Nature is a Human Right, the campaign founded by London activist, writer, and strategist Ellen Miles to support grassroots actions, organize campaigns, and petition for legislation and policy change at a local level
People’s living environment impact on health and well-being
Spending time in nature improves people’s mental and physical health, hence the importance of having access to public green spaces (PGSs) in urban areas. Still, the access and availability of green spaces in many countries in the Global North is uneven across regions and cities’ neighborhoods. Nature is a Human Right was founded by London activist, writer, and strategist Ellen Miles. The project’s goal is to make contact with nature a recognized human right. To do that, they support grassroots actions, organize campaigns, and petition for legislation and policy change at a local level.
«The issue is urbanization and the fact that it is taking nature out of the Earth, so the Earth is getting grayer by the second. Concrete is the second most used substance in the world after water, and it already outweighs every tree bush and shrub on the planet. The fact that there is more concrete than those types of greenery shows how grey the world is becoming. This has some disastrous environmental consequences in terms of biodiversity and ecosystems, and it has terrible consequences for human rights, as it is damaging people’s mental and physical health in myriad ways».
«We are animals, we evolved in nature, to be among nature, and we need to have all of these various types of plant life around us to be healthy and happy, and in order for our minds and our bodies to function and feel like they should. The lack of nature is damaging to people and the planet, and we need to bring nature back into our cities and urban areas in order to start working towards restoring them. Guerrilla gardening is something we can do ourselves to make a tangible, immediate positive impact and the reason why you can do it independently, and it’s accessible to anyone whether or not you have a garden. You can borrow the tools, get donated seeds: anyone can do this», explains Miles.
Guerrilla gardening: what is it?
Started in New York and then spread around the world, Guerrilla gardening is a practice of planting trees in a public space by citizens – usually a spot that has been not cared for – with the purpose of fighting urban decay and improving the surroundings and the environment. Citizens usually organize themselves to act through ‘green attacks’, or ‘flower bombing’, which is the act of preparing small ‘bombs’ consisting of a mix of soil, fertilizer and seeds of flowers or grass wrapped in paper towels. These bombs are thrown in areas considered ‘too gray’ so as to create green clumps when the rainwater will dissolve the paper.
Bombs are also thrown on a roof, in abandoned building sites, flowerbeds. The benefits and far-reaching impacts related to this act are many: from the enhancement of biodiversity to helping to mitigate temperatures. The tarmac of the streets absorbs the heat. If you remove the stones and put plants, the temperature drops. Then there is also the water retention aspect: adding more greenery to a city means a better water management which can help mitigate and prevent the flash floods that happen due to climate change.
Socioeconomic inequalities influence access and ownership of green spaces
The Covid-19 pandemic and the consequential strict lockdowns that have characterized the year 2020, have put the issues of access to green spaces, land, and homeownership at the center of public discourse. Land is a source of food and wealth, and it’s distribution impacts housing prices. According to British researcher, writer, campaigner, and author of Who Owns England?, in the United Kingdom twenty-five thousand landowners own half of the land in the country, yet they only make up less than one percent of the population. Thirty percent of this elite is composed of members of the aristocracy and gentry, while corporations own eighteen percent of the British land, and seventeen percent is in the hands of oligarchs and City bankers.
The concentration of land ownership gives power and wealth to a restricted circle of landowners, while the rest of the country deals with a housing crisis characterized by rising rent prices and a lack of affordable homes. According to Zoopla, British rent prices are rising at the fastest pace in thirteen years, as private sector rents in September were four-point-six percent higher than the year before.
Based on the figures on homelessness released by the UK Government, the British charity Shelter has reported that ninety-one families become homeless each day in the United Kingdom. This is because as lockdown restrictions are lifted, the health of twenty-two percent of renters is harmed by poor housing. Like land ownership, access to green spaces is not distributed in an equal fashion. The residents of lower-income neighborhoods have less access to nature than those who live in affluent areas.
A UK Environment Agency report, entitled State of the Environment: Health, People and the Environment, has highlighted that the poorest communities often live and work in the most polluted environments while dealing with higher rates of underlying health conditions. Additionally, in England, those who live in the country’s most deprived areas tend to have less access to local green space than the residents of wealthier areas.
In its report, Community Green: using Local Spaces to Tackle Inequality and Improve Health, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) has revealed that in areas where more than forty percent of the residents are black or from an ethnic minority, there is eleven times less green space than in areas where the majority of the community is white. Where there is available green space, it is likely to be of poorer quality.
The rejuvenating effect of green spaces on human well-being
There is growing scientific evidence that exposure to nature in the form of blue-green spaces and the ecosystem, offer potential benefits to human well-being and mental health. A 2021 study conducted by researchers from the Basque Research and Technology Alliance (BRTA), the University of Exeter and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, analyzed how human health was influenced when it came into contact with blue-green spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. The scientists found evidence that keeping contact with nature in circumstances, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequential lockdowns, may be beneficial for the mental health of people from a variety of socio-demographic backgrounds.
The researchers collected data for this study through a survey, and they analyzed 5,218 responses from Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the United States, Portugal, Italy, New Zealand and Mexico. They found that the respondents who lived in countries with stricter lockdowns dealt with greater signs of poor mental health, while nature contact acted as a buffer, mitigating the negative effects of lockdown measures on the participants’ mental health. Respondents thought that nature helped them to better cope with lockdown restrictions and access to natural spaces, and nature views were associated with more positive emotions.
«For people, having more greenery in your local neighborhood has been proven to help your mind, your body, and your relationships. In terms of the mind, nature acts as an antidepressant: it lowers stress, and it’s been shown to relieve and prevent debilitating psychiatric disorders, and it’s good for our cognitive health, and children who grow up in green areas have higher IQ rates. It helps your memory, it helps your focus, it helps your attention span, and it slows your mind from deteriorating as you get older. In terms of the rest of the body, it bolsters the immune system, digestive, and reproductive systems. All of these systems get an extra boost from having those natural enriching elements around us», explains Miles.
«Trees clean the air, and when there is greenery around us, there’s less pollution, and it mitigates the heat island effect. Concrete and paved surfaces trap the heat in urban areas, and heat, as global temperatures rise, is becoming a killer. There’s a prediction that if nothing changes, heat-related deaths in the UK will rise by over 250 percent in the coming years, and there have already been lethal heat waves across Europe, America, Asia: it’s happening everywhere. Trees help mitigate against other extreme weather events like flooding».
«When we have paved ground, there’s nowhere for the water to go, whereas nature helps with capturing that floodwater and rainwater, making everything safer for people. Another reason that we need it is biodiversity. We’re at the beginning of the sixth mass extinction as a result of the Anthropocene, where humans have become the most influential force on the planet, although we make up zero-point-zero-one percent of all living beings on Earth, and as a result, we’re seeing all of these other species becoming extinct. We need to change how we’re developing as a species and how we define progress and civilization and start to integrate nature more into it».
Environmental justice activist from London. She is the founder of Nature is a Human Right, the campaign to make access to green space a right for all, and Dream Green, a social enterprise that educates and equips people to become guerrilla gardeners. In her spare time, she is a guerrilla gardener, and runs a local action group in Hackney.