Friday, 19 May 2017

What is a Healthy City?

This week I was horrified to read that Bristol City Council have proposed to cut the street tree budget that is managed by the highways department, from £243,000 to £53,000. This 78% cut will effectively see all pollarding and cultural work by skilled arboriculturists stopped, will mean any trees felled will not be replaced and there will be no new plantings, despite often planting trees is cost neutral as community groups and organisations often fund tree plantings. You can read more about this here on the Bristol Tree Forum's blog.

Beautiful trees in Bristol's Broadmead shopping centre.

Here I must say that there is a promise to revisit this decision by the city council after the general election, but I am going to add my own, possibly cynical thoughts on that. Firstly the promise to revisit could just be a good political move. Could it also be that revisiting this decision may mean that a contracted business could be given the remaining budget, or perhaps slightly more, to carry out the work for Bristol City Council. Usually that might not be seen as an issue, but knowing the horror of what is going on in the beautiful city of Sheffield with their trees, having had tree work contracted out to Amey, who are dealing with trees as a health and safety issue rather than looking at them as part of our natural capital, and planning on felling 6,000 trees over 5 years, i think my cynicism is totally understandable. If you'd like to know more about the Sheffield situation, here is the Sheffield Tree Action Group website.

According to the WHO a healthy city is one that 'continually creates and improves its physical and social environments and expands the community resources that enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and developing to their maximum potential.'

So with that in mind surely it's physical environments include looking after the trees within the city and the biodiversity that those trees support. Here in Bristol we have already seen Parks budgets slashed so hard that we no longer see park keepers or park teams working in parks, but instead have a small, central team that is working across the cities more than 400 green spaces. Friends of Parks groups and volunteer organisations such as my own Incredible Edible Bristol are beginning to be relied on to manage areas of parks, and take on the funding of their own projects. Whilst this is an exciting prospect for many, it is also often completely financially unsustainable, relying on volunteers and the ever decreasing amounts of public funding available. Anyway, back to the trees.......

We take trees for granted in the city often but they are a vital and rare green lung in areas of the city. They turn busy, concrete and tarmacadam rich areas into areas that appear green, with all the pluses that trees bring. Outside Bristol's Royal Infirmary is a typical place. Traffic heavy, busy with both pedestrians and cyclists, and regularly with the sight of the air ambulance overhead, the space is loud, busy and quite frightening in many ways. Ambulances scream around with their sirens blaring and there are a lot of people everywhere. Across the road is a short avenue of trees. Not enough but enough to add some shade and greenery to the area. Enough to allow you to stand underneath them and feel calmed.  Behind the BRI has been made a beautiful, tree rich walk, which, as I walk through it regularly on my way to and from events and meetings, calms the soul, supports re-energising and is a safe space in one of chaos. There are avenues of trees all across the city that do exactly the same thing. They are a part of our natural capital, supporting biodiversity, flood and temperature control and the health of the city and the people living and working therein.

Beautiful spring blossom!

According to the last citizen survey in the UK there are over 80% of the population living in urban areas. By 2050 it is estimated that world wide 70% of the planet's population will live in urban areas. We know that health, both mental and physical, is improved if people have access to nature. But what does that mean is a question I constantly ask. We can't bus people out into nature every weekend can we? We can't flood the Somerset levels every weekend with 455,000 people from the city in order to ensure that hit of nature happens, can we? Well no. Of course we can't so surely bringing nature into, and looking after nature within the city is a vital piece of keeping any city healthy. And surely that means being serious about looking after that natural capital within the city? Those parks and avenues of trees are important spaces for the health of the city, and it's populations. For cities that are battling rising mental health issues, and according to Bristol Mental Health that is estimated to be 15% of the population each year, approx 60,000 people, the benefits of sitting under a tree or visiting a park are huge, and important, particularly for people living in the less wealthy parts of the city who often feel as if they are the forgotten population, and rarely visit the central areas of the city for a whole raft of social and economic issues.

So how do we change this? Well I would suggest that we need a campaign. A national campaign on the importance of natural capital, of healthy cities in the true sense of the phrase, and a campaign run by real people who care about their individual cities and it's health and wellbeing. Living in a city like Bristol is amazing but it has to be said that the shortsightedness of this particular policy change leaves me both flabbergasted and sad. Not only must we ensure healthy cities for our current populations, but also for the generations to come so we ensure we never return to the unhealthy cities of less than 100 years ago. With air pollution levels rising and mental and physical health, particularly obesity issues on the rise, we need forward thinking local politicians who put the health of the population first. Prosperity needs to be seen as more than just wealth, taking statistics of health and well being into account just as much as development and business, and looking after the natural capital of a city surely must be a good way to begin this change? 

I'm interested in your thoughts so please do comment below. I expect this will be an ongoing them on this blog so please do get involved in any way you can!
Beautiful Ginkgo a stones throw from Cabot Circus!

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