“Futureproofing Luton”: Co-producing an arboretum-meadow with local Eco-warriors.

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……..by Helen Hoyle

On Monday this week MSc Urban Planning student William Cottrill and I had the privilege of spending the morning with 10 young Eco-warriors from Riverbank Primary School in Luton. The main objective of our morning was to plant nine significant climate-resilient trees of different species on a former minigolf site in Wardown Park, as part of our new Airquality arboretum-meadow project.

The morning dawned hopefully; a cold, dry, blue-sky day, the calm after storm Ciara, who had ripped a tree from its roots just outside Riverbank School. We started at Riverbank, with a workshop exploring the benefits of trees for pollution and climate change mitigation. You could feel the excitement radiating from the Eco-warriors as they entered the room; they had been looking forward to some hands-on tree planting in the park for weeks. First we distributed the #chooselandscape t-shirts which were de rigueur for the day. The Landscape Institute is one of our main project partners and President Adam White and CEO Dan Cook would later join us for the planting.

Discussing Climate change and the positive role of trees

The first activity was a masterclass in teamworking. Sarah Deacon, the Eco-warriors’ science teacher, had devised a cunning simulation of trees absorbing carbon and other pollutants using a bucket of water and sponges, so Will and I were left standing, holding dripping sponges whilst the Eco-warriors looked on. I was dumbstruck by the children’s curiosity, knowledge of climate change and the role of carbon dioxide, the value of trees as habitats as well as their confidence to express themselves. We moved to another activity involving placing creatures in their appropriate habitat within the tree (using a giant tree poster and model creatures), whilst trying to identify the random crustaceans Sarah had added to catch us out.

A focus on habitats

We then moved to some artwork, involving drawing the leaves of the nine very distinctive trees including Tilia platyphyllous (Broad-leaved lime), Tilia cordata (small-leaved lime), Pinus nigra Austriaca (Austrian Pine), Junglans regia (Walnut tree), Acer pseudoplatanus (Sycamore), Acer campestre (Field maple), Gleditsia tricanthos (Honey locust), Cedrus atlantica (Atlas cedar) and Liriodendron tulipfera (Tulip tree). We had selected these with the help of Stan Carter, Tree Officer at Luton Parks Service, who had chosen them to provide aesthetic interest whilst being adapted to local conditions, but also geared up to a future, warmer climate.

The artwork session begins

The intention is that once the trees are established, we will add signage to the individual trees in the arboretum, using the Eco-warriors drawings. As we worked on our drawings I noted the different approaches the children took to the task, and we chatted away about differences in the size of insects in the UK and parts of India.

Creative approaches to leaf drawing

It was now time to move outside and get our hands and feet dirty. Riverbank School is conveniently located just across the road from Wardown Park, so it was a short walk across to the arboretum site. Once there we met with other project partners including Jane Conway (Operations manager) and Steve Battlebury (Greenspace manager) from Luton Parks Service, Adam and Dan from the Landscape Institute, the Marshalls Group (the tree sponsor), the Rotary and the Friends of Wardown Museum. After a brief introduction to the project, discussion of the positive role of Landscape Architecture as a placemaking profession and some ‘thank yous’, we got down to the serious business of planting the nine trees. The Eco-warriors threw themselves into the task with considerable vigour and enthusiasm, only stopping periodically to examine and then name the many worms found in and around the tree pits.

The Eco-warriors approached tree planting with considerable enthusiasm!

Once the trees had been planted (I was amazed at how much soil the Eco-warriors shifted and at their speed) we posed for some celebratory photos, before the Eco-warriors returned to school for lunch. We are all looking forward to the next phase of the project; seeding the meadow, which will take place in April.

Investigating worms in the tree pits

During the planting event we reflected on the power of positive engagement and collaboration between diverse partners from different sectors. This collaboration started seven years ago, whilst I was at Sheffield University and worked closely with Luton Parks Service to co-produce an urban meadows experiment as part of the NERC-funded Urban BESS project. In 2015 we together delivered flowering meadows to this very same disused minigolf site, subsequently winning a Community Business Award. Our new “Futureproofing Luton” project began with a Community Engagement Award from the Faculty of Environment and Technology at the University of the West of England, to work on project with Riverbank Primary School and Luton Parks Service to return the flowering meadows to Wardown Park. This award was complemented by a generous donation of meadow seed from Sue France, CEO of Pictorial Meadows, the Sheffield-based specialist meadows consultancy. A chance (if persuasive) conversation with Andy Morris at the Landscape Institute Jellicoe Lecture in November then resulted in the generous donation of nine trees by Marshalls, a company with a strong sense of environmental responsibility, also serving as a carbon offset for the impact of the Landscape Institute awards in 2019, the 90th anniversary of the Landscape Institute. I knew of ambitions to introduce an arboretum to the minigolf site here, but no significant funding for this had yet been forthcoming – so I decided to ask! This was followed quickly by an additional pledge of two further trees from the Rotary, and then another two from the Regiment Gallery in commemoration of VJ Day.

This new Arboretum-meadow in Wardown Park will provide an educational resource for local people and wider visitors to the park and museum. It will focus on the benefits of urban trees and meadows for air pollution and climate change mitigation, biodiversity and human happiness and deeper wellbeing. It will be accessible to local children and adults, as well as visitors to the park and museum from outside Luton.  We hope the children here today will bring their parents and continue to visit the arboretum through spring, summer and autumn 2020 and into the future. We all believe it is a positive exemplar for future projects throughout the UK and beyond.

A fantastic morning’s work! Thank you Riverbank Primary!

I will be presenting on the “Futureproofing Luton” project at Multiple Values of Nature, the joint Valuing Nature and People and Nature BES Symposium in Bristol on 2nd March 2020. (https://valuing-nature.net/event/joint-symposium-multiple-values-nature) and delivering a session in the Health, Wellbeing and Place Landscape Institute CPD Event in London on 26th March 2020. (https://www.landscapeinstitute.org/events/events/)

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