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Ellen Miles
Written by Ellen Miles
Published on 20th March 2022
5 min read

Nature is a Human Right, a manifesto for equal access to green spaces, brings together world-leading activists, scientists, artists and writers in a call for radical change. We spoke to the anthology’s editor, and founder of the movement on which it’s based, Ellen Miles, about why – and how – contact with nature should be recognised as a human right.

You can buy a copy of Nature is a Human Right here.

The argument that nature is a source of wellbeing is gaining traction, and is central to your campaign. Are there any aspects to it which you’ve found particularly surprising?

It’s pretty remarkable how nature works its way into every single part of our wellbeing. Physical health - really every corner of our bodies, our immune systems, digestive systems, hormones, breathing, blood. Everything is affected by how much exposure we get to nature. It's kind of the closest thing to a panacea that exists. 

In terms of mental health, we know intuitively that green spaces clear our minds; they relax us, refresh us, restore us. But we're finding that they're hugely beneficial for psychiatric diagnoses - especially depression, psychosis, things like that. Nature helps our brains hugely. Children's IQs are higher if they've grown up around lots of nature. It helps our memory, our problem-solving, our focus. It helps us to be more creative. I can't think of a single aspect of our wellbeing that doesn't benefit! 

Professor Qing Li says in the Nature is a Human Right that exposure to nature is as essential to our wellbeing as regular exercise or a healthy diet, which is incredible. We think of these things as the stalwarts of our understanding of health and wellness.

'Everything is affected by how much exposure we get to nature. It's kind of the closest thing to a panacea that exists.'

Addressing unequal access to nature according to race, disability and class are key to the campaign. These are obviously all complicated issues. But again, is there anything in any of these areas you find particularly surprising or powerful?

I don't think ‘powerful’ is the right way to frame how we feel about nature deprivation, in the sense that it's just pretty bleak. And in terms of surprising, it's hard to find social inequalities surprising in a system structured to perpetuate them. You know, it's not surprising that people who are black or people of colour or people of lower socioeconomic status are deprived of nature in this society. It's unfortunate and it's shocking, but it's not surprising.

'It's hard to find social inequalities surprising in a system structured to perpetuate them.'

Because nature is seemingly very accessible, some people might wonder what kind of things drive unequal access. What are some of the key barriers?

You might think that nature is accessible. If you're able-bodied, you can just walk to your nearest park. But around 2.8 million people in England, or in the UK, don't have a green space within a ten-minute walk. And if you're a disabled person, that's not even a ten-minute walk, potentially. One in three people in the UK don't have healthy nature close to home. That's a new government statistic. So if you think nature is very accessible, you're probably in the privileged bracket. Millions of people are living in nature deserts. 

It is more expensive for councils to create and maintain a green space than concrete. So it's easier for them to just go with concrete, which doesn't need to be looked after. And that is a gross injustice. You would think that in the areas where fewer people have private green space, the government or local authorities would take specific care to create more public green space. But what happens is that the  wealthier areas - which will already have their big private gardens, and the schools are very leafy - those are the areas with lots of funding for lush, big parks. The areas with more lower-income households are also under-funded in terms of public green space. So it's kind of a pincer movement.

'So if you think nature is very accessible, you're probably in the privileged bracket. Millions of people are living in nature deserts.'

The campaign and the book focus primarily on how nature benefits humans. But how does this campaign link to climate change?

On one hand, increasing greenery will not only benefit humans. It will also benefit the planet: all the other living creatures and plants that call our planet home. By creating more nature, we're putting back into those ecosystems and helping replenish and rewild.

By making the world greener by giving more humans access to nature, people will be more inclined to look after nature. It's thoroughly proven that the more contact people get with nature, the more they care about it. How could you possibly love this thing that you don't know anything about? 

There's a whole section in the book about how nature as a human right doesn't mean nature is ours to use and abuse. Rights and responsibilities go hand in hand, and nature has rights too. I see deep ecology and the inherent worth of nature as being absolutely baked into the premise and the foundations of the campaign.

'It's thoroughly proven that the more contact people get with nature, the more they care about it. How could you possibly love this thing that you don't know anything about?'

What are some compelling examples that give hope, in terms of removing barriers to access to existing green spaces?

That’s a slightly overwhelming question, because there's lots of good things happening. Lots of cities are doing brilliant things in terms of removing barriers to access to existing green spaces. 

Canada has introduced free passes for people as a kind of prescription. Doctors can now prescribe free National Park passes. Which is good. But it highlights another barrier to access, because it can be expensive to not only get tickets to these places, but also get there. You have to own a car, you have to be able to pay for fuel or you have to pay for a train ticket. So, it's a good step forward, but it does beg the question: why are they not just free for everyone? I think there needs to be more of a radical critique of the way these structures work, and the idea that nature is something people have to pay to access. 

What about in terms of creating new green spaces or ways of engaging with nature - especially for those in urban environments?

I think gardening is sick. I do guerrilla gardening: basically, just planting the streets, planting public places. It's a brilliant way of engaging people with nature in a hands-on way, rather than just looking at it - especially people who don't have the privilege of their own private garden. 

And it's killing two birds with one stone, because it's greening up the streets: turning that grey, bad old spot into a lovely, flourishing, vibrant, green oasis in the street. This crisis can feel incredibly intangible and abstract, and guerilla gardening is a way to make an immediate, tangible, visible impact in a beneficial way to the community and also the environment.

'I do guerrilla gardening: basically, just planting the streets, planting public places. It's a brilliant way of engaging people with nature in a hands-on way, rather than just looking at it - especially people who don't have the privilege of their own private garden.'

How did the campaign come to life? And what has your role been?

I founded the campaign in April 2020, when lockdown was closing lots of parks in under-funded areas, and areas that were home to communities of colour and low-income households. So Brockwell Park in Brixton, and Victoria Park in Hackney and Tower Hamlets, and not, you know, Hyde Park or Regent's Park in the nice, white, wealthy areas. One third of people in Hackney and Tower Hamlets are impoverished. Brixton is known as the home of black Britain. So it just seemed pretty classist and racist the way that these places were closed. And it kind of pissed me off. 

What did the curation process for the book look like? And are there any perspectives that, in hindsight, you would love to add to the book now?

I knew the topics I wanted to cover: mental health, medical perspectives, the right to roam, racism, classism - all of these things. I came up with a concept for each of the essays, then just went about finding the best person to write that. 

I wanted to give a platform for people, rather than just  getting a bunch of big names. And it was brilliant. Some of the most amazing essays in the book came from that. So Michelle Barrett’s essay, The Enclosed Place, which is brilliant. There's one about apartheid in South Africa, one about the caste system in India, one about Soviet housing in Latvia and Soviet occupation in Latvia, which is chillingly relevant now, for obvious reasons. A bunch of the poems as well, and the Daisy Kennedy essay. The process was really fun.

Why is designating nature specifically as a human right important? 

Nature unquestionably improves our quality of life in countless significant ways. It is absolutely something that we all - every person, regardless of their background or any kind of demographic factor - deserve to have contact with. We are animals. We are part of nature. We evolved to be part of nature. We still absolutely need it; it's encoded in our genes. And so it needs protection as a human right, because the way that urbanisation is going means that fewer and fewer people have access to nature. We're going to become more and more nature-based in our responses to people’s mental health, physical health, social health and incentives to act on climate change. 

What does this look like in practice? 

There is something called the 3 30 300 rule, proposed by Dr. Cecil Konijnendijk of the Nature Based Solution Institute. The principle is that everyone should be able to see three trees from their home, should have at least 30% green cover in the neighbourhood and should be no more than 300 metres from their nearest green space. There are various ways we can go about that: we can de-pave, we can create green walls and green roofs, plant street trees. It's very, very doable, even in dense urban environments.

Ultimately, what's the ideal outcome of the campaign? 

The ideal outcome from the campaign is for the United Nations to write up contact with nature into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They added the right to a healthy environment last year, so it's definitely within the realms of possibility!

 

Nature is a Human Right is out now. You can buy a copy here. And you can join the campaign to make nature a human right here.