Nature is a Human
Right, Right?

Founder of environmental organisation, Nature is a Human Right, Ellen Miles talks to Lichen about nature inequality, the effects of COVID-19 on mental health and the push to make nature a recognised human right.  

Text Mirabella Shahidullah

Ellen Miles photographed by Serena Brown

Originally from Hackney in East London, Ellen Miles fondest memories take her back to her childhood days in nature, ‘I spent most of my holidays growing up in coastal Essex. Everything was green and as kids we ran around, built tree houses and played in the mud. It was completely freeing experience and it highlighted how much nature we should have around us...,’ Miles says. Now looking back, Miles can see how much that time established her appreciation for the outdoors, ‘[The island] was quite scrappy, but a lot of what I learned about species and nature came from there and I think I was much happier than I was in London.’

Sadly, the island Miles went to with her family, Osea, has now been sold off and is privatised, effectively closed off to the public. ‘Privatising land is kind of a running theme of this country,’ Miles points out, ‘land is being more and more privatised, with already 92% of the land in England illegal to go on.’

The consistent privatisation of land in the UK was only one of the many reasons that instigated Miles to start Nature is a Human Right in April of 2020. Though the issue of nature deprivation and the growing disconnect caused by unequal nature access were aspects Miles has always been preoccupied with, the major catalyst that caused her to start the organisation last spring was witnessing firsthand the nature inequality caused by the government’s COVID-19 restrictions. 


Nature is a Human Right, Right?
photographs: Nature is a Human Right

It would be an understatement to say that the first UK lockdown was troubling for everyone in the country, however for those without big homes or private green spaces, the lockdown was not only challenging financially and socially, but also environmentally. When some of London’s public parks were abruptly closed at the end of March last year it was seen as a controversial move, but some people felt it was the best way to alleviate close contact. However, as a direct outcome it completely isolated communities of people of which those parks were their only areas of nature. The issue of nature access was further evidenced when a national survey conducted in May of 2020 found that only 12% of households in the country have access to a private garden.  

For Miles, the fallout caused by the restrictions of public parks demonstrated a shocking look into London’s nature disparity, ‘looking at the parks that were closed, Brockwell Park in Brixton, an area that has been called the heart of Black Britain and Victoria park, both of them with over a third of the residents that are impoverished and are also less likely to have their own green spaces, so of course they are going to parks to exercise and just to get out of the house […] That for me was the moment when I realised there was a big divergence between the haves and the have nots.’

Statistics now show us that throughout the first lockdown in March, people in the UK wanted to access and engage with nature more than ever before. Foraging groups were being flooded with member requests and garden centres couldn’t keep up with the demand for seeds they were getting. For Miles, this increased interest in nature had a lot to do with our mental health. ‘I think there is a common sense in our intuition that nature benefits our mental health, spending time in nature can lower your stress, it’s a relaxing influence and it is a slightly more effable way of creating balance and belonging, but it also produces more dramatic things than making us feel calm and happy,’ Miles goes on, ‘it can help prevent in some cases, debilitating mental illness,  crippling anxiety and psychosis...’ For Miles as well, nature has been a kind of healing balm to counteract the constant chaos of the modern world, ‘we are not meant to live in a robotic way that we currently do when we are bombarded with flashy images all the time, going back to nature restores our minds back to the calm state that they should be in,’ she says.

Nature is a Human Right wants people to understand that increasing nature access sometimes start at home, from planting flowers on neighbourhood streets to rewilding public gardens,
photographs: Nature is a Human Right Guerilla Gardeners

Miles is not alone in thinking that increased nature exposure improves mental wellbeing. In fact, it is a theory that has been greatly studied and backed up by numerous case studies. In a study conducted in Chicago, researchers found that in comparison with public housing with little or poor greenery, public housing that has a high density of vegetation and greenery saw 56% less violent crime and 48% fewer property crime. Since this study there have been numerous researchers trying to find if nature inhibits crime, in 2019, another study found that although greenery does have the potential to reduce green spaces, poorly planned green areas are not effective.

Miles understands this, she explains to me that creating more green spaces in London cannot be random, planning is key. ‘It is not possible to just build a big park in the middle of a densely populated area, we need homes, we need affordable housing, we need schools and hospitals,’ Miles underlines, ‘What we can do is make smaller pocket parks and make sure everyone has some greenery around them, we can increase street trees and work to have rather than tarmacked courtyards, a biodiverse park.’ Big green spaces aren’t always the best ideas anyway, what’s needed is variety, ‘clipped lawns at council estates,’ Miles mentions, ‘aren’t going to give people the most benefits, so we could rewild those spaces through planting fruit trees, vegetables and even making it a source of free food.’

‘At the moment in England there are 10.9 million nature deprived people [...] Nature is a Human Right is trying to get that number to zero, whether that’s through creating more green living roofs and walls, street trees, and pocket parks, it can happen.’

Ellen Miles

Miles wants the government to understand that this is hardly a radical movement, if authorities refuse to recognise the importance of nature on humans, the number of people in the UK suffering from nature depravation will only increase, which is why it is vital for us to act now. ‘At the moment in England there are 10.9 million nature deprived people according to Friends of the Earth,’ Miles says, ‘Nature is a Human Right is trying to get that number to zero, whether that’s through creating more green living roofs and walls, street trees, and pocket parks, it can happen.’

Unfortunately, getting nature to become a recognised human right is not a very linear process. However, the organisation is tackling on making nature a human right from every direction. Starting with grassroots action, Miles is working to develop a ‘de-paving enterprise; essentially taking out concrete and tarmac to make a community pocket park, ’ Miles states, ‘From the middle we are working with local authorities such as councillors and MPs, to come up with strategies of how we can make their constituencies greener places in the areas where they most need […] there is a big disparity between the amount of nature that we see in wealthy white areas and areas where there are communities with lower-income homes.’  And from the top, Miles plans to eventually work with the United Nations and Amnesty International in order to make nature a legal human right, internationally.

Photograph: Ellen Miles

Miles hopes that with Nature is a Human Right, people realise that creating green spaces often starts within their own neighbourhoods. Already Nature is a Human Right has started guerilla gardening groups throughout the fall and winter of 2020 which have worked to transform barren city patches of soil into communal gardens just by taking the initiative to plant bulbs that will bloom by the spring. By creating these spaces of growth in deteriorated and largely unattended spaces, Miles hopes this encourages others to spot places that would easily be transformed. ‘If you have a front driveway and it is paved, you can de-pave it and plant around it and in your back garden, if you’ve got astro-turf, you could maybe turn that into grass and create a bug hotel or a birdbox,’ Miles shares, ‘don’t underestimate your own power, especially if you create your own local group, it is very, very possible that you could de-pave your own section of nature near you!’

Overall, Miles wants us to remember that we shouldn’t brush aside the collective power we have as a group. ‘The communities we live in our ours,’ Miles voices, ‘they aren’t for the government to decide what we get to do with them. They are for us to live in and we decide what to do with our spaces. If that’s something you feel passionate about and if you want help and guidance come to Nature is a Human Eight and we will support you.’

Text has been slightly edited and formatted for clarity. Images courtesy of Ellen Miles. To learn more about  Nature is a Human Right and how you can get involved, visit their website or Instagram.

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