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Do we all have the same access to nature?

Who has access to nature and what does this mean? Louise Armstrong attends Tackling Inequity in Access to Nature Across the City at Festival of Debate. 

Fields with a city in the far distance.

The Peak District with Sheffield in the distance


Surrounded by lush green moorlands and forest, Sheffield is slap bang in the middle of nature. With a third of the city situated in the Peak District, it is said to be one of the greenest cities in the UK.

So why is there still inequity to nature? With green space on our doorsteps, it seems the only barrier would be that people are simply not utilising it properly.

Yet, as discussed at Festival of Debate in the event Tackling Inequity in Access to Nature Across the City, journalist Joe Shute, alongside panellists Maxine Greaves, Ted Talbot and Rachael Smith, considered the obstacles to nature - which go beyond taking advantage of the space around us.

To investigate this problem, we must go back to where Sheffield earned its name as the ‘Steel City’ in the 19th century. With industrialisation taking a stronghold, a workforce once based on agriculture sought work in the new industries and kickstarted the urbanisation of the city.

However, with new infrastructure came pollution. This resulted in the wealthy moving to the south of the city to avoid the smog, but the ripples of that shift can still be seen today.

A documentary project, Fairness on the 83, found that “average life expectancy falls by 7.5 years for men and almost 10 years for women across the length of the 83-bus route, which links Millhouses in the south with Ecclesfield in the north”.

This divide, however, doesn't just concern wealth, it can also impact access to nature. When planning on making use of a green space, conscious or subconscious thoughts come to our minds about how we are going to do it. We need to consider transport and if we are going to be safe and happy at the destination.

Material deprivation is just one hurdle we must consider when planning an outing. Not everyone has the resources to pay for a bus fare or put on a pair of hiking boots.

Experience and the quality of green spaces were also discussed as a barrier to nature.

Ted Talbot, who has 30 years’ experience in delivering parks and countryside services, said during the debate:

Most people have got to imagine themselves in that space and if people have a consistently nice time... the experience has to be positive for them to repeat it.

This highlights another aspect of inequity to nature. With less funding going into green spaces due to austerity measures, this has left limited resources for their upkeep.

This isn't to say every single green space in Sheffield is not of quality, but something as simple as graffiti or litter can deter people from using that space.

Maxine Greaves from the Sheffield Environmental Movement said:

We need to reignite the right to roam. People need to feel that no matter whether it's 100 yards from their house, there is a safe green space they can access and from that initial feeling safe, they can go further and they feel they can engage with that.

Lush green countryside with rocks in the foreground


Tim Parkinson

A decline in the quality of green space can also lead some to feeling unsafe, and therefore not likely to use the area.

Rachael Smith, a director from Kids Plant Trees, followed on in this discussion by adding:

For women it is fear, and fear of being alone outside or walking through a park. The Girl Guides did a report about how girls feel every year and in 2022, 53% of girls between the ages of 11-16 feel scared to be outside on their own.

Of course, other groups apart from women can feel unsafe in green spaces, but particularly for vulnerable groups safety is a main concern and can manifest in inequity to nature.

Whilst the panel outlined some main areas of concern regarding access to nature, it is a complex issue that requires cultural and economic change. The ‘right to roam’ was acknowledged by all panellists and seemed key to this discussion. says, about right to roam,

You can access some land across England without having to use paths which is known as access land.

Access land includes mountains, moors, heaths and downs that are privately owned. Your right to access this land is called the ‘right to roam’.

From this definition, the right to roam means that the public have a right to explore any access land, privately owned or otherwise, but I think for the panellists it meant more to them than that.

To ‘reignite the right to roam' requires individuals to actively want to explore nature. Historically, in a less industrialised society, people had no option but to engage with their green spaces. Societies relied on the land for food and with no public transport most stayed in the same area for their life. This, of course, is going to bring them closer to nature.

Maybe the right to roam for us comes from reverting back to our old self and acknowledging the nature around us. With a buzzing world of technology and social media, it is easy to see how some have become disconnected from green spaces.

Maybe a step forward can be as simple as finding out what trees are growing on your street, or which birds fly into your garden. Reigniting the right to roam coincides with building a relationship to nature that benefits us and our surroundings.

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