In the previous issue we discussed how the crisis in funding for public parks and open spaces is leading many local councils to review their manage ment and maintenance of land with a view to reducing costs. This has energised some radical approaches to the management of green spaces and has driven the need to rethink the role of today’s parks and green spaces since their heyday in the first half of the twentieth century.
Those were the days of showy seasonal bedding displays, meticulous maintenance, head gardeners, park keepers, music playing in bandstands to large crowds; when local parks were the peoples’ choice for recreation throughout the year, especially at evenings and weekends. After WW2 ended, transport and motoring grew rapidly, many people became less reliant on local green space, and by the 1970s many were in serious decline, but, especially important in deprived urban areas, the local park was still a free healthy outdoor facility, available to all.
In parallel with the post war period of parks decline, agro-commerce was booming in order to feed an expanding population, and the great extinction of wildlife and habitats belonging to hay meadows, hedgerows, wetland, orchards etc. accelerated devastatingly, and sterile rural monoculture became the norm. Local green spaces, especially parks and gardens, allotments, cemeteries and churchyards, then became refuges for surviving wildlife.
Today the modern role of local parks and green space is not always clear. Pressures on budgets are forcing parks professionals and elected politicians to consider new ways of managing and maintaining land, but the prevailing concept of neatly cut grass, neatly clipped shrubs and hedges is still locked into most people’s consciousness.
Despite the spectacular success of some alternative models and approaches (such as the London 2012 Olympic Park stunning picturesque prairie meadows) planners, developers, landscape architects and green space professionals are fixated by, and cannot seem to escape from, the traditional green space paradigm of fortnightly mown ryegrass turf and ‘the usual suspects’ of trees and shrubs with a few bits of play equipment (plonked as far away from the houses as possible to prevent noise disturbance!).
There will always be a need for grass lawn for ball games, picnics, sun bathing and relaxation, but is it really necessary to cut the whole of a park, green space or highways verge in the name of neatness? Probably at least a 20% of many green spaces is not really used for recreation and therefore there is no reason for it all to be cut sixteen times, and there are very good sustainability and biodiversity reasons why we shouldn’t. Is it time now for a paradigm-shift?
Many councils have experimented, some extensively, with ‘differential mowing regimes’ wildflower and picturesque meadow sowings and plantings, but usually on a small scale as a percentage of their entire land holdings. This has rarely been done in the context of challenging the traditional role of open spaces and identifying clear roles for it in the 21st century. For example, the role of local green spaces as a mosaic of habitats and as sanctuaries for wildlife is emerging as a major justification for the continued existence of many sites, but most are still sterile ‘neat’ grassland, especially in residential areas.
Before Budding’s invention of the lawn mower in 1830, grass was cut (usually very infrequently, if at all) by scythe. Since the 1930’s with the advent of the tractor gang-mowers, followed by ride-on mowers, we have become used to large areas of amenity grass being cut by machine fortnightly, or even weekly, during the growing season.
This standard maintenance model is reliant on neatness and tidiness, but many claim it has created “green deserts” of low biodiversity-value grassland which may be no longer affordable and could be better managed, and while this is a challenge there are many wide-ranging opportunities to improve them, particularly as havens for wildlife.
Grass mowing often represents more than half of a local authority’s grounds maintenance costs, so this has recently been the focus for savings in many areas. Over the next few years it is likely that even the wealthiest authorities will find it necessary to consider reducing these costs. It has always been a long-held belief that cutting grass regularly, usually fortnightly, is the cheapest annual cost option for maintaining land. However, most local authorities have never really geared themselves for annual cutting, especially cut and clear regimes, and have rarely challenged the industry standard model of working i.e. the ride-on mower/ strimmer/ blower equipment-mix for gangs with vans and trailers.
If much larger areas were required to be annual cut only or cut and clear for wildlife purposes, it would be worthwhile councils and contractors investing in machinery and composting facilities to bring costs down to those of regular cutting. It is interesting that many private golf courses are now managed with biodiversity in mind, and many are well ahead of public land-owners who repeatedly commission maintenance with the same old, same old specifications. Is it now time to seriously consider having ‘no-mow’ targets similar to recycling targets? If so, then local communities could and should be involved in deciding where and how much grass can be left uncut.
In many areas today, grass mowing frequencies are being reduced indiscriminately and across the board, with consequent volumes of complaints from residents and sports users about long grass and heaps of clippings making grassed areas unusable for play, looking ugly and spoiling their neighbourhood. The usual explanation for the reduction in quality is “due to cut-backs”, or worse, is blamed on contractors or council workforce performance issues.
There seems to be little recognition that we are almost certainly entering an era when we have to accept a new role for many of our green spaces and we need to look for new, more sustainable ways to carefully manage them, and reduce costs more intelligently.
The growing concern for the destruction of habitats and species-decline over recent times can be the starting point for a new type of green space management where the priorities of nature are put before the need for the sterile neatness of regularly-mown grass and over-tidied borders.
Over the last few years many authorities have stopped mowing large areas of green space with the dubious claim that they are therefore creating “wild-flower meadows” with the resulting, inevitable, limited-species long grass and scrubland. These are often budget cuts disguised as biodiversity initiatives, but they are not taking the opportunity created by the current financial circumstances to unlock the real potential of their land for wildlife and sustainability, whilst making substantial savings or releasing resources to improve standards elsewhere.
There is now an opportunity to link community and volunteering opportunities and the use of ‘third sector’ organisations, such as Wildlife Trusts, with serious research, emerging biodiversity initiatives and “re-wilding” practice to provide more sustainable management models for amenity open space management. New management models and outcome-based rather than frequency-based maintenance specifications, geared to promoting sustainability and biodiversity, if carefully thought through, and marketed properly, could completely change the public perception and expectation of open spaces.
As an example of a driver to change people’s perceptions, there is national and international concern about the serious rapid decline in pollinating insects and the devastating effect this could have on the harvest of many major crops. The famous quote, mistakenly attributed to Albert Einstein, states "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man." Whoever originally said it, there a great deal of truth in the statement.
At a presentation given to Britain in Bloom contestants last year, Dr Mark Goddard of Leeds University pointed out how the latest research into pollinating insects had serious implications for the way we should maintain public land
He explained how the government has invested in a research programme involving a number of UK universities to investigate the science behind pollination and the causes of decline in important pollinating insect species. This research has informed the National Pollinator Strategy 2014. Preliminary findings from this research have produced some interesting and surprising facts.
There are around 250 species of bee in the UK, (of which 25 are bumble bees and the honey bee is just one) representing around 26% of pollinating insects.
Flies, including 250+ species of hoverfly represent 67% of pollinators.
Butterflies and moths represent 2%, bugs and beetles the remainder.
In general flies seem to prefer rural sites, country parks and nature reserves whereas bees appear to favour urban sites such as allotments, parks, gardens, cemeteries etc. (although as many as 85 hoverfly species have been recorded in one garden alone). Bees flourish in less-manicured sites and neighbourhoods, and it appears that our fixation on the cleaning and tidying beds and borders and manicuring lawns has contributed to the serious decline of many of these insects.
Rough grassland areas have 3 times more pollinator species than standard mown grass. Un-manicured and un-raked shrub-beds, flower borders and wildflower plantings encourage pollinators: honey bees, bumble bees, solitary bees, hoverflies, bugs, butterflies, beetles and flies.
Key findings include that in general, single yellow flowers are the most visited by pollinators. In addition early flowers such as dandelions, the mid-season ones like ragwort and wild carrot, and late ones such as autumn hawkbit and ivy are critical to their survival. These are currently often viewed as problem weeds rather than valuable food sources and nesting or hibernating sites which are vital to the survival of pollinating insects.