People need to engage with green spaces and gardens are key, says Ken Thompson
In the 1980s, the biologist Edward O. Wilson coined the term ‘biophilia’: the innate connection we have, as humans, with nature. We are all born with instinctive ‘biophilia’, and it needs to be nurtured so that we don’t develop ‘biophobia’.
There are many papers on the topic of biophilia and our connectedness to nature, and they generally show that people who grow up in a nature-deprived environment aren’t as interested in conservation. The more deprived your background, the better gardening seems to be for you. This appears like a win-win situation, except that in the modern world, in a crowded country, we are going in the wrong direction.
I look at new-build estates and think “oh dear”. There’s a shifting baseline syndrome at work here: every generation accepts the world the way it was when they were growing up, and they think that’s the way the world should be. But slowly over time, the amount of tarmac increases and the amount of green space decreases, and the next generation is born into it and believes that’s how it should be. Our vision of the world as a green place is slowly being squeezed out of us.
As I stated in my book No Nettles Required, in the absence of any real intimacy with the living world, it’s easy to become indifferent to the fate of the other creatures with which we share our planet. How can someone who has never seen a sparrow hawk be expected to care about the fate of the condor? Many children now grow up without forging any close personal bond with their local flora and fauna; if one grows up lacking even a rudimentary knowledge of the way of life of non-human neighbours, the natural world can lose the power to arouse fascination.
It is then all too easy to believe the propaganda of the chemical industry and allow a fixation with the few genuine pest species to develop into a hatred of creepy crawlies in general; as professionals in the horticulture industry, you will know this is absurd. Not everything coloured black and yellow will sting you, not every small fly is a mosquito. In fact, around a third of all known animal species are insects, and the true proportion is certainly higher – I believe that if you hate insects, you hate life.
So, what can we do about this? As an ecologist, I don’t believe you should try to design semi-natural gardens – you can’t mimic a semi-natural habitat. It’s too difficult, it’s not sensible and there’s no point. People have this funny idea about gardens, that they must be inferior as habitats for wildlife, but that’s silly. A garden, from the point of view of all the animals that live in it, is just another habitat. You don’t look at whether an oak woodland is better than a chalk grassland – both are very good for different types of wildlife, and gardens are just the same.
During my time at Sheffield University, we ran a project called BUGS (Biodiversity in Urban Gardens Sheffield) which looked at private gardens with the aim of sampling the widest range of variation out there. Some of the gardens we looked at were very tiny with hardly any soil, like the backyards of a two-up-two-down house, while some of the gardens were located in leafy suburbs with relatively enormous spaces. We looked at long-established gardens with big trees and at new gardens on newly built estates. One thing that showed in the research was that the more hard surfaces there were, the less wildlife you have – that’s inevitable.
The unifier for all the different garden types was the importance of large woody plants, big shrubs and hedges. These kinds of environments encouraged more wildlife, and big woody plants in general have a disproportionately good effect on biodiversity. Trees and shrubs are literally ‘habitat’ – food, ultimately – and if the gardens you design are going to be three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional, it’s essential to include them.
These large woody varieties also make people feel good. Forest bathing is enormous in Japan – it’s a way of life there, an art form, where you stroll through the woodland, taking it in. There’s a lot of evidence that says this is very good for you in a bundle of ways. However, gardens reflect the life you want to lead and no one really wants a woodland as a garden – it’s too dark. Whatever else a garden does, it should make you feel better. So we have to balance these needs of encouraging biodiversity and engagement when we design green spaces, and then we will create gardens that make people feel happier, more at one and at peace with the world.
Ken Thompson is a leading ecologist and a retired senior lecturer from the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of books No Nettles Required, Where Do Camels Belong? and the new Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants.