Emily Munn, Urbanwise.London
Urbanwise aims to promote active outdoor learning in the local area, help young people communicate their views and ideas on environmental issues which concern them and bring people together to examine issues around environmental change.
Urban ES education is often associated with building social connections, trust and community, also known as social capital. In this article we suggest that urban ES education can offer meaningful and valuable experiences whilst fostering social capital between participants, communities and practitioners in urban areas. We illustrate this by discussing our work with the Grenfell community in London.
In June 2017, the Grenfell Tower tragedy created an immeasurable loss for communities and families. In the aftermath, Urbanwise.London has been supporting families by facilitating their discovery of nature, play, relaxation, as well as connection to other Grenfell families in outdoor greenspaces in London.
With the support of John Lyon’s Charity and The Big Lottery, we organised visits to greenspaces within easy reach of North Kensington as well as further afield via public transport or hired buses. Being embedded in the West London community for over thirty-five years and with employees living in North Kensington, we were able to reach participants through existing contacts and connections to local organisations. This proved invaluable when advertising the project to those personally affected by events at Grenfell.
Families self-enrolled on as many visits as they wished. We worked with over 20 families, including 23 adults and 32 children (age 0-16 years). Families self-identified as mostly first and second-generation Ecuadorian, Columbian, Venezuelan, Somalian, Kosovan, French, Caribbean and Arabic heritage.
As participants often joined us on repeat visits, we noticed they started to bond during the activities as they organised communal food to share, developing friendships as parents bonded and children’s confidence developed. The parents, who were from different Grenfell communities, shared tips and signposted each other to local resources and activities, including health and wellbeing workshops.
We were reminded that in urban ES education, it is often these ‘in-between’ moments of social connection and the building of social capital that provide the highest value. In facilitating the visits we provided a space and activities for connection and dialogue where a supportive ear could be offered to those who chose to share their experiences and concerns following the fire. For example, one of our supporting visit leaders had family displaced following the fire and shared their direct experience.
Participants told us how they experienced these spaces as places of respite and recovery to support their families’ emotional wellbeing. Many reported that places visited were previously unknown and they would not normally access the sites, both local and further afield. Yet several participants told us they returned to sites because they found their own peaceful haven in London.
Connections and social bonding that occurred during the project took place on three levels. First, for the participants, by providing individual and family members with a space to be together and support each other:
“I have seen her grow in confidence so much these last few months. As you know, my niece lost several family members in the Grenfell fire and it has been a struggle getting her out and about. I know she very much enjoyed the wetland trip and it was good seeing her smile. Thank you again for offering me and my family an amazing opportunity to participate in your activities.”
Second, for intra-community connections, through sharing, signposting of individuals to new local organisations and wellbeing support and trips to new places previously unvisited:
“My grandson benefited from the company of other children, while I enjoyed talking to other parents. Having a picnic together added to the communal atmosphere; we were able to exchange ideas and advice on how to make the most of the opportunities that the area we live in has got to offer. For me and my grandson it is all about nature and friendship.”
Finally, connections occurred within our urban ES practitioner community. Through LEEF, we worked in multi-agency partnership drawing on our personal connections to make the project happen. For example, Holland Park Ecology Centre gave their private space and staff time to allow a group to learn about aquatic life in a pond dipping session; and the team at Hampstead Heath opened their secret garden for a day of den building, tree climbing and making hot chocolate together.
Emily Munn is based at Urbanwise.London, a charity dedicated to connecting children, young people and communities to all aspects of their local, urban environment.
More information: urbanwise.london
This article was first published in 2019 in Vol 122 of the NAEE journal which is available free to members. This edition was an Urban Environmental & Sustainability Education special, written with London Environmental Educators’ Forum (LEEF).