Rewilding in New Housing Developments: Exploring the Opportunities at Brook Leys, Cambridge
The latest suburban development in Cambridge is affecting the small Brook Leys picnic spaces. We take a look at how it might introduce more structured rewilding for the wider benefit.
As our towns and cities continue to grow, we face coming to terms with the fact that they will gobble up an increasing amount of the green spaces around them. Recently we were invited to visit Eddington, a growing suburb of the nation’s famous university town, and a space where urban landscapes are beginning to take over the once pleasant green surroundings. The long time picnic garden at Brook Leys is now the centre of an urban redevelopment just outside Girton College. We explore that space, and most importantly, note the ways we can protect certain habitats, animals, and adopt a more structured rewilding approach to expanding our cities.
When considering the essential starting elements of a smaller-scale rewilding project there is a list of basics you require. For starters, you need a green space that includes grasses, plants, scrub and even weeds. You also want to have at least a young, growing area of forest, or just a strong run of trees. Next you will need to try and locate and develop appropriate habitats within that space for animal life.
If you know you already have a half decent diversity of animal life (an even better bonus) make sure your space continues to provide the pathways and corridors to preserve it. Finally, the ultimate bonus is if there are waterways or a pond, a distinct advantage for rewilding projects, although given this is much more luck of the draw, you don’t need natural waterways for a new smaller-scale project.
Here’s our macro-environment check list for Brook Leys;
A green space, tick - after all the area has been used as a relaxing, large natural garden by more than a hundred year’s worth of Girton college students, Cambridge residents, and local wildlife.
Young growth of trees or even a copse, tick - and there are protected areas for more dense tree growth.
Existing wildlife? Tick.
Existing plant life? Tick.
The ultimate bonus - a waterway? Tick.
This space on the edge of Cambridge is naturally primed to be a rewilding project. Yet it seems that at this point the place is being left a little too much to its own devices for the most part - and yet new human pathways, a bordering playground, and nearly 3,000 homes are being completed nearby. The project has tried to improve the wildlife setting, including planting 1,500 trees, expanding Brook Leys with a water reservoir, and inviting in “great crested newts, badgers, foxes, voles, various ground-nesting birds and bats.”
So, how could adopting a more formal rewilding approach further improve these happy circumstances? Well, for one thing, it would represent very little of an additional burden on the existing project work. Brook Leys has already been carefully designed so that new biodiverse spaces are kept separate from the public, as can be seen below. While this is great for keeping human intervention to a minimum, the new wild space will quickly face issues with its method of separation. Rabbit wire and fencing means small mammals are corralled through chokepoints (the gates) in order to access the thicker scrub and wooded spaces. And it's frankly an unhelpful deterrent for the small grazers that should be moving through to help enhance the habitats.
It stops the wildlife, and grazing animals in particular, from making their essential contributions to the maintenance of the space. Further, other wildlife is hindered from using these essential corridors for nesting, accessing it to give birth or to raise young. It means they are less likely to enter the woods and scrub to provide natural management, reduce certain weed growth, and other aspects that lead to a naturally balanced habitat. It means developers must rely on grounds staff to maintain it instead of allowing the animals to act as nature’s grounds staff. In the end, it fails to take the step to truly wild the wildlife.
Brook Leys could also start doing a bit more to promote new animal life to the project. While some bird life is making use of an existing pond, including a friendly swan, many of the mammals you would expect to see are missing.
Perhaps the greatest restriction to Brook Leys as a future smaller-scale rewilding hub is its proximity to the busy M11, spelling danger for travelling animals. However, once again, by adopting a rewilding perspective, we could improve even this issue. A growing aspect of the rewilding movement has been the push for green highways, safe habitats through which animals can move, over or under the busy and dangerous roads. That's why we need to promote ecological thinking to our urban developments.
Brook Leys offers a real example of the potential that rewilding can offer to new construction efforts. Additional work, such as increasing the newly planted reed and marsh habitat would attract even greater levels of insect life to support more birds and small mammal life. And we should not forget the benefits of trees, lakes, ponds, bog and scrub for the removal of carbon and pollution. After all, digging out lakes during construction is not so hard. And in this place there is a real opportunity to create an effective carbon sink to support them as they develop and grow, letting the trees and scrub clean the air. Providing a healthier and cleaner place for its residents and visitors.
Additionally, all the waste and natural debris from destroying old paths or sections of land to build the new paths can be used to improve it. We can all utilise felled trees and torn out scrub and hedgerow to build dead hedges and provide natural protection (from us humans) for the rewilded areas that enhance the habitats for small mammals, birds and insects without obstructing them. This would provide a more natural barrier to humans and a natural home for species we need to encourage.
In the process Brook Leys might just attract new and displaced animals, creating a haven just off the M11 for Cambridge’s weary wildlife. Just as Eddington is aiming to be a haven for the residents and students of Cambridge.
As we think about how we construct new homes and new habitats in our towns and cities, we should pay attention to how we disturb nature's homes in the process. If we can increasingly adopt a mindset centred around nature restoration and sensible, sound approaches to rewilding, perhaps these construction projects could also improve our carbon footprints, biodiversity, and give us more exciting spaces we would want to spend time in.
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