The pandemic year: reflections on the green shoots of hope
As we hear what lockdown changes lie ahead for us, our chief executive Crispin reflects on the year’s challenges.
The last time I wrote a statement of this sort was in March. Green shoots were showing and the blossom was just about to unfurl on trees all over the country. As the poet Philip Larkin had it, ‘The trees are coming into leaf / Like something almost being said’.
Little did I realise then that the thing ‘almost being said’ was that the alienating strangeness into which we’d found ourselves plunged would in time become, if not normal, a new kind of familiar.
At CPRE, as everywhere, it wasn’t always easy. We missed our colleagues and the buzz of the office, but we found new ways to work together and became proficient in new technologies faster than expected. As the blossom came and then fell, blown across empty streets, and we reached into and beyond high summer, we adjusted.
Now I write this, as the leaves have yellowed and dropped. Those trees that came into leaf then are almost bare.
There’s no doubt: 2020 has been a year of challenges, and many of these haven’t relented. Our thoughts throughout have been with our supporters, professional and personal – our members, our social media followers, our donors and our partners and colleagues – as hard sacrifices and bumpy recalibrations have been required.
We at CPRE have found things to celebrate in the midst of it, not least the fresh sense of regard for our green spaces that we hear from all sides. Lockdown strolls close to home gave our humble local green corners new value as they became essential sanctuaries for wellness, peace, rest and a change of scenery. And our beautiful, varied countryside became a treasure trove to explore when airports were all but closed and many people holidayed locally instead.
We weren’t surprised, then, that our research with the WI in May this year showed that 53% of people told us they appreciated local green spaces more since lockdown started and that even more, 57%, said they’d become more aware of how essential these places are for our mental health and wellbeing. This will no doubt be repeated during this new phase of tiers and testing.
At CPRE, we welcome and celebrate this love for the outdoors. Throughout this strange, turbulent year, we’ve stayed focused on our mission to advocate for and protect these green spaces that we know mean so much.
We haven’t taken our eye off the things that risk harming these places. This includes the government’s bullish planning white paper, which risks squeezing out local voices in deciding what gets built where and disproportionately favours developers, or the low, threatening, background hum of the unabated climate crisis.
And we’ve been at pains to highlight the stark and troubling inequalities that exist as to who can access, enjoy and feel ownership over and connection to these health-boosting green places. The statistics tell a frustrating story of a countryside that can feel all too closed off, and so it’s no accident that we’ve spent some of the recent months making a point of listening hard to the people who can tell us their experiences of facing and surmounting these barriers. We know that we can and must learn from them. For us, the countryside is for all, and this will never change – least of all in this pandemic year when it can bring true solace.
The greenness of the leaves, Larkin said in his poem, was ‘a kind of grief’. There has been grief this year. We realise that the pandemic is not over, and there will be more loss, adjustments and sacrifices to follow – after our current lockdown and beyond.
But throughout it, we at CPRE will continue. We face the challenges, the ‘kind of grief’, of this pandemic, and we continue. We’ll still be here, working for our shared countryside. We wish you well, as we exchange our strolls among falling blossom with crunching through autumn leaves and frosty grass.