How urban nature is boosting Norwich's health and economy

A juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker searches the tree for a meal.

Great spotted woodpeckers can be seen in Norwich in places including Mousehold Heath and Old Library Wood - Credit: Brian Shreeve

Norwich boasts an extraordinary wealth of nature within its urban heart - bringing benefits to the city’s wildlife, wellbeing and the economy.

The centre of Norwich is alive with urban wildlife – from kingfishers darting across the Wensum, to peregrine falcons nesting in the cathedral spire, and foxes prowling through Mousehold Heath.

And the city’s enviable wealth of parks, woods and riverbanks has been enjoyed by a growing number of people who sought out nature’s therapy during the long, lonely months of lockdown.

But the true value of these green spaces goes far beyond the simple wonder of watching wildlife thrive within the Ring Road.

Norwich has a wealth of green spaces and urban wildlife corridors

Norwich has a wealth of green spaces and urban wildlife corridors - Credit: Sonya Duncan

A recent report from the British Ecological Society (BES) says bringing more nature into cities can help tackle climate change and wildlife losses, while also boosting health and the economy.

The study highlights how natural measures including planting trees, installing “green roofs” and making best use of brownfield sites can improve air quality and reduce urban “heat island” effects, which push temperatures up by 1-3C compared with surrounding countryside.

Such natural solutions can also have a major contribution to “environmental wellbeing”, boosting a city’s economy by improving the health of its workers, creating green jobs, improving its tourism appeal and encouraging inward investment.

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The findings were echoed by those working to manage Norwich’s mosaic of green spaces and community nature reserves, which has helped reconnect city-dwellers with nature in recent months.

Matthew Davies is project officer for the Norwich Fringe Project, which works with volunteers, communities and councils to care for natural areas in and around the city.

“I think we’re very lucky living in Norwich because it is such a green city,” he said. “You’ve got the river valley corridors and such an abundance of street trees. There are so many amazing green spaces and it has so many benefits for people’s wellbeing.

Old Library Wood in Norwich

Pictured at Old Library Wood in Norwich are, from left, Abi Murray from the Old Library Wood Collective, Matthew Davies of the Norwich Fringe Project and Gemma Walker of Norfolk Wildlife Trust - Credit: Sonya Duncan

“It is understood that for people with mental health or physical illnesses, it improves their wellbeing and helps with anxiety, depression and self esteem - just by being outdoors or doing voluntary work on the ground. I have seen it first-hand.

“If people’s wellbeing is positive, they are not taking time off work and they can have a more positive impact on the economic environment. Nature is such an important tool.”

Gemma Walker, senior community engagement officer for Norfolk Wildlife Trust, said this natural resource had become all the more important during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“In Norwich the wildlife is absolutely amazing and I don’t know how many cities can say they have peregrines in the cathedral, or are visited by common seals in the river,” she said.

A peregrine falcon swooping around the spire of Norwich Cathedral

A peregrine falcon swooping around the spire of Norwich Cathedral - Credit: Chris Skipper

“I think lockdown really pulled everything together, because suddenly everyone was told they can only explore their local space, so they were out walking from their doorsteps and discovering this amazing network of green spaces and green corridors, and having the time to take in the wildlife that was around them.

“All of a sudden there was this amazing connection. Local communities in the streets were coming together and saying they want to do more to bring wildlife into their neighbourhood.”

Industrial and brownfield sites are also playing a key role in boosting Norwich’s wildlife.

An urban fox looking for food in a city garden

An urban fox looking for food in a city garden - Credit: David Jones/PA Wire

Recognising the huge economic value of “natural capital”, Norwich City Council said it aimed to shape new planning developments to benefit wildlife – such as the project to build more than 200 homes on part of the former Jarrold printworks site in Barrack Street, where features negotiated with developers included a sensitive lighting scheme for bats, landscape planting and nest boxes for swifts and other birds.

A Norwich City Council spokesman said: “The importance of our natural capital cannot be overemphasised. The health and wellbeing benefits of our trees, parks and natural areas and the role outdoor and natural play has on children’s development is well-documented.

“Developing, nurturing and increasing biodiversity is crucial, and the far-reaching impacts are immeasurable – from real steps in tackling the very real issue of climate change, to the role it 
plays in ensuring a high quality of life.

"And these factors are all important in ensuring Norwich remains attractive to inward investment and retention of our talent.”

Old Library Wood on Rosary Road in Norwich

Old Library Wood on Rosary Road in Norwich - Credit: Sonya Duncan

  • Case study: Old Library Wood

Old Library Wood on Rosary Road is part of a network of tiny community nature reserves which act as important “stepping stones” for wildlife between Norwich’s larger parks, river valleys and woodlands.

The site was retained for nature when the neighbouring plot was developed for housing, and is now owned by the city council and managed by the volunteers of The Old Library Wood Collective, which works with neighbouring  residents and businesses to create “a vibrant, safe and attractive place to live in the centre of Norwich”.

Birds including a great spotted woodpecker, song thrushes and blackbirds can be heard here, and it has also provided a home for bats and urban foxes.

Matthew Davies of the Norwich Fringe Project said: “There are two main aspects here. You’ve got its importance as a “green lung” for the city, as it is well established with mature trees.

"It is also an important community asset for people to come and use for their wellbeing. It has a multitude of uses, so it is really important for these sites to be managed and looked after.”

  • How you can help nurture city's nature

A small patch of lawn, patio or even a balcony can provide a home to city wildlife.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust has produced a series of 12 downloadable leaflets to help people nurture nature in their gardens, including bumblebees, birds, bats and butterflies.

Meanwhile, the RSPB Nature on Your Doorstep initiative provides “how to” videos, and seasonal ideas on quick, easy and affordable ways to encourage more wildlife.

And Norwich City Council has urged residents to get in touch if they are interested in joining green projects to manage “those little patches of green space in neighbourhoods, at the end of residential streets”.

It could be anything from adopting a neighbourhood grassed patch or tending a single raised planter, to a more involved community project. Anyone interested can email community@norwich.gov.uk.

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