If we want to help pollinators we need to reverse the decline in urban green space

November 6, 2014

When you think of pollinators, do you think of honeybees buzzing about the countryside in the sunshine? Most people have no idea that there is more than one species of bee, let alone that a whole host of other insects act as pollinators, from moths to hoverflies. We’re lucky to support around 1,500 different pollinator species, many of which make their homes in urban areas.

But pollinators are in trouble: their numbers and diversity are decreasing (e.g. this study on bees and hoverflies). To help remedy this, Defra yesterday released its National Pollinator Strategy. This document is a laudable attempt to co-ordinate action for pollinators over the next ten years.

One of the areas the Strategy focuses on is supporting pollinators in towns and cities. This isn’t as strange as it sounds. Our cities are amongst the greenest in the world: 33% of Greater London is green space, with an additional 14% being vegetated gardens. These green spaces provide habitats for biodiversity, including pollinators: 35% of Britain’s hoverfly species were found in a single garden in Leicester. Our towns and cities therefore have the potential to play an important role in supporting pollinators.

The Strategy outlines some innovative schemes to promote pollinator-friendly activities, including supporting a Bees’ Needs award for pollinators as part of the 2015 Green Flag Awards. It also places heavy emphasis on the current lack of evidence available on pollinator abundance, how different species react to different pressures, such as climate change and disease, and what the most cost-effective solutions might be.

But improving urban habitats isn’t just important for pollinators; it’s important for people too. More than 80% of people in the UK live in urban areas and research has shown that proximity to urban green space has an impact on our physical and mental health. Urban green spaces and gardens give us the opportunity to interact with nature, exercise, play, socialise and relax.

Yet we are losing urban green spaces. For many different reasons, ranging from urban densification policy and homeowners wanting somewhere to park the car, we are losing parks, gardens and other green spaces. There is also potential for remaining green spaces to suffer a decline in quality because of local authority budget cuts. The problem, as we identified in our Park Land report, is that we don’t have the data available to show us where green space loss or decline in quality is happening the most, and so don’t know where to target funding most effectively. This may start to change with the eventual release of Ordnance Survey data, announced in September.

One way to change this situation is to increase community engagement with, and responsibility for, local urban green spaces. Reflecting Elizabeth Truss’ keynote speech at Policy Exchange yesterday afternoon , we need to change the narrative around environmental work from something that ought to be done to something that we want to do because we enjoy it (though perhaps the idea of not mowing the lawn is more a case of not doing something we don’t want to do).

This seems to be happening to some extent with parks, with a recent survey showing that park managers had seen a more than 30% increase in the number of Friends and user groups. But more can be done. Our Green Society report goes further and suggests a range of ways that communities could be encouraged to take greater responsibility for green space management, including introducing Park Improvement Districts, offering a council tax rebate for regular volunteers, and offering communities contracts to maintain their local green spaces.

But what impact will greater community engagement with green spaces have on pollinators? It is difficult to say for certain. But at Penn Road Gardens in Islington (see below), where the Borough Council has contracted a residents group to manage the site, floral diversity has increased, which may have a positive effect on pollinators. What we should do is try as many different methods of engaging communities as possible and evaluate them not only in terms of social impact but also for their impact on pollinators. Truss’s speech yesterday had a strong emphasis on the value of gathering and examining data – doubtless she, and the bees, would approve of such an approach.

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