by the clay and organic matter. A steady balance is thus maintained…’
Scientifically underpinned, because Russell was director of Rothamsted research station for 30 years, the foremost agricultural research station in the world. His genius was to bring what seemed a dry, desiccated ‘dead’ subject matter to life, translating the science into layperson’s language without condescension so ably that it was re-issued as a ’best-seller’ under the Fontana imprint just three years after first publication.The health and availability of soil has again been hitting the headlines in the context of food security. With the world’s human population burgeoning from 2.8 billion in 1957 to over 7 billion today and predicted to ‘peak’ at 9.6 – 11 billion by 2050, it has been estimated that global food production will need to increase by a staggering 70%. Optimists note that comparably massive increases in productivity have been achieved over the past 60 years, certainly assisted by techniques developed by agronomists at Rothamsted and elsewhere, but mainly through the primary input of oil at every level of food production: fertilisers and pesticides, fuelling machinery for cultivation and harvesting, through to processing, packaging and distribution.
Soil Not Oil!
Oil rather than Soil has been the limiting factor for sustaining and increasing productivity. Oil is incredibly energy dense; just two teaspoonfuls of diesel equate to the daily effort of one of the growers and landworkers attending the Land & Food Forum! The food system’s heavy dependence on oil – it takes around 400 gallons of oil to provide a year’s worth of food for the average US citizen – raised concerns amongst policymakers when during the last decade oil prices soared to $147 dollars a barrel. Geologists and environmentalists warned of impending ‘Peak Oil’, as it seemed remaining reserves were dwindling or beyond technology to exploit. That proved a false alarm: a plethora of further reserves were found, extraction techniques evolved to squeeze out the last drops from all but the most inaccessible sources – and the global economic slow-down reduced oil demand. But the principle holds that we need to move away from such heavy dependence on oil, not because it’s running out, but because if we continue to burn fossil fuels, our planet will no longer be habitable due to climate change. A recent study published in Nature concluded that if we are to achieve the 2 degrees Celsius increase in global temperatures deemed tolerable, then 83% of global coal reserves, 49% of all gas, and 33% of remaining oil reserves must be left in the ground unburnt.
So after 60 years of being seen as little more than a substrate to stand crops up in, the health and capacity of our soils has again become of concern – and not just to the pioneering growers and ‘soil-heads’ to be found at this year’s Land & Food Forum. A Parliamentary Briefing of 2006 devoted to the state of UK soils, unearthed the findings of the late, great Soil Survey of England and Wales (sold off in 1987 by Mrs Thatcher) that 44% of arable soils in England and Wales were at risk of erosion. The 2006 briefing, ‘UK Soil Degradation’, gave an unsettling update – 17% of English arable land is now classified as actually eroded and even more alarmingly, it noted that nearly one-fifth of all organic matter present in our soils in 1980 had been beaten out of existence (along with all its myriad microorganisms) by 1995. Were Sir John Russell still with us to examine those clods of earth he would find that they are now indeed little more than the ‘embodiment of the stillness of death’. With that loss of organic matter the soil’s other key ecosystem service of locking away carbon dioxide is stripped away. Research published last year by Sheffield University scientists, Drs Jill Edmondson and Nigel Dunnett, secured the attention grabbing headlines, ‘Only 100 Harvests Left!’ Their work comparing the organic matter content of rural soils with those found in urban gardens, parks and allotments – showed the latter contained over 30% more organic matter and thus are far more resilient than the farmed fields currently producing most of our food.
As I write, my daughter’s school like many others across the country has been celebrating its Harvest Festival. There is something hugely touching and encouraging in this timeless marking and celebration of the harvest being brought home – just as it was brought into the Tithe Barn at Winterbourne back in the 14th Century. The fruit, vegetables, bread, tins of beans etc. brought into schools and churches to dress the harvest displays, mostly purchased from the nearest supermarket may not even have been grown in our soils – but if they were, the levels of key minerals, trace elements and micronutrients they contain will be much lower than those found in the foodstuffs raised from our soils of 50 – 60 years ago. That apparent cornucopia of produce piled up on supermarket shelves looks cosmetically perfect, but nutritionally may be little better than eating cotton wool – filling our stomachs, but not sustaining optimum health.
The data underpinning such apparently hyperbolic statements has been rigorously compiled over 50 years by two of the under-sung saints of public health, Professor Robert McCance and Dr Elsie Widdowson, who worked together to compile ‘the most detailed and sophisticated historical records of the nutrient values of foods available to any nation worldwide’. Amongst food scientists, nutritionists and agricultural researchers, their life’s work, ‘The Composition of Foods 1940-91’ and its subsequent forms is simply referred to as ‘McCance and Widdowson’. Over five decades they revealed some alarming trends in the state of our soils and consequently the state of our food: key minerals and trace elements that underpin our physical and wellbeing, the absence or imbalance of which are linked to increasingly prevalent conditions such as ADHD, depression, stress, anxiety, mental illness, have been leached out:
• Dairy milk, by 1991, had lost 97% of the copper, 83% of the iron found in 1940
• Vegetables contained 76% less copper, 46% less calcium, 24% less magnesium
• Meat had less than half the copper and iron found in 1940.
A recent, similar study from the US corroborates McCance and Widdowson’s findings and concluded that it is modern intensive farming techniques that are the most likely cause. A summary of that US study was published serendipitously in New Scientist magazine on the day of the Land & Food Forum. Modern intensive farming appears far more efficient than the low-carbon, human-powered horticulture practised at sites like Feed Bristol, but increasingly produces ‘Ersatz’ rather than truly nourishing foods.
With his natural bent for turning a good phrase and creating a memorable image, John Russell talked of ‘a tablespoonful of healthy soil’ containing more living mini-beasts and microorganisms than there were humans on Earth (In 1957 the global population stood at 2.8 billion – perhaps questionable today with 7.3 billion people on Earth) and that a healthy pasture held an equivalent weight of those essential engineers, earthworms, beneath each beast that grazed above them. Healthy soil not only teems with life vital for its fertility, but which nourishes us in other ways. One of those myriad micro-organisms, Mycobacterium vaccae, has been found to have the same effect on our biochemistry as Prozac. Professor Chris Lowry and colleagues at the University identified the process whereby the microbe activated neurons in the brain that contain serotonin, the ‘happy brain chemical’. Under the stressed situation of being put in a tank of water, mice inoculated with M. vaccae continued swimming for 2.5 minutes longer than control mice. Presumably the inoculated mice had a greater sense of optimism that the professors would eventually rescue them! This microbe, available free to all gardeners, allotment holders, and growers, can be breathed in, absorbed via the skin or more readily through cuts and grazes. The old adage about the benefits of ‘getting your hands dirty’ holds more veracity than we suspected.
The healing power of soils, of working in, and being connected to nature and natural processes is an area gaining increasing credence and interest. Several Wildlife Trusts, including Avon Wildlife Trust and Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, run ‘Nature, Health and Wellbeing’ programmes – and a number of GPs and health professionals refer patients to ‘Green Care’ and ‘Ecotherapy’ sessions. But despite a mounting body of evidence, mainstream medicine still prioritises prescribing pharmaceuticals – even though they can cause side-effects identical to those they are supposed to cure . As well as side-effects on patients, pharmaceuticals affect our environment – with 30-90% of active ingredients simply passing through our bodies and escaping into our rivers and streams from sewage treatment works, wildlife is being medicated on a wholesale basis. Anti-inflammatory drugs have been isolated from the fur of otters tested across six English counties. Starlings and other birds that feed on the rich insect life that arises from sewage works’ filter beds have been shown to accumulate antidepressants causing them to lose their appetite and libido – so reducing their breeding rates.
Pioneering individuals and organisations, like those represented at the Land & Food Forum, recognise the need to heal and renew our depleted, battered soils – if we are to heal and renew ourselves. Amongst those pioneers are the Soil Sisters , who brought ritual, celebration and some much needed fun to leaven discussions around the weighty issue of soil degradation – and a serious policy proposal in the form of a ‘Declaration for Soils’ . At the heart of that Declaration lies, ‘the need to reconnect to soil as a fundamental building block of a sustainable resilient city’ and for enabling more people to make that connection and literally get their hands (and hearts) in the soil. In that aim, today’s Soil Sisters share the vision of Soil Association founder, Eve Balfour, who in her seminal work ‘The Living Soil’ published in 1943 wrote,
‘My subject is food which concerns everyone; it is health which concerns everyone; it is soil, which concerns everyone – though they may not realise it.’
The World of Soil, Sir E. John Russell, The New Naturalist Series, 1957
Issued by The Fontana Library, 1961.
UN World Population prospects: the 2010 revision.
Pimental D & Giampetro M, Food, Land, Population and the US Economy, Carrying Capacity Network 1994.
The global soil carbon pool is approximately 3.1 times larger than the atmospheric pool of 800 GT (Oelkers & Cole 2008). Only the ocean has a larger carbon pool, at about 38,400 GT of C, mostly in inorganic forms (Houghton 2007).
Nutrition and Health, 2007, Vol. 19, pp. 21–55 0260–1060/07 THE MINERAL DEPLETION OF FOODS AVAILABLE TO US AS A NATION (1940–2002) – A Review of the 6th Edition of McCance and Widdowson, DAVID THOMAS, Fellow of the Geological Society, founder Member of the Register of Nutritional Therapists.
New Scientist, No 3043, Empty Calories, Modern food is plentiful…but is it still good for us, 17 October 2015.
Lowry CA, et al., Identification of an immune-responsive mesolimbocortical serotonergic system: Potential role in regulation of emotional behaviour, Neuroscience (2007), doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2007.01.067
Wellbeing benefits from natural environments rich in wildlife, A literature review for The Wildlife Trusts, 2015. Dr Rachel Bragg, Dr Carly Wood, Dr Jo Barton and Professor Jules Pretty.
For example, Fluoxetine, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class of antidepressant – brand name, Prozac – causes anxiety in 1 in 100 patients; suicidal tendencies in 1 in 1000. Source: nhs.uk/medicine-guides.
Qualitative detection of the NSAIDs diclofenac and ibuprofen in the hair of Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra) occupying UK waterways with GC–MS. Richards, N.L., Cook, G., Simpson, V., Hall, S., Harrison, N., and Scott, K.S. (2011) Qualitative detection of the NSAIDs diclofenac and ibuprofen in the hair of Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra) occupying UK waterways with GC–MS. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 57(5), pp. 1107-1114.(doi:10.1007/s10344-011-0513-2)
Could Prozac be killing off our starlings? http://www.york.ac.uk/research/themes/prozac-and-starlings/
Arnold et al ,2015, University of York
The Living Soil’, Lady Eve B. Balfour, Faber & Faber, London, 1943. Full text available online via:http://www.soilandhealth.org