What could urban rewilding mean for local authorities?

View looking down a valley. Newly planted trees in the foreground with open forest in the distance
Reforestation at Salmons Brook Valley. Photo: LB Enfield

There’s a lot of talk about rewilding our cities, but what does ‘letting nature go’ mean for a local authority? Ahead of our “Natural Renewal” event, this latest member Spotlight focuses on ecological design in LB Enfield.

This summer, the first baby beaver was born in London in 400 years. The landmark event was part of a pioneering initiative by LB Enfield that has created 80 hectares of new woodland in three years. It has involved rewilding council-owned farmland across 30 square miles of urban, peri-urban and green belt land.

‘Rewilding Enfield’ is described as internationally noteworthy by the C40 Cities mayoral network in their study into urban rewilding.

Rewilding has seen a surge of popularity in recent years in response to plummeting biodiversity across the UK. Rather than treat humans as master-planners of conservation, rewilding is about nature-led healing that can restore a complex web of symbiotic relationships.

The approach gained traction in the UK following an initiative at Knepp Estate in Sussex that saw the return of rare migratory birds such as nightingales and turtle doves to land that had been intensively farmed.

Rewilding Enfield provides important insight into how this emergent practice can be applied at a borough scale. The initiative has required carefully balancing immediate and future uses of council-owned land and brokering the needs of various local stakeholders.

London Rewilding Taskforce recommendations

In 2022 the Mayor of London commissioned a London Rewilding Taskforce to explore how rewilding can help London tackle both ecological and climate degradation.

The taskforce celebrated the emotive potential of ‘rewilding’ that has inspired residents to envision ecosystems restoration. Yet there remains a need to build consensus about how the concept applies to urban areas.

It recommended a London-wide strategy that involved supporting large-scale rewilding where possible and creating natural ‘stepping stones’ to help form green corridors across inner-city areas. Public engagement was also recognised as important.

A baby beaver in a green pond with wet furry and and green pondweed on its whiskers
Beaver in LB Enfield. Photo: Colin Pressland

From flood management to resident stewardship

Rewilding Enfield originally received funding from the UK environment agency as a flood management programme. Restoring natural features would help reverse the impact of intensive arable farming along the River Lea in Enfield Chase.

Essential funding was also provided by the Greater London Authority to support woodland creation on greenbelt land.

The council has restored over 50 ponds and small wetlands and planted over 130,000 trees. By slowing the baseflow of water these alterations reduce the risk of flash-flooding downstream in the southeast of the borough.

The initiative has since grown to include efforts to enhance local biodiversity and improve access to green spaces.

Urban rewilding: beavers return to London

Reintroducing beavers at Forty Hall is a notable achievement of the project so far. Beavers were hunted to extinction in the 16th century in the UK and are a keystone species that supports the creation of complex wetland habitats. Beaver dams also lower flood risk downstream.

The beavers’ reintroduction stops short of a purist definition of rewilding as they must remain enclosed according to national legislation. There’s a risk a beaver dam could suddenly break and cause structural damage.

Meeting both present and future needs from the land is important, but those who must make changes to accommodate rewilding are not always the people who feel the immediate benefits. Carrying out community engagement with affected farmers has been an important part of the project.

Planting trees with school children

Over 1,000 school children have taken part in reforestation by planting a tree. The programme aims to improve natural access and encourage residents to feel ownership over natural regeneration in the borough. Many of the children involved attend school in the under-resourced east of the borough which has traditionally had less access to green space.

More than 3 kilometres of the London Loop Footpath has also been upgraded to encourage walkers, and the path widened to improve accessibility for wheelchair users and people with prams.

LB Enfield has been careful to ensure that engagement activities don’t overshadow steady, long-term regeneration. Planting saplings can give woodland a good kick start but results in poorer genetic diversity and root systems when compared to trees reproducing naturally.

LB Enfield’s Deputy Leader, Cllr Ergin Erbil, said:

“Urban rewilding is having an extremely positive impact on our borough, supporting our climate action objectives and Blue and Green Strategy.

“We continue to engage with local people, community groups, schools and businesses to collaborate and coordinate activities so we can create opportunities for recreation, volunteering and education across the borough.”

Up next – conservation grazing

The council has now been given funding as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINCs) to introduce cattle. Conservation grazing creates vegetation at different heights that can support a wider range of wildlife.

Rewilding for a local authority

Rewilding Enfield demonstrates that rewilding at borough scale can mean allowing self-willed ecological processes to take hold.

It has moved away from anthropocentric – or ‘human-centred’ – urban design, and approaches something more like ecological design. By supporting residents to enjoy the outdoors and steward their local nature, it treats humans as one part of an interdependent ecosystem.

Rewilding has not been as simple as ‘letting nature go’. The initiative has involved careful planning to make sure rewilding brings everyone with it and straddles both nature’s long timescales and more immediate human ones. These social value interventions can in their own way be said to mirror a wild, interdependent environment as they recognise the intrinsic value of all parts of that ecosystem.

Our Making the Most of… Natural Renewal event in March will explore the benefits urban nature brings to biodiversity and wellbeing in London.

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