Sunday, 14 March 2010

Has the Avenham Park Restoration Project gone too far?

This week, as part of Avenham Park's £2.5m 'restoration' project, large swathes of woodland were felled. Instead of the sun-dappled groves that once massaged the imagination and cooled the senses, now the park is filled with a striking absence of height, an unfamiliar prominence of sky, and stubbly tree-stump graveyards.

Is this mass clearing a necessary measure, designed to encourage new growth and secure the long-term well-being of ailing flora? Or is it part of a wider, cosmetic trend of compulsive ecological “tidying-up”?

Let’s consider the facts. The historic avenue of trees on Riverside Walk has been completely removed. This was done in the interest of public safety. Many of the trees along the route had become infected with a disease known as Bleeding Canker, which restricts water transportation to the crown of the trees and, as a result, can lead to some parts collapsing.

But hundreds of other trees and shrubs were also felled in an attempt to “smarten up” the park’s appearance. The council intends to plant hundreds of new plants and trees later in the year, but their tangled grandeur will take at least a generation to rival that previously known there. So why was the park altered so severely?

It seems that neatness and regularity are thought of by park development officers as being synonymous with beauty. Perhaps the new 'designer parks' will attract more visitors (though the evidence for this is far from conclusive), but there are several other important environmental issues for us to consider; such as loss of habitat, carbon release and soil erosion. These issues are largely unaccounted for in the Council’s plans to shake up the tree and plant life, home to countless species that contribute towards overall biodiversity and environmental well-being.

As public green spaces and wilderness areas continue to be swallowed up by a seemingly interminable tide of urbanisation, it might be useful to question the modern understanding of "wild places".

It is only very recently that philosophers and scientists have turned their attention towards the well-being of the natural world and given serious consideration to the notion that our moral obligations might extend beyond our own anthropocentric concerns (be they related to resources, beauty or recreation). Whilst the modern age is dominated by slick gadgetry, online networks and quick fix solutions, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we are losing touch with the experience of amersion in the natural world and, instead, tend to view reality in a much more compartmentalised fashion, ignoring the wider context. So what does this have to do with the felling of a few trees?

The type of changes we are seeing in local parks such as Avenham Park seem to be symptomatic of this shift in consciousness. We too often disguise exploitation behind a banner of ‘conservation’. And, in so doing, not only do we exploit the countless numbers of organisms whose quality of life we destroy but we debase ourselves by debasing being itself.

The public were invited to share their views with the council during a one-off (scantily publicised) meeting last month. One angry resident told me that she resents the way the council "keep talking about maintaining the park’s Victorian appearance, when in actual fact they are turning it into a modernist nightmare. The hideous restaurant is a clear example of that. And now they’ve started cutting down all the trees. It’s really terrible.”

So, whilst measured interventions are required for natural spaces to flourish, it should be remembered that nature is not only a resource to serve the needs of man, but is endowed with its own intrinsic value and, as such, can be thought of as silently imploring us to recognise our responsibility towards its needs.