As part of the Help Out development, I’ve been talking to a lot of people around Epsom and Ewell about how they are or could help out in the local environment. We’re looking at how people find out about opportunities and what the benefits are of having increased participation in keep both town and countryside looking great. Some of these benefits are hard to measure, but have some pretty sound theoretical underpinning. Like the broken windows theory which posits that keeping urban environments nice and sorting things that aren’t right (litter, graffiti, etc) reduces further damage and has an impact on other anti-social behaviour including criminality.
We hope another benefit of Help Out will be in its transparency and in the ability to view all the great stuff people are doing locally. Right now it’s hard to see in one place where individuals, groups and local authorities are doing work rectifying problems or maintaining and improving the natural environment. We hope that one of the benefits of help out will be in its social proof. That is, your neighbours are out there helping out, picking up litter, etc – so that should encourage more people to do so and discourage others from dropping rubbish in the first place. By linking Help Out actions to social media, we’ll be able to spread the word wider and hopefully influence more people to lend a hand, or at least not make things worse.
And other benefits…
But as I’ve been working on Help Out, I’ve found another benefit, too. One that I think I’ll struggle to articulate in a business case.
It’s connection to tradition.
There’s something about valuing tradition. Sometimes the old ways aren’t the best, but I believe there’s something really connecting about understanding and taking part in old folk ways.
I’m not suggesting that everyone go out and join a Morris troupe (although as a foreigner, I never really understood why it gets such a bad rap). But one of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about the Help Out project is working alongside local residents and learning ancient land management techniques. Earlier in the autumn I learned about coppicing hazels and last week I was out with Epsom and Ewell’s countryside services laying hedges in Horton Country Park.
Hedge laying is a technique used to create stock proof fences – made out of living trees. Basically you plant the trees densely in a row, let them grow, cut almost all the way through them, and then ‘lay’ them over. In the Spring, the trees will send up new growth from the cut, which over time creates a thick dense hedge that no errant sheep or cattle can work their way through. But hedges have other benefits, too. They’re an important home for wildlife, supporting biodiversity. And they’re part of the visual aesthetic landscape of the English countryside.
I learned how to use a billhook (the hand tool used to in laying hedges). I’ve also learned how to identify new woodland species and learned things like how to identify ash in the winter and that it will burn more easily in the green than most wood.
These are all things that I’d like my son to know about. Because I didn’t grow up here, these aren’t things I knew already, but now I can teach him.
Connection to community:
I’ve also really enjoyed meeting all the volunteers and communing over tea and delectable brownies made by Gill Sanders – a helper-outer who also writes a cool conservation blog. I can see that they’ve developed a real sense of connection to the land and to the community through their efforts. And even though I’m more of a participant observer, I have, too. It’s an amazing feeling knowing that the work you’re doing is on a hedge planted by boy scouts 15 years ago and that another group of volunteers laid the hedge the first time and another group in some years time will go back over the work that I did in Horton Country Park with volunteers and the countryside team from Epsom and Ewell, too.