England & Wales, Scotland Climate action and sustainable development, Communities and society

Letting the grass grow!

Image provided by Falkirk Council

My idea of a beautiful urban greenspace is of wildflowers, trees, the chatter of birds and the buzz of bees. A haven for wildlife as well as people. Each visit a voyage of natural discovery. But then I’m a Biodiversity Officer, so I would say that!

My access colleagues take satisfaction in seeing folk, young and old, out and about in our greenspaces walking, cycling, pushing buggies. The climate change officer longs to see more trees soaking up carbon dioxide. Health workers delight at the sight of our greenspaces being used for exercise and mental well-being. Community growing staff have visions of fruit trees and vegetable beds. Flooding colleagues need our greenspaces to slow the flow of water in extreme weather events. Grounds maintenance officers want our greenspaces to look cared for, inviting and safe… and some of us simply want to smell the flowers and sit on the grass! Our urban greenspaces have the potential to be so many things to so many people. Look beyond the Council and our local communities share these and other aspirations for their parks and urban greenspaces.

The Council’s urban greenspaces have a critical role to play in our response to climate change, global biodiversity loss and recovery from the pandemic. It is clear that our parks, greenspaces and verges have to work harder than ever to deliver multiple benefits. That means we as a local authority have to look again at how we are managing these spaces to get the most from them in a cost effective way.

Falkirk Council has recognised the need to explore new approaches to how we manage our parks and greenspaces. We’ve had great success in the past creating meadows and other habitat on individual sites; but what we are considering now is on a much bigger scale. The Council manages over 580 hectares of grassland including parks and public open spaces, grass areas around residential and commercial properties, road verges, and path edges. Changing how we manage some of these sites has the potential to deliver significant benefits.

We all know that change isn’t easy. So, Falkirk Council’s Environment and Grounds Maintenance teams are trialling a range of new management approaches at 35 pilot sites during 2021-22. These sites include wide road verges, playing fields, greenspace beside housing, and parks. The new approaches include leaving areas of naturalised grass (cut just once or twice a year), creating strips of wildflower meadow (cut and lifted once a year), and reducing amenity grass cutting to 8-10 times a year. In addition, many sites will also benefit from the planting of woodland trees, fruit trees, and spring bulbs. We will be monitoring the environmental, social and financial impacts of these changes, as well as gathering the views of local communities. The hope is that, at the end of this pilot, we will be able see more clearly where and how we can make changes to ensure all our urban greenspaces work for people and the environment.

Falkirk Council’s head scratching about its greenspaces isn’t stopping at how we cut the grass. We also want to know the potential of our greenspaces and other council landholdings to sequester carbon dioxide, thus helping the Council meet its target of being net zero by 2030. Last year the Council commissioned a study to look at how much CO2 our land holdings currently sequester and how much they could potentially sequester with changes such as woodland planting, long grass and wetland creation, and green roof and wall installation. The study also considers biodiversity impacts and natural flood management opportunities (it’s all about those multiple benefits after all!). The initial findings are fascinating and clearly demonstrate the potential for areas such as parks and other urban green spaces to play an important role in our fight against climate change.  However, they also raise challenging questions about the type and amount of habitat change that would actually be acceptable on different types of greenspace.

We can hopefully all support the aspiration to deliver multiple benefits from our greenspaces: creating healthy, vibrant places for people whilst also helping to combat biodiversity loss and climate change. In practice things get trickier when we have to balance the many different potential uses and benefits a particular site can offer. The next phase of this project will look in more detail at specific sites to determine how best to increase CO2 sequestration through habitat creation, whilst also delivering other social and environmental benefits.

These are challenging times, but rising to those challenges is giving us a real opportunity to explore how we can do things differently and better.

More information about Falkirk Council’s grass cutting pilot project is available on the Falkirk Council website.

 

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