We may not give it our full attention, but the built environment around us shapes our mood, our thoughts, our health and our relationships. It’s not just the dimensions of our houses, flats and rooms, but the life between buildings – the public spaces. Green spaces especially are known to improve the quality of city life, yet even in cities abundant with trees such as London or Vancouver, people are experiencing what the UK government describes as “the greatest public health challenge of our time” affecting all ages and backgrounds: loneliness.
Future trends indicate population growth and an ever-increasing movement towards city living – 92% of us in the UK are predicted to be urban dwellers by 2030 no less – so it’s more important than ever to explore the influence of our urban landscape and ask: what makes a city truly liveable? Have we have embedded our loneliness into our built environment?
The urge to ‘green’ the spaces around us may be inbuilt – ‘biophila’ means the love of life or of living systems and the theory’s proponent, E.O. Wilson, defines it as “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life”. This innate tendency to seek a connection with nature is most likely a result of evolution: the savannah and woodland habitats lodged deep inside our psyche. Time spent inside buildings, inside cars, walking through the concrete canyons of modern life yet never having your feet touch a non-manmade surface – this is a situation that poses a serious disconnect for our emotional relationship to the natural world.
The recognition of the connection between nature and our health is becoming increasingly well researched. Multiple studies, as collated in the University of Essex and the Wildlife Trusts 2015 report, show the links between the amount of accessible green space and the psychological wellbeing of its inhabitants, signifying that access to nature aids recovery from stress, as well as protecting us from future stress. Proximity to flora and fauna within the urban environment lowers mental distress and can even lower blood pressure. This evidence has not been lost on GPs who now prescribe ‘green exercise’ to patients, nor on landscape architects who now factor in wellbeing into the design process. In London, the understanding of these benefits has resulted in the National Park City movement, dedicated to celebrating, protecting and increasing green spaces.
Planting the fruit trees of a community orchard really is just the starting point. Orchards represent a unifying force among communities, providing a space for gathering and events, as well as a communal focus which reaps wonderful rewards to be shared by all. At The Orchard Project, the orchards never belong to us, even if we provide tools or funds for their creation or improvement. Our aim is to promote a sense of shared participation among the local residents: as they care for the natural habitat, they care for each other.
Our aim is for everyone in an urban area to be within walking distance of a community orchard, because orchards have the power and potential to tackle the loneliness our cities have created. We believe that community orchards can be transformative for individuals and communities and provide the havens and green corridors the natural world needs to survive and thrive in the times ahead.