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Right to Thrive

Owen Hodgkinson: "The Don has been used and abused – but water gives life"

Community Organising Manager at Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust Owen Hodgkinson tells us how his work brings him into contact with the River Don, and thinking about nature equity, multi-species justice and new ways of valuing the natural world.

RDP Generative Interview Owen Hodgkinson

Owen Hodgkinson

In collaboration with River Dôn Project logo

Right to Thrive explores local people's connections to the River Don through a collection of generative interviews. In this series we encourage people to question extractive, human-centred views of nature in favour of recognising and celebrating its right to thrive.

First of all, thank you for talking to us Owen. Can you tell me a bit about the work you do Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust, especially as it relates to the River Don?

I'm a Community Organising Manager at the Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust, and that takes me into work with a wide array of communities represented across Sheffield and Rotherham.

And some of the movement building work that we do is outside the sphere of traditional conservation activities on our nature reserves.

A big part of what we're doing at the trust is engaging individuals and communities in the widest sense, to connect with and take action on nature's behalf, I suppose. And we’re small enough for that to be quite place based and situated, as we've got multi-year relationships with voluntary organisations or individual groups and other people taking action that's often done through us or is you know, increasingly being done through Nature Recovery Sheffield or Nature Recovery Rotherham movements, which came together in the last couple of years.

They pushed for both councils to declare a nature emergency as well as a climate emergency, which they had already declared, so I guess that's the angle I push on from the community organising perspective.

Some of these communities border water, some of them border woodlands, some of them border motorways, they are more or less connected, as you might describe it, to the nature that's available to us, which obviously isn't distributed evenly across the city.

So I guess my role comes back to looking at and dealing with and recognising that inequity, for whatever reason it occurs.

Largely, it's an east and west picture in Sheffield. If you're living on the west of the city, we all know we're called the Outdoor City, it's easier to get that experience if you're living in the west as opposed to the east of the city. And then Rotherham changes again. It's a very green place but in some respects, the quality of nature… There's a whole theory of what kind of quality are you exposed to in nature? And its benefits for health and wellbeing really differ.

Some people aren't afforded as much of that connection.

So my relationship to water and the Don, that cuts across quite well I suppose, an acknowledgement that may differ at the top of the Don and at the bottom in what people's perceptions and experiences as individuals are when it comes to interacting with that as a water body.

For me, specific sites where that really comes past close to your doorstep or close to your feet are these kind of borderland bits between Sheffield and Rotherham, which are quite interesting in one site, kind of increasingly starting to talk to communities about is Blackburn Meadows, which has the Don running past it but it's also motorway locked and rail locked and industry locked. There's quite a lot of barriers imposed there with people having positive experiences and an ability to readily have interactions with water in those locations.

Then further down I meet the Don again, when I worked as a community organiser in Eastwood, which is a community with lots of vulnerabilities and sensitivities there, and I think often nature connection and the means by which that can happen is often curtailed in lieu of lots of other issues people in those communities generally face, but the Don comes right past the bottom of what I think is a lovely park, a big playing field, and past a primary school, near a shopping centre, and I know that it's crossed by people on a daily basis, but you're describing probably a whole set of different interactions than you might if you were up towards the source of the Don in the north of the city and out into the High Peak.

So, yeah, I think that's where my work takes me and where it relates the Don to people. And the motivation for me to come up to do my job is the inequity in all of that, and how you address it?

A group of people celebrating in a park with decorated banners.

Eastwood Funfest is a yearly celebration in Eastwood on Eldon Road Playing Fields, which backs onto the Don. The Don has flooded the park in the past but the green space is in the heart of the community.

Owen Hodgkinson

And what drew you to this focus? Why is it important to you that people do connect with the nature around them?

I think to put it very bluntly, for me, a motivation is justice, I suppose. It's a word that we’re increasingly trying to like interrogate, especially trying to bring it into spaces like the Wildlife Trust, where that's normally not coming off the tip of our tongue on a regular basis. We're not talking about justice in these settings very much, although we do do good work – we are trying to restore nature, we are trying to increase people's access to it.

But I’m really motivated by where there's injustice, often that's cross cutting, it’s social and it’s environmental. And we were obviously not turning away from any of that. But everyone can see there's an intermingling between the injustices people face in their day-to-day lives culturally, socially, and the ones that you have that afford you relationships to nature.

And what do you wish people knew about the River Don? That might be facts about it or it might be a bigger, more philosophical look at the world.

That's a really good question. I suppose it's to know that the Don is another entity like any other. It has a long history. It existed before people have been in close proximity to it. It's taken different forms and different shapes. It's been used and abused. But water gives life. In some of my work, we have intercultural conversations about nature connection, and there was a Islamic proverb that said water is life, and therefore, it has a really deep spiritual meaning at the end of the day for people and we can't live without it.

So on the philosophical end, I’d want people to know, and acknowledge water and rivers like the Don – they play that level of significance in people's lives, whether you recognise them or not. And it's a water body with quite local significance. It really comes right into the centre of our city. It's done untold damage throughout the time it's interacted with Sheffield's population. But it's also afforded us forms of economy. It's a corridor for wildlife, it's a corridor for people and goods and services.

So I think it's just myriad, isn't it? I would want people to know it's quite a good lens by which you can really start to think about the whole of nature in quite a different way.

A stretch of water surrounded by a green space and a brown path.

Centenary Riverside is an urban reserve that is a bit closer to Rotherham on the Don.

Owen Hodgkinson

That makes a lot of sense. What would Sheffield's citizens and communities need to do to change our relationship with the river Don?

I think an appraisal of its value in more than the ways that we often measure value in nature and its assets. At the organisation I work with, we do a lot of work around natural capital. Those kind of mapping exercises and the way that we ascribe value to pieces of nature gives us baselines as to how we are meant to then relate and interact with it.

But I would say that they're limited in what can be assigned to the level of the citizen or the the member of the public, because it often directs change or management or control into framing that fails to see the social and cultural value that can also be ascribed to things like the Don, like water bodies, or forests or soil, or any myriad of different things.

So I think I would start there probably, really interrogating what goes beyond just the capital value of these things. And we are in a place of influence as a Wildlife Trust, too, to acknowledge that and work with it or potentially ignore it, depending on what means and what ends, where we're prescribing the direction of our work, which is restoring nature and ultimately nature recovery and being in balance with the climate.

But I think for the public at large, there is a much more participatory and democratic way to relate to those things and be more deeply involved in the decision-making process. And ascribing and having an appraisal of other forms of value that we possibly don't measure, I think have now to direct that change. And who gets to direct that change?

Yes, it's easy to say, “The river costs the city because we have to do X, Y, and Z,” without looking at the ways it nourishes the city as well.

Yes, yeah.

A wastewater treatment plant from a distance, with green trees surrounding it.

Blackburn Meadows Wastewater Treatment Plant is on the Don at the Jordan's Dam Weir, looking back up the river with Blackburn Meadows nature reserve in the foreground and the treatment works at the rear.

Owen Hodgkinson

Do you think the River Don has a right to thrive? And if so, what would that look like?

Yeah, I would say it does. I think currently, the UK Government says no, it doesn't. They didn't accept a right of nature concept, despite the EU recognition travelling in that direction of rights for nature. So that's a tough position, isn't it, for the reality of this?

But I'd say I think the rights of nature is a really fascinating concept. What would it take for the river to thrive is a really difficult one, isn't it? Because if you let it fully go, it would redraw a lot of the lines on the map in the city as it currently is. The arc of human history, even though it's small in relation to the meanderings of a river, it ultimately would trace a different path if it was fully allowed to thrive, as you describe it. It's natural processes.

So I think there's somewhere in between, the pragmatic and thorny issue is that we're probably not going anywhere anytime soon, nor are our rivers. So how do you allow them to thrive? I’d possibly return that question back to ourselves and say: Do we currently thrive in relationship to nature, too?

And if the answer is also no, what can be done to redress that balance and see ourselves as part of nature and not separate from it? So you get into that idea that there's a nature culture. There's not one without the other. And that’s fascinating to be pondering on.

It's such a far away concept from the world we live in that it's really hard to picture what it would look like in real life.

It really is.

If I can give some examples, we're embarking on some research as the Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust as a small partner within a consortium of other partners on some Horizon Europe research work, which Sheffield Hallam University has brought us into, and there's all sorts of fascinating interrogations to try and help answer that question and how you achieve this in practical terms.

One example is the Zoönomic Institute, which has got an exciting name. They're prescribing something called the Zoöp model, the Zoöp being an abbreviation of Zoöperation, which is the Greek word for life (zoë) and cooperation. So it's a really interesting place to start.

They're talking about the interest of nature in decision-making processes, all the way down to the organisational level, and they propose to help us tackle or untangle the concept of what is it for nature or a river to thrive.

They suggest creating a kind of legal entity called the Speaker for the Living, which I think is a fantastically novel idea, which becomes an advisor, a teacher, an observer on a board, that can advocate for the rights of a river, for instance.

Now, I don't know what kind of knowledge you'd have to acquire to become a Speaker for the Living, because that's quite a role, right? But for me, in the limited things that I know, you might want to turn to Indigenous practices, or where First Nations people have rights over land and the unbroken ancestry of a community of place that hasn't broken its contract with nature. Probably a good place to start, in terms of the deepness of, like we were saying, the spiritual, the cultural, the social as well as asset capital of nature's abundance, or its value.

Maybe those are the kinds of voices we listen to first to say: How do we measure a new, very different baseline for how we discuss what gets to thrive and how?

And I think, again, an area that I'm wholly new to is the idea then of multi-species justice, so coming back to: if we also are failing to thrive in a biosphere that we all have to inhabit, how does not just human and environmental justice get interrogated and play out, but how does multi-species justice become a framing when we decide what or what not to do with nature?

When the humans in a community are living in dire poverty and in desperate circumstances, they don't have the capacity to do anything else that may involve connecting with the river at the end of the park, or may involve litter picking or planting trees or any of that stuff. When people are in dire straits – whatever that looks like, not just poverty – it's hard for them to engage in anything else.

In terms of your community engagement work, what do you need to make that happen more easily, more effectively, in a more widespread way?

Many, many more conversations, is probably where I would start. It's not an opportunity that's completely slipped us by, but the Royal Society Wildlife Trust, we operate as a federated model. So we're kind of unique in that we work on our action, bordering us there’s Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, to the south there’s Derbyshire, and so on. And there's plenty of other community organisers out there, like me, they're all doing similar roles.

I guess what we need to make that proliferate is for more people to have the levels of confidence and skills and ability to relate how they might want to take action in their very immediate vicinity – for nature and its wider benefits.

So having the knowledge that planting trees down a busy road might mitigate air pollution, which might have an immediate impact on your health. Or just beautifying a road verge because you pass it every day on the way to school, and it’s currently snagged up full of litter and fly tipping. And it just gives you a better sense of health and wellbeing, a positive view of your community, if that were a nicer place to look at.

I suppose where we started to work with that is creating spaces for intercultural dialogue. Who's currently underrepresented in these spaces where we get to discuss and decide these things? And how do we create more equal democratic exchanges between people who are different and, like I was suggesting, might have a completely different religious or spiritual connection to nature than the next person?

To be able to have conversations with a degree of confidence and know that that kind of diversity of voices is valued, and the ways therefore a community may wish to act is also as diverse, so I think space for that to be visible.

I think the Trust has in its small way, within its power to do that.

A beautiful spot with water, reeds and trees.

Centenary Riverside was once an industrial site, but now acts as a site for flood management when the Don overflows.

Owen Hodgkinson

I think we're one of a number of brands who probably holds up a lot of billboard space as to what nature should look like, and how it should be interacted with, who generally uses it and how do we hold in our collective conscious. What goes on in the Peak District isn't the only way and if these landscapes can look, or be interacted with, or feel like, and I think that goes right down into the urban that starts on your doorstep.

So, yeah, RSWT are looking at having climate and nature conversations, a bit like this interview, with quite open-ended dialogue. The technique has travelled over from the US. I think it's called deep canvassing, which is the opposite of canvassing around campaigns on single voter issues. It's completely flipping that round, and starting from the person-centric view of how you relate to this topic, and how it bears relevance in your life.

So how it would proliferate, to get back to your question, is space for a lot more people to participate in that and feel empowered in themselves. We all have an ability to act, and we should, but that has to come from quite a broad church to make an impact.

And I think if the federated model and the trusts achieve something like that, we'd have quite a powerful movement. It's inclusive in a way that it differs from direct action things. It's neighbourhood-level conversations and feeling empowered at that level in place that I think we're doing quite well as a trust that's close enough to its communities. And because every trust is, to a degree, similar, I think that's quite a nice method for us to adopt.

Because there are people who feel entitled to nature as the commons. And there are people who feel like, 'I'm not sure if I'm allowed. Can I?' And then there are people who want to, but there are physical barriers. And that's a whole lot of experiences and approaches that need to be taken into account.

It is as diverse as that, isn't it? What you have the ability to access and how you may want to do that.

We're developing tools for that. We're in the process of creating what we've called the Nature Equity Map. There's a more recognised tool already out there called a Tree Equity Map, which does what it says on the tin. It recognises that, despite us being supposedly one of the greenest cities, its distribution is unequal. So you get quite built-up concrete, urban jungles, and there's not a lot of trees there, and you get into the suburbs and etc, etc...

And I think tree equity in America differs probably in the UK, but it can be mapped, and it can be shown to segregate along lines of poverty, race and other socioeconomic demographics, so it's something to afford attention to and do something about.

I think we're learning more about how you harness information like that. And whose hands do you put the tool into?

So I think it does come back to conversations. If more communities are able to see that and interpret it in and generate the information, you start to build narratives around justice. What would change look like? And how would you want to issue change from your standpoint?

And then how to collaborate? That's the exciting bit – landscape-scale work is what the Trust has expertise in. I think it's a bottleneck for how many of the average person knows what happens along all these ecosystem interrelations [and] that, if you acted here, but you knew it's having some great effect elsewhere, how much more motivated might an individual be?

And I think we're not there yet. But that would be a fantastic place to be.

You can describe that in Sheffield quite well. You can see the Don. If we put loads of natural flood management in its upper catchment, which rarely people visit, because it's generally quite wet underfoot, hard to get to and it's quite bleak. But supporting that might stop Darnall flooding, or Catcliffe flooding the next time we get heavy rainfall events.

And what might you do further down? What would help you and that piece of nature thrive together, if you realise we were all acting collectively from from the top of its catchment to the bottom and all the way through?

So I think it's really interesting work to be done there.

A large green space with water visible to the side.

Centenary Riverside is a really interesting site where people have needed to find ways to coexist with the Don, while still managing to find space for nature.

Owen Hodgkinson

This is probably my favourite question: if the river Don could speak, would it say to us, what would it say about us?

Oh, that's really good! Would its tone and its speed be too slow for us to hear it? I don’t know. How long would we have to listen for, before we discerned a message from something like a river? Especially the way we're going, how quickly we like to take in and interpret and share messages between ourselves.

I think maybe we'd have to slow down first in order to listen.

So yeah, if it was to speak, and we could hear it, it'd probably be: 'Slow down'. That might be quite a pertinent thing for it to say.

What would it say about us? 'We’re one and the same,' possibly. I think from its vantage point, to acknowledge we're not different here, I'm sure we’re not too far removed from a river if it was able to speak.

And I think if that was the basis by which we would enter into dialogue, no one would want to ignore that message to say, 'We're more alike than you think,' and so how do we act differently, in tandem or in harmony, together? They would be quite nice philosophical things for a river to tell us.

I love that. That's really good. Is there anything we haven't covered that you think is important?

Probably loads, but it's been a really nice conversation, nonetheless!

I think it's just a really interesting space. Obviously, the River Dôn project is going on here in Sheffield, a city like this with its industrial heritage and its past and we're talking about rights, then you’d think you could do it anywhere.

For my part, I guess, watch that space. The project that we're going to be embarking on, hopefully rolling out over the next three or four years if it gets funded, amongst all of our other things, is a project called Lichen, which is Life-Centering Cultural Heritage Network, where we're looking at really gritty, urban sites where nature and humans have a complicated history, and possibly a complicated future.

I think a discourse about rights is right in the middle of that, particularly on the things that we purport that we do well, which is supporting average citizens to take action and adopt habits and gain literacy, I suppose, of what becomes really important to live a life well, when we have to face the kind of climate and biodiversity crises, amongst lots of others.

I hope the change that we're part of is systemic and wide ranging.

Amazing. Thank you so much. That's been a really interesting conversation.

Thank you, yeah. Really, really interesting to meet you, Philippa, and speak to you. It was a nice opportunity to have a different way to think about the work.

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