BLOG: Scotlands community woodland conference

Posted on December 11, 2019 by

Community Woodlands Association (CWA) Conference 2019

Overarching themes: People, climate change and wellbeing

The urban theme was a strong element of the conference. Even stronger, was the issue of climate change, land use and how to get people’s voices heard.

Chatelherault Country Park Hall, Hamilton, Scotland
28 -29 September 2019

Blog by Jonathan Burke

Introduction

This was my second trip to a CWA conference, and thank fully it did not take as long as two years ago – up to Forres in the North East of Scotland. This time we were placed firmly in the Central belt of Scotland – where all the people are. Our venue was Chatelherault Country Park Hall near Hamilton, a mere 15 miles outside the centre of Glasgow and located in part of the Clyde Valley Woodlands National Nature Reserve. Built in the 18th Century, the hall was derelict until the local Council renovated it in the 1980’s. Now it provides people with a place for recreation and stimulation gained from those grand expressions of architectural freedom that were designed to highlight society’s control over nature.

The other side of Chatelherault Hall has a PAWS site running through terrifically wild looking gorges that counter act and amplify the formal classical vista created at the front of the building. The grounds are also home to the Cadzow Oaks; ancient parkland behemoths of up to 4m wide and at least several hundred years old. So quite a setting to discuss in depth our use of community woodlands, urban green spaces and the impact we have on the climate from our use of the land.

Workshops, talks, field trips and food

The provision of fine tasting, plentiful food and drink was a key element for delegates to sustain the frenetic pace of engagement with wide ranging issues. A substantial evening meal followed by a live acoustic folk band also provided the perfect environment for informal networking – the best way to meet and make new friends and colleagues.

The two-day agenda ranged from national green projects aimed at connecting people, places and habitats to members stories of building those project aims from the ground up. The variety was dizzying, and the conference had a great balance of serious soul-searching talk mixed with humour and heart-warming insights.

Here is a small taster of the content.

The Children’s Wood – North Kelvin Meadow, Glasgow

Emily Cutts introduced us to the mammoth community struggle to reclaim a small piece of wasteland for the community to use that was earmarked for development by Glasgow CC. We heard of the benefits to the community of forming safe access to green space for children to gather and the cumulative effects of providing support for community voices. She retold how once people realized the inherent need of a sense of place to galvanise a cohesive community vision, they became an unstoppable force. A real modern urban community woodland that is all about the people within the trees. The list of tasks and events necessary to get to the current stage is awe inspiring and apparently makes a good read in Emily’s book – ‘The Dear Wild Place’. The group aims to connect people to nature, raise aspirations and involve people in management of the land. On occasions when anti-social behaviour or damage occurs, they have an approach of fixing the issue and moving on. They do not let these incidents deter them.

The Central Scotland Green Network project

The network has a vision that ‘by 2050 central Scotland will have been transformed into a place where the environment adds value to the economy, and where people’s lives are enriched by its quality’.

Public benefit from trees and woodland is central to the Trusts vision.

The network concentrates mostly but not only on the central belt of Scotland, because that is where all the people are and have the highest levels of social and economic deprivation.

The project is developing green infrastructure blueprints that include things like access to growing land and green space for every home, cycle networks and walking paths. These elements can be overlaid on a tube station type map to show the interconnectivity of green infrastructure across a region. Two examples were shown of a strategic Green Network and a Strategic Habitat Network. Both seemed visual and accessible ways of understanding the environment around people. These tools can be used by people to access and use landscapes in new ways. They can also be a valuable tool for planners and activists alike providing ways of talking about green resources that show action not just fine words or numbers. This is just a part of what the Trust is offering. Their flagship John Muir Way project is well worth a look, boasting 134 mile route from coast to coast partnering (and working with) 10 access authorities and various landowners along the way.

Evanton Wood Community Company

Doug Wilson introduced us to this long running, community owned forest. Based to the East of the Highlands, just North of the black isle along the Cromarty Firth (15 crow flying miles North of Inverness). They have good support from Forestry & Land Scotland (devolved Forestry Commission Scotland) who continue to provide funding for projects such as their new reciprocal roundhouse and advise on management of their woodlands. Including the use of horse logging for the extraction of their timber, which was used on the roundhouse and other builds. This is just one of the many activities that occur in this wide-ranging successful community woodland. One of the most memorable, was making the woods access and dementia friendly. This strategic development has allowed several projects to make use of the woodland such as ‘getting outdoors’, ‘exploring the woodlands’, ‘woodland baking’, ‘memory blankets’ as well as wood, art and craftwork sessions. The alterations seem simple enough – accessible log cabin, picnic tables with easy leg access, well thought out composting toilet, landscaped areas and pathways for easy walking. It provides a glowing example of community initiatives leading the way on contemporary public issues.

Carbon Code?

Maybe it was too late in the day for me but I found this technical policy-based idea quite frustrating; It is a system of assigning carbon credits to new woodlands which can be sold to businesses to offset their carbon emissions. These credits can only be assigned to carbon code validated woodlands that are managed to a certain carbon code standard. They cannot be assigned to woodlands that already exist.

It sounds like a good idea but seemed very process heavy. A project title of ‘New Woodland Carbon Credits’ may have sat easier, and some discussion about the value of the carbon sequestration of all other trees may have balanced the issue. But it is an interesting and timely policy if you own a lot of land and are planning on planting large volumes of new trees. (Young trees do sequester more carbon)

Climate change – facilitated consultation for the Scottish Government

The prospect was and still is daunting; Serious and humorous group discussions about climate change, its impact and what we need to do. (50 mins to save the world!) The outcome was a sense of relief and optimism that these issues are at least being discussed across the populace and doing something is nearly always better than doing nothing. (Although the Government devised questions did bring to mind the phrase ‘DON’T PANIC!’ Said a little bit too loudly.)

Some key issues highlighted

  • There was a general agreement that words coming from institutions and governments that change leadership every few years, do not and will not provide the action necessary to mitigate our future climate related problems.
  • There was a strong recognition that changes to the fundamental structure with the way society is governed including economic models, are needed to address the enormity of the work necessary to address climate change issues.

Talking about all this is good:

  • The scale and impact is overwhelming and can only be addressed when nations can cooperate. If ways to decide and implement these structural changes are not found, there was a growing concern that the only way to implement the difficult policies needed will be an authoritarian approach.

What are our mechanisms for a mass amount of people to imagine a future that is beyond the normal capabilities of the institutions that govern our society?

  • Citizen councils were suggested as a way of the populace discussing bigger issues over a longer time frame that may support institutions with challenging decisions.
  • And just to round off this ‘acting local but thinking global’ session, we heard about, and discussed new economic models for making better sustainable decisions. As there must be something that needs adjusting with the current waywe decide on how to use our energy and resources that ignores all those tricky externalities. ‘Donut Economics’ incorporates easily defined protocols that take communities and future generations needs into account as well as circular methods of production and distribution. Well worth some extra research and a completely new idea to most of us around the table.

Take home message

  • Scotland’s community woodlands have many groups that own and manage large forests in the tens and hundreds of hectares providing employment and energy but they also have groups that have carved huge community engagement and sense of ‘ownership of place’ from very small urban green spaces.
  • For me, climate change was the biggest issue being talked about in Scotland. All types of land use have an impact and they are all connected. Community groups not only have a responsibility to look after the land for the future generations but also to engage in as much focussed and facilitated conversations to help find and guide these solutions. The scale of the problem may seem impossible, but the responsibility comes down to making sure action happens on the ground and not just listening to the same old fine words.
  • The higher the density of people around a community woodland then the more the focus is on peoples needs. Whereas the larger forests that have lower local populations connected to them tended to have a greater focus on the woodland and its sustainable management.
  • Time and again I saw evidence of people being active on and for their local green spaces in a way that generated community cohesion as well as having a small but relevant impact on the wider environment. They developed a clear voice and were supported to affect change for the public good. A key approach was to ‘keep at it’ or ‘Dal ati’ in Welsh. If the notice board is defaced or broken then they make another one and build consensus until it stops happening.
  • From an outsider’s point of view, the Scots seem to have access to, support for and ownership of their land. Although there was a definite feeling at the conference of a lot more needing to be done, and some disappointment in the channels of communication from communities to policy makers.
  • At the AGM a brave soul suggested a need for recognition of a more authentic connection with our land, green spaces and woodland. This could help inform all our strategies of land use as well as elevate the growing awareness of peoples declining wellbeing. Although the response at the AGM was that it was probably not the appropriate forum for these types of discussion, the voice was heard and that alone engenders some sort of hope.

 

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