November 2022

About our work
Into the future

 We consolidated into a team while working together in an independent project to enhancing Belair Park. A Friends of Belair Park was formed as part of that effort and that name has became associated with a distinctive contribution to the history of Dulwich. 

Our history has involved successful environmental campaigning, which has initiated projects to develop substantial ecological areas within the Park. 

During late 2022, those of the existing founders and benefactors considered that the most effective way to continue carrying out our work and to serve the community, would be to operate in the form of an invited team. 

This would enable new and exciting community-driven organisations, notably Belair Futures, to flourish, and develop fresh forms of creativity to serve the community. 

As part of our own continuing service to the community, we shall continue to host, support and encourage relevent organisations, such as the Belair Park Ecology & Education Group, New Leaf and Belair Futures. This will include use of our long-established email and website facilities, and look forward, to our provision of independent meeting space.

Our continuing work: The vital social role of green space

The societal importance of public open spaces has been established by numerous studies, and to those we introduce another dimension.

Part of our work has been to emphasis key studies, and their implications for social justice, by which we mean the need of all to have access to the benefits of green space. 

An influential document from Public Health England in 2014, emphasised the need for access to green open space and to nature, which is essential to the physical and psychological well-being of the community, and increasing community cohesion. By promoting health and longevity, and the ability of the population to create wealth, parks perform a role in supporting the economy. 

Public Health England. UCL Institute of Health Equity. Local action on health inequalities: Improving access to green spaces. Health Equity Evidence Review 8: September 2014. 

A broader discussion published in 2021 with L. T. Thomson of University College London as first author, explored “The role of cultural, community and natural assets in addressing societal and structural health inequalities in the UK: future research priorities.” Among its conclusions were: 

“There is an urgent need to understand the efficacy of community interventions and how infrastructure and ecosystems research can be applied to all aspects of society, including health, education, employment, and housing, with a view to reshaping it to reduce inequalities in the future.”  

Thomson et al. International Journal for Equity in Health (2021) 20:249 

Our continuing work: The Park, human history and the universe

An important part of our role, however, has been to understand green space for its inspiration to promote intellectual, creative and scientific initiatives. 

The Belair Park Ecology & Education Group, and the later Friends (whom it created and supported), emerged from a life-long involvement in the cross-fertilisation of academic disciplines that have been pursued too-often, as completely separate. 

The opening of Belair Park in 1965, from a fenced-off Southwark sports ground into a public park, with its ornamental lake fed by groundwaters from the “lost” River Effra, was an important step towards our green space involvement. The classic environmental book “Silent Spring” came out in 1962 from Rachel L. Carson (1907-1964), and the 1972 controversial Gaia Hypothesis from James E. Lovelock (1919-2022), which emphasised close interactions between life and our planet. These events, together with support from the late J. L. Fanner, Headmaster of Alleyn's School from 1967 to 1976, could only encourage one of us, Martin Heath, to develop a club whose essential idea was to bring together perspectives from the sciences and humanities. Emerging from the learning curve of enthusiatic juvenalia eventual became concepts that contributed to scientific discussions about Earth history, other habitable worlds and the stark facts about human activity as a threat to the habitability of the Earth. 

Around us in Belair Park is evident of major changes in human history

The original house in what is now called Belair Park was constructed in 1785. Taking a nominal human life span of 80 years, that was nearly three human life times ago, during the reign of George III (1738 -1820). The American War of Independence (1776-1783) had just ended. The French Revolution would shortly occur (1789-1799), and ahead lay the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945). The railway embankment that defines the western side of the Park was constructed in 1863 by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway. Today, the importance of transport to human communities is reinforced powerfully by the automobile traffic along the key artery of London's South Circular (along the southern side of the Park), while overhead, planes lining up to land at Heathrow are one reminder of our species' global reach. By the second half of the 20th Century (when the Park opened) human impact on the Planet had become the “Great Acceleration” (see the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme; 1987-2015). In 2000, Paul J. Crutzen (1933-2021) and Eugene F. Stoermer (1934-2012) promoted the idea that the Earth had entered a new geological era, in which human activity has become the dominant factor (see IGBP's Global Change newsletter 41). Debate continues about exactly when the “Anthropocene” began. 

The Cosmic Connection

When we look up into the night sky, at the Moon, planets and stars, we are reminded how the astronomical perspective provides a time-line of human history. For example, an easily spotted bright bluish stars, visible from Britain, is Bellatrix in Orion. It is roughly about 250 light years distant, which means that the light now reaching them from our Sun, and from them to here, began about half-way through the life of George III (George William Frederick, 1738-1820). The Friends have held astronomical evenings from the Park, exploiting the fact that parks are offten the darkest accessable environments in the town-scape. 

Another vital project is just a few seconds across the road

It was an astonishing piece of serendipity in 2006, when Vinnie O'Connell (Fellow of the Linnean Society), created a botanical garden between a path and platform at West Dulwich Station. We hailed this as an idea of genius; it provided an information point as valuable as a public library. The New Leaf project focussed on botany, but shared our multi-disciplinary approach to the natural and human world. This is a powerful reminder of the essential role of plants to Planet Earth, and our need to protect the global environment. New Leaf has organised numerous volunteer days for Belair Park. 

Our continuing work: Exploring campaigning and social history

We have been involved at close quarters with (and initiating) eco- and other campaigns. We have, at the same time, undergone an evolving process ourselves. 

When visitors enter the Park today, they enjoy an environment that has been transformed by the eco-group and the Friends. Our campaigns turned around the notion of major tree felling, attempts to sell the Park as a personal property, dominate it with huge commercial sports centres, and ugly lake management. We were not simply having to run hard just to stay in the same place. Instead, we intrudoced new islands in the lake and new tree-lined areas. We acted as catalysts to encourage other organisations to become involved. We thank the Dulwich Society for planting substantial hedgerows along the western and northern margins of the Park. 

Our ongoing in-the-field research has enabled us to develop a deeper understanding of the social history in which we have played a role, and also of the practical, political and psychology dimensions of eco-action. 

Political and campaign activists must not, we argue,for example, function as “cult” members of belief systems, re-enforced by their own propaganda, but as acutely self-aware and involved in critical self-examination. How effective are their methods in ever-changing situations? To what extent, in the real-world, might they even cause unintended negative environmental or sociological impacts? 

Environmental campaigners, we suggest, do not have an infinite amount of time and energy available, but instead must act with speed to turn around the threats to the natural world and human communities. Campaigns must be focussed on that goal. Supporters must act with responsibility and courage, asking themselves how effective their methods have actually been, and then what they will need to win over larger sections of the public and policy makers. 

In order to observe and critque the processes of campaigning, we must function from an independent standpoint (not forgetting, of course that no historical commentary is unbiased).

© Friends of Belair Park 2022