Plants, play and poverty

By Graham Duxbury

| 24 May 2019

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is not a place you'd go expecting to debate youth policy. However, in amongst the jugs of Pimm's and garlands of geraniums this year, questions about young people's place in the world were never far from the surface.

The big press story - and the big public draw - was the Back to Nature garden created by the landscape architects Adam White and Andree Davies in conjunction with the Duchess of Cambridge. The garden highlights the importance of allowing children to engage with the natural environment as a way of firing their imagination, helping them experience adventure and learn about risk. It builds on years of pioneering work in creating ‘playful landscapes' inspired by the principles of child-friendly urban planning espoused by Tim Gill among others.

Just across the showground the Family Monsters garden created by the charity Family Action and the landscaping business idverde gave horticultural form to the idea that all families have their challenges and pressures that need to be contained and managed to promote wellbeing and positive relationships, especially between children and parents.

Elsewhere, connectivity was the concept that underpinned the Beyond the Screen garden sponsored by Facebook and conceived by designer Joe Perkins. The primary message here was about online communities and networking being a stimulus and a conduit for practical action offline, especially among young people.

Members of Groundwork's Youth Advisory Board were on the garden all week sharing their passion for gardening and the environment with visitors to the show, articulating that social media needn't always be seen as a barrier to direct experience and can equally be a catalyst for social action and community engagement.

Throw into the mix that this week has also seen some 2,500 UK schools take part in the global Outdoor Classroom Day campaign and we should have a sense of optimism that the message about the benefits of connecting young people with nature are starting to reach a mainstream audience.

And boy do we need a note of optimism. In a jarring juxtaposition, Chelsea week was also the week when the UN Special Rapporteur pulled no punches in describing the hardship faced by many in the UK. While Kate Middleton is exhorting us to invest in the development of our children by encouraging greater interaction with nature, Philip Alston is telling us that rates of child poverty are increasing and may hit a Dickensian 40 per cent in the next few years. 

One response to this shameful statistic is to say that surely fun and flowers are luxuries when so many people are struggling to put food on the table. Another is to say that one can help alleviate the impacts of the other and we should be looking for more holistic solutions.

Evidence about the benefits of being in nature on the wellbeing and development of children and young people is now overwhelming.  Unfortunately, so is the evidence that children growing up in poverty have less access to good green spaces than their better off counterparts.

The UN Special rapporteur calls for a restoration of local government funding to help councils provide the services and facilities needed to tackle poverty at community level. He points to the fact that 500 children's centres have closed in the last eight years. He could have pointed out that in half that time we've also lost nearly 350 playgrounds according to the Association of Play Industries.

Investing in places where children and young people can develop an appreciation of the natural world and the habits of a healthy lifestyle has to be part of our response. They won't all win a gold medal but, designed and managed in the right way, can provide the experience and stimulation that young people need to thrive.

Graham Duxbury is chief executive of Groundwork

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