Chris Baines is a “freelance environmentalist” who lives in Wolverhampton, U.K., two hours north of London by train. He spends most of his time forging unholy alliances between nonprofit organizations, the corporate sector, the government, and local communities. He is planning a major Earth Day launch in the U.K. in 2000.
Monday, 15 Nov 1999
Leave home in the dark to catch a train to London. There is a big push in Britain to get people out of their cars and onto public transport — which naturally I applaud, except that I’ve always used the train, and now it’s suddenly 20 percent more overcrowded and increasingly unreliable. It’s a two-hour trip to London if all goes well — and sometimes it does.
Today is the award ceremony for the annual Natural World Book Prize. I’m one of the judges and I have to say something by way of explanation to all of the eager writers and publishers. Forty-two entries this year, six on the shortlist, and just one winner. I wish I could say I read every book from cover to cover, but the best you can do in these circumstances is dip into all of them, stick with the ones that really grab you, and then swap notes with the four fellow judges. The field this year is very wide, and it’s a bit like comparing apples with oranges and chalk with cheese, but we do have a worthy winner — embargoed until tomorrow.
The Book Prize is sponsored by one of our biggest conservation charities — the Wildlife Trusts — and one of our biggest oil companies — BP Amoco. I’m on the panel because I’m a national vice president of the Wildlife Trusts and I actually won the very first Natural World Book Prize back in 1987, for The Wild Side of Town.
After a (slap-up) lunch, and a chance to meet (or avoid) the writers and publishers, off to a short planning meeting for Trees of Time and Place (ToTaP). This national campaign is almost three years old, and it takes up a great deal of my time. I’m paid to work an average of one day a week as the campaign’s principal adviser, by another major oil company, Esso UK.
ToTaP has evolved into an extraordinary partnership, with almost 100 national organisations combining forces and pooling resources behind a common aim. As a way of raising public awareness about the value of trees, the campaign is helping huge numbers of individuals mark the millennium by gathering seeds from a favourite tree, sowing them, and growing personal Trees of Time and Place. We have 2,500 schools Growing with Trees, over 600 planting sites earmarked to become permanent community landmark woodlands in the year 2000, and all manner of different organisations finding ways of using the simple ToTaP idea to reinforce their own environmental agendas. It’s just a month since “Seed Gathering Sunday” and this is a meeting to review successes (and a few failures). People really love the idea of gathering an acorn from an oak tree that may have been growing before the start of this millennium, and passing its seedling into the next, and this has been a bumper year for acorns.
In the evening I have a working dinner at the “terribly posh” Sloan Club, just around the corner from the famous King’s Road in Chelsea. Four years ago Britain discovered the lottery. Since then it has generated thousands of millions of pounds for “good causes” in the arts, sport, community, and heritage. Just over a year ago, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, appointed me as one of the 12 trustees of the Heritage Lottery Fund. We have an annual budget of about 300 million ($485 million) to spend — on museums, works of art, the natural heritage, city parks, and historic town centres. The monthly decision-making takes place tomorrow, but this evening the chairman has invited trustees to join him for dinner, and a chance for an informal discussion, without the pressure of a mountain of reports, referrals, refusals, and recommendations.
Most of my colleagues are “big cheeses” from the world of arty treasures, so I usually find myself championing local and natural heritage. They’re good company, the conversation is always stimulating, and we have enough money to really make a difference.
Overnight in a London hotel, with a two-inch-thick pile of papers to read before tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. I remember this is something I usually do in the train journey down each month — so no lie-in tomorrow after all.
Tuesday, 16 Nov 1999
Good coverage of the Book Prize winner in the national paper. It’s Almost Like a Whale by Steve Jones (to be published in the U.S. under the title Darwin’s Ghost) — a modern version of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, updated to take account of the revolutionary discoveries, from migration to DNA, that have improved our understanding since 1859.
The rest of the shortlist consisted of a Gerald Durrell: The Authorized Biography, about the post-war wildlife campaigner; Earth Odyssey by Californian journalist Mark Hertsgaard; Britain’s Rare Flowers by Peter Marren; Modern Wildlife Painting by Nicholas Hammond; and Living Britain by Peter Crawford of the BBC.
Nothing too contentious at the Heritage Lottery Fund, but next month will see me in the hot seat. We are spending tens of millions of pounds of Lottery money on restoring the U.K.’s historic urban parks — parks that inspired the rest of the 19th century world to follow suit. I have dared to suggest that “historic restoration” should not be pursued slavishly. City parks have modern functions as green lungs for the city, and as vital educational and nature conservation resources. I can see little case for sweeping away hundred-year-old trees and covering over popular flower beds just because they weren’t on the plan in 1873. Conserving landscapes is quite different from conserving buildings and works of art. Landscapes evolve, and we need to celebrate their changing over time. The Lottery has made an enormous change to the fortunes of the nature conservation movement in the UK — tens of millions of pounds in “new money” and now a very strong commitment to health-giving local urban green space.
I leave London immediately after lunch, and travel the two hours home. Eight important guests are coming for dinner — and I’m the cook! Tomorrow I’m chairing an international conference with the intriguing title of “Trees and Healthy Living.” One of the speakers is Professor Roger Ulrich from Texas A&M University. He is a world authority on the impact trees can have on stress relief, so this is a chance for some other conference organisers and fellow speakers to share some “quality time” with him the night before the conference. Inviting a stress expert to dinner seems more and more appropriate as I map out my “what to do” list on the train. Wild mushroom soup and home-baked walnut bread to start — no bett
er way to celebrate trees and woods, in my opinion. Then baked salmon with a lime sauce to keep up the trees link, some wonderful local cheeses — unpasteurised, and all from rural Wales (the border is just 30 miles to the west). Then back to trees for a sweet chestnut and pear dessert. The challenge is to make sure I also get to share in the conversation. At least some of the ingredients are organic — the vegetables, walnuts, and cheeses. There is organic farmed salmon on the market at last, but not, so far, in my local supermarkets. In the U.K., demand for organic food is greatly outstripping supply, but at last the government is responding with cash grants for farmers who convert to organic processes. It just takes a long time to reach the table.
Chairing the “Trees and Healthy Living” conference tomorrow, but for once no paper to present myself, and no colour slides to organise. The main task is to bully speakers into keeping to time — hence the value of a pre-conference meal, to get the measure of the time challenge — and a need to listen carefully all day, so I can sum up believably at the end.
Wednesday, 17 Nov 1999
What a great conference! The organisers were the National Urban Forestry Unit and they managed to amass an audience of 150 people, from a wide range of different interests and sectors. The topic, “trees and healthy living,” has novelty value for many, but actually managing to fill an auditorium with a mixture of ecologists, parks managers, and foresters on the one hand, and health professionals, regeneration planners, and developers on the other — that’s half the battle won.
Some of the speakers were world-class — Roger Ulrich from Texas A&M University, for instance, is someone I’ve been quoting for the past decade, as the person who first provided objective evidence that trees and greenery make us feel better. He has shown that hospital patients need less medication and recover more quickly if they have a leafy view to enjoy — and apparently as little as five minutes in the park makes a measurable difference in stress levels. All through the day we heard environmental and health issues linked. Trees filter pollutants from the air — particularly the sooty particles known as PM-10’s, and since we have one in six young children now suffering from breathing difficulties and asthma-type symptoms, this benefit from trees is powerful stuff. Similarly, even in dull and drizzly old Britain, increasingly intense solar radiation is helping to make skin melanomas the fastest spreading form of cancer. The shade from trees, particularly around schools and homes for the elderly, can really make a difference. The urban forest can improve the pleasure of walking and cycling — a double environmental health benefit — and, finally, in the past year or two we have seen changes in weather patterns that seem to result in more frequent torrential rainstorms. Increasing the urban canopy of trees helps to lessen the impact of each downpour — fewer sewers overflow, and there’s another health benefit.
One minor disappointment of the day was the lack of government policy-makers in the audience. Originally the Minister for Health agreed to speak, but as luck would have it, this was the day chosen for the State Opening of Parliament, so he couldn’t come. There was a very helpful written statement for me to read out, which showed that the Minister understood the need for more “joined-up thinking” on health and environmental issues, but it sometimes seems as though that message fails to register with the compartmentalised culture of the civil service.
Most importantly, we now have 150 enthused and super-well-informed champions on the loose, who heard the facts from the horse’s mouth, and will no doubt make powerful use of the enhanced propaganda. The National Urban Forestry Unit also has strengthened links with Ulrich and his colleagues, too, and they are ideally placed to act as a funnel for new ideas and proven best practice around the world.
Oh, and tomorrow I have a meeting with the government watchdogs who determine spending levels in the water industry, OFWAT (Office of Water Services), and a parliamentary reception at Westminster to talk about trees to Members of Parliament, so at least some of what I’ve learned today should hit the ground running and make an almost instant impact.
Thursday, 18 Nov 1999
The “Trees and Healthy Living” conference organised by the National Urban Forestry Unit was a great success, and it really caught the imagination of the press. Professor Roger Ulrich, from Texas, was interviewed on the most influential of our BBC network radio programmes, Today, and we also made it on to a number of other programmes too.
Today I have four contrasting meetings. The first is in Birmingham, just a 20-minute train ride away, with OFWAT (Office of Water Services). This is the government-appointed “watchdog” that determines customer service and company spending levels for the privatised water industry. I’ve been asking for a meeting with their economists for over a year now and finally today’s the day.
I work a great deal with the water industry. In particular I have chaired an independent Environmental Advisory Panel for the Kelder Group (previously called Yorkshire Water). I find that water management is an ideal vehicle for tackling the need for integrated environmental management. It is simply impossible without the cooperation of all those who use and abuse it. Much of what I do for a living is help to create more of a stakeholder management culture in traditionally insular organisations.
I’m keen to discuss sustainability with the economists in OFWAT. They tend to encourage high-spending, engineered solutions. I prefer a more naturalistic approach. For example, we are suffering from more and more extreme weather, and rainstorms are causing increasingly frequent flooding in towns. OFWAT’s solution seems to be to authorise massive extra spending to increase the size of storm-water pipes, but that just moves the problem downstream. What I will be arguing is that we need a whole host of more low-key remedies, from porous roads and carparks to holding ponds and reed beds in parks and school grounds, and a less aggressive approach to farm drainage and timber clearance. It would cost less, but there wouldn’t be so much clear evidence of spending, and that is a bit of a problem for the bureaucrats.
From Birmingham I travel on by train to London. First I’ve a meeting with the director general of the Wildlife Trusts. I’m one of their national vice presidents, and they are one of the biggest nature conservation charities in the U.K. not-for-profit sector. I have two particular projects that I want to discuss.
The Wildlife Trusts are partners in the Trees of Time and Place campaign, which has enlisted tens of thousands of individuals who are now growing their own personal trees from seeds that they have gathered from a favourite tree. Many of them are going to need a permanent planting site in the year 2000, and so far we have a network of over 600 pledged landmark sites for millennium woods. Since the Wildlife Trusts have comprehensive national coverage, I am hoping to persuade them to coordinate the site network and the planting programme on behalf of the other 100 national organisations which make up the Trees of Time and Place partnership.
I also have a plan to celebrate the wildlife that has returned to the River Thames, as a part of the Millennium Year celebrations. London’s great river was effectively dead for a couple of hundred years, but in the last 20 or so it has recovered miraculously, and there are now salmon, porpoises, and even occasional turtles swimming up the tidal estuary. I w
ould like Wildlife Trusts volunteers to provide a running commentary on every passenger boat on the river, as a way of highlighting the changing seasons, the rise and fall of the tides, and the migratory species of birds.
From 4 till 6 p.m. I am involved in a very special reception at the House of Commons. As a part of the Trees of Time and Place campaign, and in particular as a way of emphasising the importance of growing and planting trees which are local, we have a special project called Constituency Oaks. Each of the 650 Members of Parliament have been invited to gather acorns from an ancient and significant oak in their home constituency. Almost 300 have taken part so far. Each of them will have a personal constituency oak to plant locally as a mark of the new millennium, and this reception is a chance to say thank you, to give them an update, and to ask them to encourage their remaining colleagues to take part. I’m the person who has to make the keynote presentation. I’ve managed to get Roger Ulrich an invitation at the last minute, and he is thrilled to be seeing the inside of the Palace of Westminster.
The final meeting is a working dinner with two friends who are working with me on plans for a major launch of Earth Day in the U.K. in the year 2000. We are also working together on the Greenwich Millennium Dome, but more of that tomorrow.
We have a couple of big ideas for Earth Day 2000 and the simplest of them is to use the video conferencing suites of major corporate companies to link up children around the world who are growing trees. The technology would enable them to compare notes, see one another’s seedlings, and share the sense of optimism that comes from growing a tree to plant for future generations. We need to secure a modest but essential level of core funding to pay for some central coordination, and the need to get together for a progress report is a good excuse for dinner.
Overnight in London and tomorrow I’m chairing another conference. This one is “For English Nature,” on the topic of accommodating nature as a part of the urban renaissance. We have a government minister speaking first thing, and the whole of the afternoon session taking place whilst we cruise down the River Thames. Should be fun!
Friday, 19 Nov 1999
My meeting with the water regulator, OFWAT, was very useful. I have worked closely with the water industry for a long time and this was a chance to discuss some of my concerns as an environmentalist.
Put simply, the regulators are working on a very short time scale, maximum five years, and most of the more sustainable approaches to water resource management require a longer perspective. In addition, OFWAT is the economic regulator, fixing prices and spending limits. It relies on the Environment Agency, another government watchdog, to assess the impact of various economic options, and between them they seem rarely to achieve an adequate environmental impact assessment.
The short-termism tends to encourage high-spend, capital-intensive, engineered solutions. I used two illustrations in the meeting. The first was sewage sludge disposal. I have been promoting its use in combination with green waste as a compost that can be successfully used to help in reclaiming derelict coal waste tips and preparing them for tree planting and woodland cover. The OFWAT style of accounting tends to make it much more likely that an unsustainable option such as incineration of the sludge will be adopted.
I have also been campaigning for the last five years to try and increase protection for our wonderful heritage of mature street trees. Their roots are being chopped by the digging of utility trenches, and a great many of them are now rapidly dying. The water industry is being made to reduce the leakage from its old drinking-water supply pipes, under instruction from OFWAT. This is proving doubly damaging to the trees because beneath the impervious pavements the leaking drinking water is almost the only source of irrigation. Add to that the extra traffic congestion caused by all the uncoordinated road digging (the road behind my house has been dug up 47 times in the past five years), and the aggregate which is excavated and sent to landfill and then replaced with freshly quarried stone from some of our most beautiful landscapes, and the environmental costs of leakage reduction are enormous. OFWAT’s processes simply don’t allow for this more holistic analysis, and that is damaging the environment.
We agreed that it would be useful to bring key players among the stakeholders together to look at some alternative economic models, with a view to promoting more sustainable water management, and this is something I can take forward with a number of my contacts. The senior OFWAT economist who I had waited so long to see proved extremely receptive to my ideas — but, frustratingly, at the end of the meeting he told me he leaves the organisation next week. A pessimist would say “back to square one.” I’m an optimist and take the alternative view that I have reached two organisations with a single meeting: OFWAT and this man’s new employer in the commercial economic consultancy world.
The parliamentary reception for the Constituency Oaks campaign went smoothly, with a record 40 individual Members of Parliament attending. One bonus was a chance to introduce Roger Ulrich to the chief executive of Esso UK. The company has been of vital importance in developing the Trees of Time and Place campaign in a spirit of partnership. Esso’s parent company is Exxon, and its head office is in Dallas, just a two-hour drive from Roger’s Texas A&M University. I’m keen to see the “special personal trees from seed” idea promoted more widely — maybe starting with Exxon employees, customers, and other stakeholders in Texas, and I think Roger will now be in an ideal position to help me. He in turn was particularly thrilled to be at the parliamentary reception, in part because the view across the Thames was of the Victorian Nightingale Hospital. This, apparently, is where the pioneering work in Roger’s field of patient recovery and environmental outlook was carried out over a century ago.
The working dinner with my friends who are helping me coordinate Earth Day was delightful. If energy, enthusiasm, and inventiveness can make a success of the Earth Day U.K. launch next Easter, then the prospects are very good. Both my collaborators are very creative thinkers, and although our work together on the Millennium Dome is extremely demanding, and they are both working unbelievable hours in the rush towards the December 31 deadline, their determination also to succeed with Earth Day is awesome.
Today’s conference — “Towards the Urban Renaissance” — brought together a very interesting array of professionals and volunteers. Britain is a pretty crowded, very urban place. Of all the people on the Earth today, one in 100 live here on these two relatively small islands. The Industrial Revolution was spawned here, and we have been an urbanised society for longer than anywhere else. Nevertheless, few people with choice want to live in the heart of our cities. London is a bit of an exception, but the general rule for most of this century has been that people who can choose move out to the edge of town, or into the rural countryside. This continuing trend, combined with predictions about changes in family structure, suggests that we will need to build between 3 million and 4 million new homes in the next 20 years.
With so much pressure to build on the so-called “urban brownfield land,” there is an interesting opportunity which the conference was organised to address. There is a strong case for increasing the amount of greenspace in towns, in order to make them healthier, more attractive places to live, but at the same time, a good deal of the land which is seen
as suitable for built development is already very green, very natural, but not very often recognised by planners and developers as a valuable asset.
I have been a champion of urban wildlife for more than 20 years (the book with which I won the Natural World Book Prize in 1987 was called The Wild Side of Town), and I am national vice president of the Wildlife Trusts — but I also work with the Housebuilders Federation and have been judging their Greenleaf Housing Awards for the past 15 years. This conference brought together government ministers, development companies, leading planners, wildlife conservationists, and others to discuss ways of integrating nature into old and new development, as a sustainable foundation for an urban renaissance.
The conference was brought to life by transferring the whole event to a river ferry boat for the afternoon. We discussed the various issues whilst cruising gently down the Thames, with the challenge in question perfectly displayed on both banks. By mid-afternoon, we arrived at the Greenwich Millennium Dome — method in my madness, since this is the most prestigious new building in the country. It will become one of the most familiar buildings in the world next year, and I have been working to create new wildlife habitat along the tidal riverbank, and on an old redundant river pier. All of the rainwater falling on the Dome’s roofs is being filtered through a living reedbed system and then used within the building. Twelve million visitors, and countless TV viewers, will be introduced to sustainable development and to “nature in the city” in a quite spectacular context on this high-profile site in the year 2000.
The river journey also did the trick of convincing several key people that the idea of wildlife commentaries on the river ferries could work, and since our plan is to launch Earth Day 2000 at the Dome, the conference confirmed for me that we really can bring all manner of strange bedfellows together in the name of environmental sustainability. What’s more, through Earth Day 2000, we can do it in some really inspiring and enjoyable ways.
Not a bad note on which to end a week.