Uniting our Natural Volunteer Community

by Sarah Dobson Urban Gardens Health & wellbeing Brighton Nature Author - Cliff Munn

The Brighton & Hove Green Spaces Forum

The financial pressure on local authorities to reduce the cost of managing our parks and green spaces is immense. The importance of the volunteer community has really come into sharp focus.

The Brighton & Hove Green Spaces Forum (BHGSF) is now one year old, and in this short time it has grown to include 75 local voluntary green space groups as its membership. The Forum has a long term objective of Brighton & Hove being recognised as a role model city for community involvement with the enhancement of green spaces.

Brighton & Hove Green Spaces Forum The Forum’s key functions include:

  • A means for green space volunteer groups across the city to contact and support one another.
  • A conduit where information, events and news can be quickly disseminated.
  • A mechanism for potential volunteers to find groups.
  • Organisation of events and workshops.
  • Facilitation of training and the identification of funding opportunities.
  • Identification and promotion of external programmes that can help volunteer groups grow and flourish.

The Forum has successfully established itself and emerged based upon a real need for such a network and as a result of challenges that our public green spaces, both locally and nationally, are facing.

It was back in November 2015 when a group of local conservation volunteers heard the news that Brighton & Hove CityParks Ranger numbers were proposed to be slashed. Realising the importance of the Ranger role to the conservation agenda for the City, two people set about putting together a formal deputation to the City Council’s Environment committee meeting in January 2016. Remarkably, over 50 volunteers gathered outside the Town Hall with an array of protest banners and gardening tools to make their concerns known! Brighton & Hove’s first network of green space volunteers had been unofficially formed – they were listened to, and the Ranger team was saved from the proposed cuts.

Following the success of the Ranger campaign, there was a realisation that whilst volunteer groups were doing great work in their individual spaces, collectively they could achieve a great deal more.

In separate subsequent developments in 2016, a couple of projects were carried out with a focus on improving the green spaces network in Brighton & Hove:

- The ARTS project research was run by the University of Sussex – “Accelerating and Re-scaling Transitions to Sustainability” – which concluded with a recommendation to create a new open spaces forum, including Brighton City in Bloom’s proposed ‘Volunteer Alliance for Community Open Spaces’ (VACOS).

- The Brighton and Hove Green Space Network project was funded through the University of Brighton’s ‘Community University Partnership Programme’ in 2016-17, working with the Biosphere programme, BHCC City Parks, Community Works, Trust for Developing Communities, and City in Bloom. This project carried out a survey of local greenspace groups and ran two workshops in February-March 2017 to find out more about the nature of the voluntary sector here and assess its needs and issues.

It thus provided structure and commitment from the organisations involved, and helped to lay the foundation for an overarching body that would bring together green spaces volunteer groups across the city. A written constitution was subsequently agreed and a dedicated website created as a hub for the new network group, and the Brighton & Hove Green Spaces Forum came to life through a formal launch event in October 2017.

An early task for the Forum was to identify its members and partners, and over six months the number of associated groups grew substantially up to 75. All the groups have been validated and have a short summary and contact details included at http://bhgreenspaceforum.org.uk/friends-of-groups/. You can also visit the ‘Explore The Living Coast’ interactive map to locate your local greenspace group to engage with.

The Forum has also worked with council officers to successfully secure a ‘Collaboration’ grant from BHCC’s Communities Fund in early 2018, which has provided resources for the network such as enabling the website to be further developed to carry events and news.

In 2018 BHGSF has actively encouraged volunteer groups to participate in the Royal Horticultural Society’s ‘It’s Your Neighbourhood’ scheme. This is marvellous for small community-based green spaces groups as it gives them the opportunity to reflect on how they are doing against a set of community gardening and sustainability criteria, at no financial cost to themselves.

This year saw the highest ever number of entries from local greenspace groups, with a few highlights being:

  • Norfolk Square group – ‘Level 4 – Thriving’. This volunteer gardening group gets together twice a month and holds regular community events involving businesses and residents to make a vibrant, pleasant, community hot-spot in this once sensitive green space.

Norfolk Square group

  • Racehill Community Orchard, Whitehawk – ‘Level 5 – Outstanding’. This volunteer group has transformed the site from a very challenging and unloved site to a wonderful community space, complete with apple trees and wildlife habitats.

Racehill Community Orchard

  • Stanford & Cleveland Community Garden – Gold in the “Our Community” category. Local residents asked the council for a community garden instead of pavement widening in 2013, and received a large triangular raised bed with two tons of compost on heavy clay soil. The volunteers went on develop it to award-winning standards, and were also this year’s regional winners of Cultivation Street who “bring Britains’ streets back to life through people plants and pride”.

Stanford & Cleveland Community Garden

The Forum worked with Brighton & Hove City in Bloom to hold a celebratory awards evening on 15th October. The evening wasn’t just a great recognition event. Volunteers came together and heard and learnt from one another. The network strengthened and the community grew.

So whilst care has to be taken on the balance between volunteer groups ‘enhancing’ rather than ‘replacing’ management activity in our parks and green spaces, there is no doubt that they make a significant contribution to our city’s natural environment at the same time as improving their own health and wellbeing. And by coming together they are able to achieve even more.

Cliff Munn
Chair – Brighton & Hove Green Spaces Forum

Leave a comment