Bringing our cities into a genuinely national forest

As the climate crisis and public anger grows, Paul Elliott, Professor of Modern History, and Mark Knight, community activist and doctoral researcher working on the history of the National Forest at the University of Derby, argue that we must bring the cities of Derby and Leicester immediately into an expanded National Forest.

As the largest mass tree-planting campaign in British history is announced to mobilise local organisations and community volunteers to help combat the global climate crisis, the destruction of Sheffield’s street trees appears to have been at least temporarily halted after legal battles and a highly critical Forestry Commission report and the government’s new Landscapes Review has proposed more radical interventions to revitalise the natural environment – we think that the time is ripe for further major tree-planting and re-wilding initiatives.

As controversies surrounding government attempts to privatise some of our forests, the desperate need to plant trees to prevent more devastating floods and the potentially devastating threat of Ash dieback  and other plant diseases have clearly demonstrated, there is a groundswell of British public opinion now in favour of transforming our environment  by greening town and country.

Whether we think of the elegant Victorian London Planes that now adorn so many of our busy urban streets, the exotic ornamentals flourishing in numerous private gardens, the much-loved trees of public parks and squares, the wonderful new Northern Forest plans or the spread of trees in the north-midland National Forest, our widespread love for trees is clear[1].

The wood-wide web

Interfacing between humans and nature and reaching back and forward through time to past and future generations, mature trees have come to define and shape our lives while simultaneously evoking nature and the countryside.

Even if we don’t always realise it – they are of fundamental importance in our lives and that we must fight to increase the proportion of forest cover across the British Isles which will help combat the more pernicious effects of industrialisation, urban expansion, pollution, disease and modern urban living. Older trees in particular provide wonderful psychological benefits for urban communities and are thriving habitats for flora and fauna, teeming with insects, birds and harbouring numerous fungi and plants[2].

As they communicate with each other as part of the wonderful wood-wide web, so tree places bring health advantages to everyone, binding communities together when we need to move beyond the divisiveness surrounding Brexit – just as the Sheffield street tree campaigns have mobilised neighbours from all social groups for everyone’s benefit[3].

As we now face the imminent climate crisis challenge, the role of trees and woodlands in enhancing the quality of our lives has never been more important. As global-warming or climate-crisis denialism are banished to the eccentric margins, there are grounds for optimism as scientific understanding, managed planting and re-wilding schemes, growing public awareness and voluntary campaigning activities gain traction and resources[4].

Public and private organisations such as environmental groups, co-ordinated urban tree-planting schemes, unified planning systems, green-therapy and forest-bathing initiatives and integrated management point towards a brighter future even if disagreements remain about the detail of strategies[5].

Taking the forest into our cities

Covering two-hundred square miles of east Staffordshire, south Derbyshire and north Leicestershire and linking remnants of the ancient forests of Needwood and Charnwood with the National Memorial Arboretum, the National Forest has been one of the most significant – and certainly the largest-scale – mass British tree planting schemes attempted since the great (but too mono-cultural) Forestry Commission forests were created following the First World War[6].

Admirable results have been achieved to date within the National Forest with almost nine million trees having been planted in twenty-five years – now covering around a third of the total area, of which about 80% are publicly accessible, provision of footpaths, cycle lanes, visitor and heritage centres across former industrial sites.

However, at the moment important tree places are excluded because of the way in which the boundaries were originally drawn. Why, for instance, are the wonderful trees of Staunton Harold, the National Trust’s Calke Abbey and the towns of Burton-Upon Trent and Swadlincote included in the National Forest, but the Derby Arboretum (1840) in inner-city multi-cultural Normanton a few miles away – the first public arboretum in the British Isles and Ireland, and Elvaston Castle, a country park with one of the most nationally-significant Victorian pinetums – currently excluded?[7].

Likewise, Charnwood is within the Forest, but Loughborough and the City of Leicester lie just beyond. In fact, we urgently need a much higher proportion of National Forest land to be planted, a large expansion of its boundaries and a restoration of ecosystems within.

Planting and rewilding

The Forest must be extended through planting and careful re-wilding in north-Leicestershire and south Derbyshire to include Loughborough and the beautiful trees of Leicester’s Abbey Park, Western Park, Victoria Park, New Walk, suburbs, semi-wild woodlands of the Soar Valley and other places[8].

Likewise, with its continuous urban parkland and woodland following the River Derwent from Pride Park, through the Bass Recreation Ground and Darley Park to Darley Abbey, Derby should be included in the Forest to bring in the mixed mature and younger trees of Markeaton, Allestree and Kedleston parks to the north.

Like the Northern Forest plan led by the Woodland Trust and other campaigning partners which aims to include Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and other cities, inclusion of these areas within the National Forest would demonstrate how essential it is for large-scale planting and re-wilding schemes to emphatically include urban areas so these can benefit directly from the benefits of trees and green spaces.

As the expensive flood prevention works across Derby centre currently under way demonstrate, and housing development s are expanded around the low-lying areas of south Derbyshire, Derby and Leicester including the Trent, Derwent and Soar Valleys, the risk of denudation is increasing, and major tree planting and ecosystem renewal would enhance protection by binding soils, breaking water flows, facilitating drainage and providing managed flooding zones.

Inclusion of more of such places within the National Forest would also enable more trees to be planted in parks, gardens and along streets, and offer greater protection to existing trees and green spaces (such as Derby and Leicester’s striking avenues of mature London Planes) under pressure from development, driveway conversions, garden destruction or disease.

A genuinely national forest

An enhanced and thereby more genuinely “National” Forest would have much greater economic and social impact – for example by providing jobs, training and apprenticeships in forestry, gardening, horticulture and conservation – facilitating exchanges of knowledge, skills and trees themselves, bringing greater coordination to planting, environmental protection and re-wilding schemes across a wider North Midlands area.

Operating as a larger, more effective entity would help the National Forest gain greater public recognition, support and funding, facilitate better cooperation between local and national governmental and non-governmental organisations and help facilitate better integration of transport systems across the counties.

Re-foresting and re-wilding across a much expanded area with a greater range of species would also increase biodiversity by providing more varied habitats for flora and fauna, linking tree-places together with green corridors, offering greater protection against the depredations of development and disease.

With our relatively transient lives, we must never forget that we are custodians for – rather than owners of – our planet. Just as we have benefitted from the forests, trees and parks created by previous generations and precious remaining semi-wild places, so we have a moral duty to bequeath a healthy planet and future of hope rather than devastation to future generations. 


[1] P. A. Elliott, British Urban Trees: A Social and Cultural History, 2016

[2] O. Rackham, Ancient Woodland: Its History, Vegetation and Uses in England, 2003

[3] P. Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How The Communicate, 2016

[4] D. Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future, 2018

[5] Jo Barton, R. Bragg, C. Wood, J. Pretty ed., Green Exercise: Linking Nature, Health and Well-being, 2016

[6] J. Parry, The National Forest: Heritage in the Making, 2006

[7] P. A. Elliott, C. Watkins and S. Daniels, The British Arboretum: Trees, Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century, 2011

[8] Elliott, British Urban Trees, 2016, pp. 80-81, 86-7; R. Rodger and R. Madgin, Leicester: A Modern History, 2016

For further press information please contact the Corporate Communications Team on 01332 591491, pressoffice@derby.ac.uk or @derbyunipress

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