At first glance, ‘rewilding the city’ might sound like a contradiction. To some people, the wild is defined by the absence of interfering humans. How can wildness exist in that most human of habitats, the city? For me, that contradiction makes cities the ideal places to test our assumptions about wildness and find a deeper definition, one that allows humans and the wild to co-exist and enrich one another.
When I first arrived in my home city of Aberdeen, it was known for a particularly old-school approach to managing green space. Order, control and tidiness were aimed for and achieved. Picture great expanses of short mown grass, neatly sprayed edges, immaculate rose beds and shining paving. Agents of wildness, such as weeds, wildlife, children and active communities, were not part of the vision.
Against this background, I became involved in a community greenspace project, a couple of hectares perched on the edge of a massive area of Council grass, in a neighbourhood known locally for high rates of deprivation and vandalism. We made the wild our ally, using the robustness, beauty and excitement of diverse plant assemblages, growing freely, to serve our human aims. Like nature, the park we made was complex, exuberant and full of niches. Our park was created and managed by humans, no less than the green desert it sat next to, but ‘wild’ was the word everyone used for it, admirers and critics alike.
Fast forward almost thirty years, and the rewilding bug seems to have spread. Aberdeen now has a number of pioneering projects bringing wild nature into its parks and green spaces. The most developed of these is the East Tullos Burn, which runs through St Fittick’s Park in Torry. The East Tullos Burn has the misfortune to drain a large area of industrial estate, after which it used to be forced into a straight channel to the sea, passing through yet another expanse of mown grass. Over a number of years, the park has been transformed with tree planting, reed-beds and wetlands, meanders on the burn and areas that are mown on a regime to encourage wild flowers.
This rewilding hasn’t been a cure-all. The rangers still have to post occasional notices warning people to stay away from algal blooms in the water. But it has transformed what was a particularly unloved green space – windswept, sodden, flanked by industry and a sewage works – into a little oasis where jack snipe, red footed falcon, teal, herons, water rail, damselflies and dragonflies can be seen.
I’ve had the privilege of watching a second area, not far from my own house, develop over the years. Seaton Park is situated in the floodplain of the River Don. Although the river has now been reduced to a single channel, James Gordon’s map of the area from 1661 shows a tangle of braid channels and the landform of the area clearly shows other, even older, paths that it has taken. One of these old channels, drained to create yet another vast area of mown grass, slowly started to reassert its wetness. In a particularly wet winter the whole corner of the park flooded, creating a large pond that locals jokingly named Seaton Loch. Over the next few years, many wetland birds started to use the area and their activity, puddling the ground, bringing in seeds in mud stuck to their feet, fertilising well-used areas, started to transform the ground into a true wetland.
Debate began about whether to welcome this wilding and work with it or whether to drain the area again. An poll was held and creating a permanent wetland in one area was the clear winner. The land was sculpted to give a more intricate mosaic of ponds, dry islands and wet areas, thousands of water-loving plants were planted and a viewing platform was built. These works are now maturing nicely.
I met up with Stephen Bly, Aberdeen’s Community Engagement Officer, to find out more about what has driven this new approach. The answer was not what I expected. I had imagined a top-down change in council policy slowly filtering down to works on the ground. Instead, Stephen told me that above all the change has been driven by the community empowerment agenda. Councils are now being required far more to ask communities what they want and it turns out that when you ask communities what they want in parks, the answer is more natural spaces. Stephen’s job is not to try to get communities to accept what the Council have already decided but to find out what they want and to work out how the Council’s resources can be used to achieve it. Often, of course, different members of the community want different things and we talked about the use of zoning to make sure that everyone has a little of what they find most pleasing in a park. Not only are communities responding to this new approach, but Stephen said that park workers are enjoying the change as rewilding and community engagement make their jobs more creative and varied.
The effect is also visible in smaller ways outside the big parks. One group has taken over a grass verge to plant a forest garden. On my street the Council have stopped spraying and we are maintaining an edible community garden behind the community centre. We are also just beginning to think in terms of habitat connectivity and how core areas can be linked up for species like hedgehogs. The new approach is really only just beginning and it will be interesting to see all the ways in which it works out. One result already: the community park that I first got involved in is now being adopted by the Council, who have plans to de-culvert the burn and apply natural flood management. The community empowerment legislation applies across Scotland so if you want to get involved and push for rewilding there has never been a better time.
What does all this say about the paradox that I started the article with? The new spaces I have been talking about were all created by humans, often with the aid of heavy machinery, no less than the municipal grass that they replaced. However, it seems to me that any view of what is natural that fails to see the difference between before and after is missing something crucial. Rewilding the city is not a contradiction because human actions can either allow space for natural processes to find self expression or not. I look forward to seeing more of it.
By Alan Carter. Alan is a forester, conservationist and greenspace contractor. He is one of the directors of Reforesting Scotland.