When someone mentions the word “urban”, what immediately springs to mind? For me it is memories of looking for a rare bird called a black redstart in and around the rather aptly named Gas Street Basin in central Birmingham. Back then in the 1980’s it was a run down and uninspiring inner-city area; with high unemployment, knife crime, drug dealing and yet also home to black redstarts. Despite the surroundings, this stunning little bird with a bright red tail had taken up home in one of the least appealing places in the country; they loved the mixture of messy wildflower patches and discarded piles of bricks! Today Gas Street has been transformed; and whilst crime had gone down, the black redstart has disappeared. So do our urban areas offer a hope filled future for nature conservation? Or, in our desire to gentrify and tidy up neighbourhoods; will we lose nature and be left with a green but unpleasant land.

The UK land area is approximately 21 million hectares, of which, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), urban areas account for 1,768,000ha or approximately 8% of the total land area. Conservationists have long moaned about our rapidly growing urban landscape and the loss of our countryside; but the reality is that 90% of the country is still not intensively built on (that of course doesn’t make it good for nature).

Perhaps even more surprising is the area of land held by the public in the form of private gardens. There are 530,000ha of residential (urban) gardens in the UK-that’s an area 1.4 times the size of the whole of Hampshire!!

So why does this all matter? As many of you are aware, UK nature is in desperate trouble. From the loss of very familiar species like hedgehog, swift and house martin through to the demise of wild-life rich ponds, orchards and grasslands and the shocking impacts of climate change…….there is a desperate need to act and act fast. But we are often limited to conversations about changing light-bulbs, walking to work, ditching plastic, feeding the birds and putting up bug boxes. All great stuff, but hardly revolutionary.

I believe that our urban areas offer an incredible opportunity to both reverse the declines in species and habitats as well as offering the chance to empower entire communities with a message of hope and inspiration. But we have got to get messy. We have to stop mowing everything, cutting everything down and tidying up!

I recently spoke to a leading ecologist who said that if there was an urban campaign in Hampshire to save the hedgehog by creating the right habitats and the right holes in walls and fences to enable them to travel-and we acted together and across the country; the hedgehog would rapidly bounce back, despite the risks from ongoing climate change. If we did the same for swift and house martins, by erecting boxes in every town and city suburb and if all of us with gardens committed to allow an area to grow wild-we would see a rapid recovery of insects on which so many species depend. The power is in our hands to turn around our urban areas and create opportunities for hope and re-discovery of wildlife in trouble.

So what can you do to help urban nature? I suspect you know it already-but the starting point is to act rather than talk about acting. Build a pond, plant wildflower seeds, plant a native tree. If you are on an estate see if you can pull together some of your neighbours to act together for nature and create a new mini woodland, meadow or nest box scheme on every flat for swift and house martin. Put up bat boxes, hedgehog houses, toad homes, bug boxes and start growing your own food. It is down to us as residents of Hampshire to take a lead-but we have to do things at volume…..it is no good to have just a few of use acting for nature. The time has come for us to work together and save our wildlife. Time is short and action now is critical.