The campaigner’s guide to saving your local green space

Anna-Maria Cahalane raised £100,000 to save her local wood. Here, she explains the steps you can take if your local green space is at risk

In January, Lewisham resident Anna-Maria Cahalane led Brockley residents to victory over developers who sought to build upon Gorne Wood, the City of London’s closest surviving patch of ancient woodland.

Cahalane, 49, noticed Gorne Wood was falling into disrepair in 2017, but was met with an unhelpful landowner who wanted her to back off. As well as being an artist and a tutor for children with special educational needs, Cahalane is chair of the Fourth Reserve Foundation, a charity that seeks to protect, enhance, and manage local green spaces for the community. She immediately put in an application to the council to designate the space as an asset of community value, protecting it from development. The charity successfully engaged the local community in the project to save Gorne Wood, and £100,000 was raised to buy the land.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, Cahalane and the charity also look after Buckthorne Cutting Nature Reserve, one of Lewisham’s 18 nature reserves, to provide a sanctuary for a variety of species of plants and wildlife, and an outdoor learning facility for children. Cahalane organises community events and outings for school children at the nature reserve, as well as helping with its maintenance.

Around 40 per cent of Lewisham is now green space, which is partly thanks to people like Cahalane. The borough has experienced a 35 per cent decrease in what the council calls green space “areas of deficiency” over the last 10 years – that is areas which are more than a certain walking distance from publicly accessible open spaces. This expansion is welcome, but it needs to be protected and nurtured.

Sheltering from the wind in the nature reserve’s wooden hut, Cahalane shares her top five tips for saving your green spaces, should you ever need to.

A call to action on Buckthorne Cutting Nature Reserve. Pic: Rebecca Robinson

Tip 1: find out who owns it

“A lot of people assume that a green space is owned by their local authority, but often that’s not the case,” says Cahalane. Sometimes they’re owned by property developers, a Housing Association, a charity, or they’re owned by multiple people.

Once you’ve discovered this information, the next step is to find out their intentions for the space. Is it a development, or have they just run out of funds and can’t look after it anymore? This will give you an indication of what you need to do next.

“I think the risk increases depending on who the ownership is with, and often it’s a surprise when you find out who the owner is and what their intentions are for the land,” says Cahalane.

Tip 2: build up a portfolio

“Find out everything you can about it and go off in different directions,” she says. For example, Fourth Reserve Foundation’s primary reason for looking after Buckthorne Cutting Nature Reserve is wildlife, but there are other things that interest people in a site.

Discovering the history of your green space is one way to do this. “You can uncover some amazing things about the history of green space; who used to use it, what it was used for, was there someone famous that used to live there,” she says. 

Look into how important the green space is to the community. Cahalane suggests finding out if children play there, and if so, how many? Are there different groups that use it for different reasons? “You start building a portfolio of the green space and you have all these different levels of why it’s important for local people,” she says.

Tip 3: get protection

“If you can, get protections on it, though that’s easier said than done,” she says. Often protections are done by the local authority who will often do them in phases; they might look at them every five or 10 years.

“You need to start building your evidence and get it ready,” she says. Evidence can be anything from estate maps, how old the trees are, measuring the trees, recording what flowers appear and when they appear. “All that kind of information gets you a report that can get some designations. If you’ve got designations, it’s harder to get planning permission to build,” she says.

Tip 4: have a story

“You need to have a story and a vision,” she says. “Often green spaces are deliberately neglected, especially if somebody wants to build on them, so they look awful and people then start liking the idea of a house or flats being there.”

Cahalane suggests having a vision of what the green space used to be like when it was maintained, and a vision of what it could be like in the future. “Once you’ve got those pictures, and I mean illustrations, in somebody’s head, it completely changes the way they view the space. That’s when you start getting community interest,” she says.

“If you keep banging on about the landowners not looking after it and the bad news, people don’t want to hear it,” she adds. “People want to hear what the green space will give to them if they invest in it or sign the petition. That’s why you’ve got to have a really lovely vision.”

Tip 5: get a variety of people involved

Approach architects for initial drawings of what the green space will look like, and local artists for illustrations. This ties in with creating the story, as Cahalane stresses the importance of having physical drawings of what the space could be.

“It makes people think ‘that would be amazing, our kids would love that, we’ve got no other green space here, this would be incredible’,” she says. “Everyone wants to be part of the story, they all want to be a character in it.”

Have conversations with as many different local people as you can: older people who know the history, creatives who can do drawings, lawyers who can give you free advice, filmmakers who do a video for YouTube. This makes for much stronger evidence when you’re presenting it to whoever wants to build on your green space.

Gorne Wood is located in Brockley next to Eddystone Road, SE4 2DG. Buckthorn Cutting Nature Reserve is located next to Buckthorne Bridge, Brockley, SE4 2DB.

For the rest of our series on green spaces, click here.

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