So our new Mayor has made a public commitment that all children should have access to nature. The Government will also soon launch a new plan to restore nature and reconnect children to it. How might Mayor Khan fulfil this ambitious pledge so that London also leads on the Government strategy?
For a blueprint, Sadiq need look no further than my 2011 Sowing the Seeds report, whose central vision strongly echoes his commitment. My goal in writing the report was to get beyond the warm words and (let’s be honest) at times nostalgic sentiment that tends to frame this topic.
Sowing the Seeds took a hard-nosed look at the evidence to show how spending time in nature enhances children’s physical and emotional well-being and learning, and fosters their concern for their environment.
Yet London’s children miss out badly. What’s more, the capital’s disadvantaged children miss out the most. They have poorer access to green space, and what little they do have is often neglected and unloved.
Sowing the Seeds also mapped out the action being taken across the capital to address the problem. It showcased city farms, adventure playgrounds, nature play areas, green school grounds, and outdoor learning programmes. Yet even when all these initiatives were added up, they reached less than 1 in 20 of the capital’s children.
But there are signs of progress, especially among our members and supporters. Forest School programmes are spreading fast, as is Empty Classroom Day – inspired by my report, and now rebooted across the country as part of Persil’s Dirt is Good campaign. The network that formed around the report – Sowing the Seeds London – is becoming more active and vocal – and not just online.
At a policy level, the GLA’s revised planning guidance on outdoor play gave welcome support for the value of natural spaces, though its impact on what ends up getting built is open to question.
More recently, the exciting community-led movement to make London a National Park City has taken up much of the thinking of Sowing the Seeds, and also its core vision of reconnecting children to nature.
But overall, progress has been slow and fragmented. Londoners need to ask ourselves fundamental questions about what kind of city we want to see for our children. We can sleepwalk to a future where decent local green space is a privilege not a right, where education becomes ever more narrow and desk-bound, and where children – especially poor children – are notable only by their absence from public space.
Or we can put sustainability, child- and family-friendliness and tackling inequality at the heart of our vision and actions. It should be the latter and especially as the Government is gearing up to launch a campaign to better connect children with nature as part of its long-awaited 25 year Natural Environment Plan. London should lead in responding to this, not sit on the side-lines.
If Mayor Khan wants further proof of what’s possible, as well as reading the Sowing the Seeds report, he should check out Enrique Peñalosa, the recently re-elected mayor of Bogotá whose dynamism and radicalism has helped turn that city around.
Peñalosa’s most famous maxim is that children are an indicator species for cities: if a city works for children, it will work for everyone. His achievements show what can be done when a city focuses on improving the lives of its youngest citizens: not only at home and in school, but also in our streets and green spaces.
Note: this post first appeared last week on the Sowing the Seeds website.