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A clay moth caterpillar explores a stone wall. © DJTaylor/ Shutterstock

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Why we should rewild ourselves and the places we live

When we live alongside nature, we end up happier and healthier. We might even end up rewilding ourselves. 

As we expand the areas devoted to nature in our gardens as part of the Urban Nature Project, we learn more about what happens when you create space for nature.

Making space for nature in cities and towns is good for us 

The health benefits of spending time in nature are well documented. Being in nature and building a deep connection with the natural world around us, often referred to as rewilding ourselves, can boost both our mental and physical health. Green, biodiverse spaces are great places for rest, recreation and mental reset.

Green spaces also make cities more liveable and we can physically feel their impact. Trees and shrubs help cool down a city on a hot day. Wetlands purify polluted water and plants enrich our air with oxygen.

In a changing climate, green spaces become ever more important. We need green spaces to reduce temperatures in cities and limit the risk and impact of flooding. Places that are home to a diversity of plant and animal species are also more resilient to stresses such as drought and pollution. 

A fox sleeps on the grass near a wall in a garden

A fox naps in an urban garden. © Daniel Lange/ Shutterstock

How does rewilding work?

The goal of rewilding is the restoration of ecosystems, often over a large area. Rewilding is helping natural processes re-establish themselves. 

In the beginning, some human intervention might be needed. This might be connecting patches of greenspace together, restoring natural river channels, or reintroducing key species that have been lost. In UK rewilding projects, these ecosystem engineers have included beavers, pigs and bison. 

John Tweddle is the Head of our Angela Marmont Centre for UK Nature and a member of the Rewilding London taskforce. He says, 'The idea is to manage the land less intensively over time.’

John says that rewilding isn’t just about woodland and grasslands. It also includes ‘blue spaces’ such as rivers and wetlands. Kickstarting the recovery of rivers and streams often includes restoring their natural meander and flow. 

Projects such as Knepp in West Sussex have time series data that shows that with a bit of support, an abundance of wildlife really does come back. 

Having many different kinds of places for plants and animals to live helps to increase the variety of life, the biodiversity, that is supported in an area.

This is true in both a rural and urban setting. Even creating little mosaics of habitats when space is limited - for example a hedgerow, mini meadow and a small pond - can be very beneficial for biodiversity.

What is urban rewilding?

In urban places, it’s important that everyone can both help manage and reap the rewards of living alongside nature. 

John says, ‘Urban rewilders are trying to solve the challenges of how you balance the needs of space for people and nature - because it has to work for both.’

Some grass grows from a garden bed

Cities and towns are a patchwork of many different, often small, spaces that are owned and managed by a wide range of people and organisations. Buildings rise out of a tapestry of gardens, trees, ponds, allotments, parks, streets and road verges. These places are often intensely managed and can change rapidly over time.  © Prystai/ Shutterstock

John says it's a common understanding that you need as much as one hundred hectares to effectively rewild an area. In an urban environment, you need to think a little differently. 

‘Urban spaces rarely have large areas to play with, so we need to get creative,’ he explains. ‘We can do this by connecting many smaller spaces to form larger networks, as well as thinking about how the greenbelt can be improved and incorporated. Urban ecosystems can cover significant areas if all the small patches work together.’ 

And urban nature recovery it isn’t just down to larger rewilding initiatives. Even small actions, such as planting a window box or garden with wildflowers can add up to a big impact when many people are doing them. 

These urban greening activities can contribute to nature recovery in cities and towns at a broad scale, while also helping individual species to thrive. Pollinators and other mobile species, such as frogs and hedgehogs, can move between these small spaces to find the food and shelter that they need. 

We can also connect bigger spaces within and on the outskirts of cities to this tapestry. Larger spaces can act as motherships that support the biodiversity of smaller spaces spread out over the city or town. 

‘Different intensities of initial management can be used depending on the scale of the rewilding project,’ says John. ‘But a key factor to success is the involvement of local communities and landowners.’

A meadow of daisies, buildings are in the background

It's important to consider what communities want and need from a space to make sure that places are accessible and can be enjoyed by all. © E. Clark/ Shutterstock

Urban rewilding has to involve a diverse range of people

If you live in a city or town, you and the communities around you can play a central role when thinking about rewilding an urban environment. After all, it's people who will visit, notice, use, manage and feel the benefits of the nature around them. 

John says, ‘We must be flexible about how much or little active management is required to develop "rewilded" spaces. It needs to work for both wildlife and people.'

Including people in rewilding: A case study

In Walthamstow, London, a group of researchers from Queen Mary University are looking at how people connect to green and blue spaces in their area. They’re asking people to tell them where in their neighbourhood they feel connected to nature. This could be green spaces, road verges, even artwork. 

Connecting to nature is an important step in communities starting to allow and foster spaces where nature can exist. The information and stories collected by these researchers through the BlueGreenE17 project could inform how the area can be rewilded. 

Helping nature thrive in the heart of London

Five acres of land surround our iconic building in South Kensington. As we build the new gardens, our challenge is to make this space as beneficial to nature as possible, while also being accessible and engaging to our visitors and local communities. 

‘In the Urban Nature Project, we are making as much space for nature as we can,‘ says John. 

The gardens will show the abundance of nature you can find in cities and towns, encourage visitors to explore the natural world around them and consider their relationship with it. We hope to inspire people to connect with and care for the urban nature on their own doorsteps.

Our gardens are already home to a variety of life. In the existing woodland, meadow and our new wetland network, toads, newts and frogs live alongside hoverflies, grasshoppers, birds and a wide range of plants and fungi.

Over the lifetime of the gardens, we have found more than 3,500 species, including some rare and endangered species such as the including rare species such as the tiny earthworm Dendrobaena pygmea. That’s over one fifth of the species that are known across the whole of London, from a small inner-city garden!

We hope biodiversity will continue to flourish in our new gardens and we will be taking a close look at how it changes and develops over time. 

People clear weed in a pond, while a group of onlookers cheer them on, the Natural History Museum is in the background

Our gardens are being developed as part of the Urban Nature Project to include a bigger wildlife garden, walk through time, activity centre and cafe. 

Learning together and sharing the knowledge of urban nature

Our gardens will generate data and knowledge about our small patch of urban nature. The data we collect will tell us why and when biodiversity changes in the gardens, including how it is affected by environmental changes, such as climate warming.

We’ll measure the impacts of the actions we take, such as building a pond and planting certain plants. 

‘Our brilliant new network of ponds are already a hub of life,’ says John. ‘We’ll be studying how wetlands like this can support and increase urban biodiversity.’ 

'We’ll also be employing traditional wildlife surveys and new scientific methods such as bioacoustics and studying eDNA in soil. This will help us to better understand the diversity of life that inhabits our gardens and how changes that we make to the landscape benefit different groups of species.’   

By sharing this information widely, we hope others will use it to help increase biodiversity in cities and towns across the UK.

You can come and visit our gardens when they open in spring 2024.