Those are questions that are crucial to the future growth of The Mersey Forest, which is why we invest in promoting and conducting research on how we work with volunteer community groups who look after and manage sites of green infrastructure.
Community involvement, participation, and ownership are absolutely fundamental to our work. Since 1998 through our Friends of the Woodlands project we've been supporting communities over a sustained period to take an active role in their local woodlands and green space for the benefit of people, the environment and the local economy. We connect researchers with that project to learn about what works.
Over the past few years The Mersey Forest has been generously supporting a PhD student in the Department of Geography at the University of Liverpool through the Mersey Forest Graduate Scholarship. We spoke to Gemma Jerome now in the final year, about her research and what it meant to receive this support and what she's going to do next:
My research is about the factors and forces which affect the resilience of volunteer groups who look after green spaces in their local community. I am interested in resilience and longevity, and why some groups manage to continue their voluntary work over a long period of time, and others face challenges that are too big for them to overcome, and are faced with the unfortunate decision to discontinue their project.
My research is looking in depth at the experiences of four different community groups who have been managing small areas of green space in their local community over the last ten years. I have interviewed volunteers in the setting of their project to get a good sense of what their motivating factors are, and what challenges they face on a day to day level.
I also decided to interview other stakeholders who invest time and resources in the outcomes of these small scale voluntary projects, such as funders, local government officers, and representative of supportive community organisations.
The main finding from the research shows that the key factor affecting community groups in their capacity to continue working voluntarily to protect, manage and enhance local green spaces, is access to support and training, both during set up and continuing throughout the life of the project.
This is significant for the environmental sector, and for supporting organisations like The Mersey Forest, as they increasingly have to justify the allocation of funds to small scale projects such as those being led by volunteers in a local community. As such, this research adds weight to the argument that community members make an important contribution to the management and maintenance of local green space, which in turn provides opportunities for people to access nature for health and wellbeing benefits, as well as benefits to the quality of the local environment and resilience against threats to quality of life through climate change, such as flooding.
However, community members working alone, find that the many responsibilities involved in looking after a green space in the long term can become too difficult without the additional support provided by expert organisations, even if this support is minimal and low cost, such as attending events and offering advice over the phone or via email.
At a time when policy guidance is encouraging community groups to take more responsibility for 'non-essential' services such as local parks and green space, this research makes recommendations for how community groups may be best supported in a time of budget constraints to make the best possible use of limited resources available to ensure the resilience of small scale projects which provide benefits to people and nature at the local level.
Fantastic! It was such a privilege to be given the opportunity to spend time exploring an area of research which I feel really passionate about. I have admired the work of The Mersey Forest for many years, and I was very excited about the opportunity to work with such an inspirational organisation.
I am very happy as I have just started a new job working for the Wildlife Trust in Gloucestershire. I am developing a Green Infrastructure product for their ecological consultancy. It aims to positively influence the ways in which space for nature will be included in all new residential and commercial developments, for the benefit of both wildlife and people.
I am writing up my research alongside this new job, so I am very busy, but also very pleased to be working in an area which I feel is so important for the health of humanity and the planet. And The Mersey Forest scholarship was a crucial launch-pad for me jumping off into the world of work after my PhD, thank you!