“If we can’t get community empowerment, then who can?”

This is the content of my contribution to the hearing on the asset transfer to the Children’s Wood, a ground-breaking local greenspace and decades-long campaign to retain the space for the local community. After a long fight they are now on the cusp of receiving a 25-year lease for the land but have one final hurdle – to oppose a clause that allows the council to take back all or any part of the land to build an education facility.

It’s been four years since I spoke to the planning hearing on the development of flats on the site of the Children’s Wood and North Kelvin Meadow. Then I came to speak particularly on the biodiversity of the site and its importance in connecting people to nature.  I talked about its key importance as a place of inspiration for local people, children, teachers and future teachers, parents and grandparents, and, crucially, for other urban communities wishing to improve their own local environments.

Back then I worked for RSPB Scotland, particularly looking at how we can encourage precisely this community-led and community-empowered approach across other parts of the city to improve the quality of greenspace, community involvement, inclusion and outdoor learning. The Children’s Wood was an example of what could be achieved and RSPB saw could be used, not just across Glasgow, but across Scotland, and beyond to RSPB’s work across the UK.

This time I am here to speak to Question 2 on why the area is unique over and above the local playpark and the Kelvin walkway. And I this time I speak as someone working on climate change. I work on COP26 for Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, a coalition of 55 civil society organisations campaigning on climate change (which includes RSPB – as well as other conservation organisations, development charities, faith groups, trade unionists, student and community groups). 

I am here speaking in my own right, rather than on behalf of my organisation, but I see the links between what the Children’s Wood are doing, and the world that we need to make now, so that we can avert the worst of the climate crisis.

Glasgow has an extremely ambitious target to become climate neutral. 2030 is the date set by Glasgow City Council. That is only a little more than nine years away. If we are to achieve that target we need to start now. And this is where the Children’s Wood points us to the future.  The Scottish Government, in their recent programme for government, put an emphasis on creating “Twenty Minute neighbourhoods” where everything people need is within a twenty-minute walk.

If we are to reduce climate emissions in our city we need to look to creating more liveable places, places where people want to spend time and enhance people’s lives. The local community has created a multifunctional space used by all generations that hugely enhance the ‘livability’ of the local area. It provides place for exercise, socialising, growing food, volunteering, outdoor learning (both formal and informal), play, exploration, dog-walking, sport, arts, and ample opportunities to build community.  

The value of having quality flexible and multifunctional greenspace which is open to all was illustrated starkly by the coronavirus lockdown when people could not travel. The children’s wood and the North Kelvinside meadow came into their own, doing what they do best, being at the centre of the neighbourhood, reducing isolation, creating community.     

It is also an issue of inclusion – wild spaces and nature should not only be available for those who can travel out of the city, everyone should have access to these little pieces of wild close to where they live. And the vital importance of this can now be understood by us all – after the enforced months of lockdown where we could not travel.    

But the children’s wood isn’t just a place for leisure it’s a place for growing, growing both plants and people. And although we all support educational establishments, this is already an educational establishment. Schools and nurseries use it for formal learning and youth groups, clubs and families use it for informal learning.   

What schools and children get at the Meadow and Children’s Wood is not a closely managed piece of parkland or, Botanic Garden, it is somewhere wild, where children can dig for worms, build dens and find beetles in a rotten log.  They can climb a tree to get a birds-eye view and dig a hole to see what’s down there.  It is through these investigations that children develop a love and a connection to nature, and not through the formal play areas in our city parks.  What the Children’s Wood does especially well is that they have many organised activities and groups on site to help local people to engage with the nature of the site, which helps people from all backgrounds benefit.  

This place is not replaceable – once it is gone it’s gone

It was interesting to hear what the council had to say about outdoor learning provision – without very clearly acknowledging the work the community have done in exactly this area of work over many years. The council seem to be proposing to remake what is happening so successfully already at the wood, even to the level that they would propose putting in the same facilities – shelter, toilets-  that the community wish to put in, but for exclusive use, rather than as a shared resource and with far less involvement of the local community.

Most importantly this is an issue of ownership –  when I mean owned – I don’t mean in the sense of physically holding the paperwork after a monetary exchange, I mean in terms of an intimate sense of connection and responsibility. This is what is special about the Children’s wood, and is so different from other local greenspaces. Achieving a lease of the land is just the final step in this process of ownership. And this is why it is important to remove the clause – and to value the truly multifunctional aspects of this space, including education.

Even in the Dear Green Place, North Kelvin Meadow and The Children’s Wood stand out as special, because of what the local community have made of it.  

I see the Children’s Wood as a vision of what a sustainable Glasgow really looks like: and we need to learn from what has been achieved here and ask ourselves how we can make this the norm and not the exception and we shouldn’t be hobbling the community’s efforts through an unspecified, threatened clause that the land can be reclaimed by the council.

As they said themselves on twitter – “if we can’t get community empowerment, then who can?”