Public Places: Natural Spaces?

Who would have thought that the bland lawns around public buildings could become a haven for wildlife, whilst saving money and improving the health of the people who use them at the same time?

Natural Resources Wales Maes y Ffynnon office in north Wales is typical of the buildings used by many public bodies and small businesses: it has lots of tarmac, some flower beds, and grassy areas where it’s too steep to park. It’s also full of orchids and wild flowers. On sunny lunchtimes staff enjoy sitting surrounded by nature and return to their desks refreshed and re-energised afterwards. Could all office buildings one day be like this?

Just like any other public building, the grounds at NRW’s offices have to be maintained to keep them safe and usable. That used to involve cutting the grass every week until our contractor fell ill one spring and was unable to do the work for a couple of months. Suddenly we noticed several orchids flowering amidst the long grass and buttercups. A quick survey by our plant experts revealed that the lawns were full of common wild flowers and four species of orchid – which are becoming less common as our countryside is managed more intensively for farming.

Picture of an orchid - copyright Pete Frost

Changing behaviours

We came up with a simple plan to allow patches of grass and orchids to go un-cut whilst they flowered and set seed, and we kept the rest of the grounds trimmed neatly to make it clear that this was a deliberate choice rather than neglect. Staff and visitors loved the flowers, and each year the number of orchids increased – we now have nearly a thousand!

Other wildlife started to take advantage of the new resource too. We noticed butterflies and bees, including some uncommon burrowing species, and where there are insects birds soon appear. We have many common species feeding in the grounds including colourful Chaffinches and Bullfinches, plus cheeky Nuthatches that tap on the windows by the bird feeders our staff have installed.

NRW made its management plan for the Maes y Ffynnon site available to the Welsh Government and its agencies, and we were asked if we could write a guide to help other public bodies manage their grounds to benefit nature and people. With help from our expert staff we have come up with a colourful guide, available on-line that can be used by any public body or business to make the grounds around their buildings an asset to their staff, visitors and nature.

Creating better places for people and wildlife

The key to our approach is to make these places attractive to people as well as wildlife. This means keeping flower-beds, but carefully choosing plants which provide nectar and pollen as well as simply looking good. Where lawns are left to grow during the flowering season, we recommend keeping a border of closely mown grass around them to emphasise that management hasn’t simply ceased. We also suggest installing benches or seats where people can relax during breaks and re-charge their batteries. There’s a lot of research to show that people do better at work if they have views over green spaces, so wildlife-friendly grounds management may increase productivity as well as saving money in grass-cutting!

Image of a bee on a flower - copyright Ben Anscombe

You can download our guide as a .pdf file and learn about what else you can do to make your work place better for people and nature.

The grounds of our office here in Bangor make our working lives happier and we would like to share what we have learned from managing them to inspire others to do the same. More and more organisations are already encouraging wild flowers to bloom on their premises, and with the help of other public bodies we hope that soon Welsh towns and cities will be buzzing with of all kinds of wildlife.

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