Looking over Stave Hill (c) Ella Henry

The lesser known ecological parks of London

Ella Henry

Ella Henry, undergraduate student, writes:

A concrete jungle. The constant chorus of cars and buses. Streams of artificial light from headlights, street lamps and buildings. Flocks of people everywhere. London, along with many other cities, is probably not the first place you would associate with the word ‘biodiversity’.

Nevertheless, returning to London during the lockdown period has led me to appreciate its nature-engagement spaces, which I may have taken for granted when younger. This is not to say that my school years were rich in ecology.

I have a distinct memory of us being sent to a football field and being asked to sample the rather sparse daisy population, which quickly descended into a game of catch with the quadrat; but I did underrate the wildlife spots and local ecology parks which are more available in the city than you might think. 

An ecology park is a nature space carved into the city landscape, maintained by wardens and volunteers to ensure an abundance of habitats are supported. Boasting greater levels of biodiversity than may be expected, they often have the capacity for education through displays within the park or taught programmes for the community. 

Entrance to Mile End Ecology Park (c) Ella Henry

Max Nicholson proposed the idea of building the first ecology park in Britain as part of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977. He was influenced by Lyndis Cole, the author of an article on the Dutch techniques for supporting plants in urban areas. The plans, inspired by the natural ‘Heemparks’ of the Netherlands, aimed to have a range of habitats, such as meadows, mixed woodlands and shallow pools, all upon the derelict land next to Tower Bridge.

It was named ‘William Curtis Ecological Park’ in honour of the 18th-century botanist who wrote one of the earliest works on urban nature, ‘Flora Londinensis‘. The park was booked for school classes throughout the year, with 100,000 visits from school children during its eight years of life. Alongside its educational legacy on that generation, it had a significant effect on the local ecology, with the initial rise in species richness surpassing expectations. For example, the number of visiting butterfly species increased from six to twenty-one in seven years. Despite its closure in 1985 as the land was required for development purposes, its impact was unprecedented. Importantly, the end to William Curtis Ecological Park prompted the creation of another park a little further down the Thames; Stave Hill. 

The defining feature of Stave Hill Ecological Park is its size. Spanning an impressive 5.2 acres, this can only really be appreciated by standing at the top of Stave Hill, as shown in the image at the top of this page. It’s located in the centre of the former Surrey Commercial Dock in Rotherhithe, London. Its numerous habitats, including grassland, woodland, scrub and wetland spaces, were created from scratch. 

The park clearly indicates where visitors are allowed to walk and sit, reducing disturbance. Each habitat has a sign with information on the project taking place, a testament to the intensive management by volunteers throughout the year.

We Love Meadows! (c) Ella henry

For example, one explains its meadows; how the wildflowers provide nectar for pollinators and how inside the soil, grasshopper, cricket and moth larvae are waiting to hatch. Another discourages people from moving the rubble heaps, which are essential winter habitats for species such as spiders, snails, beetles. 

It’s beautiful, but not in the conventional way that you’d describe in the other famous parks in the capital. It’s beautiful because it’s wild.

The restoration and continual maintenance of these natural habitats, which existed before the dock, supports the native species. The design allows for habitat heterogeneity (diversity) as opposed to mindless miles of trimmed grass. This has a profound effect on ecosystem functioning as the local biodiversity will be increased, allowing for further interactions between species.

Wild Stave Hill (c) Ella Henry

However, urban areas are often ‘novel ecosystems’. Those that, due to human influence, have fundamentally changed from what they were previously. For example, this could result from the new selection pressures caused by interactions with architecture.

While larger spaces such as Stave Hill may be able to, it can be impractical to restore inner-city spaces to their historical state. Instead, it may be more effective to apply the principles of reconciliation ecology, where biodiversity is encouraged in urban areas through modifying, as opposed to completely changing, land dedicated to human activity to better support the species present. 

Ecology Pavilion (c) Ella Henry

Although Mile End ecology park does contain restored habitats, you can see aspects of this practice in its design. With an accessible green roof insulating the ecology pavilion, an ‘earth-sheltered building’ where both nature programs and events such as wedding ceremonies take place, it is clear that the potential ecosystem services the park can provide have been considered.

Outdoor Classroom (c) Ella Henry

Bordered by residential areas, high streets and train stations, it’s a heavily used park. Besides education, nearby wildlife may also positively affect mental and physical health. Although causality is difficult to demonstrate, impacts such as greater stress reduction have been suggested when there is nature nearby. The importance of urban green spaces has particularly been highlighted in the COVID-19 period, especially for those without access to a garden.

Finally, integrated spaces such as Mile End park prevent the onset of ‘nature deficit disorder’. With more than half the world’s population living in urban areas, as well as not benefiting from the health impacts mentioned above, more people are likely to become apathetic to the ecological issues surrounding climate change, resource exhaustion and habitat loss. This is due to nature being less available in such areas, resulting in a disconnect from the natural world.

View of flats from Mile End Ecology Park (c) Ella Henry

Urban areas should not be written off as ecological dead zones. Revisiting two Ecology Parks in London, showed me how significant such places are. This is both for biodiversity itself, but also in encouraging commitment to a sustainable lifestyle through providing regular engagement with nature, as well as positive health impacts for the community. 

Find out more about Mile End Ecology Park and Pavilion, and how to visit here: Tower Hamlets: Mile End Park

Discover more about nature and wellbeing from Kate Howlett here: Reflections: 30 Days Wild

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