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08.04.02 place laid for dinner 140x78 010a.jpg Food is rising rapidly up the agenda. Allotments, biofuels, calories, customs, eating disorders, famine, farming, fats, fibre, foodmiles, GM, health, organic, packaging, processing, salt, seasonal, security, sell-by, sustainability, vitamins, water.... Where do we begin with what to eat and drink?

Modern society has moved from food as nutrition and survival to food as an element of our leisure experience. Until recently it's been seen by many as an issue to be left to dieters or even ‘health freaks’.

But now people are beginning to ask what food's about. The immediate answer to this question could be, it’s all very confusing. There are 'facts' and there are, it seems, 'food factoids'; and there are some consequences for action, when we think things through....

Here are some general headings and questions about food which may help:

Nutrition (Should we eat it?)
Strange as it may seem, for most adults there is still more concern about calorific value and ‘losing weight’ than there is about the nutritional value of what we eat. Almost everyone wants to be slim; yet despite concerns in many parts of the world about obesity and health relatively few people actually eat their fruit and veg ‘Five A Day'.

We as consumers still don’t fully appreciate nutritional information or understand the significance for our health and well-being of salt and other minerals and vitamins, various sorts of fats, fibre, ‘additives’, sugar, glycaemic index, units of alcohol and so on; and in some respects nor, completely, do the experts.

The healthy eating message is beginning to sink in, but questions around nutritional labelling and how to project the public health message continue to loom large.

Children eat too (Is food for kids especially important?)
Even (especially) for children, the health impact of being overweight, along with issues around longer-term well-being and educational outcomes, are now major concerns, as Jamie Oliver and his School Dinners campaign keep reminding us.

It is not altogether clear however that poor children necessarily have ‘worse’ diets than better off ones – possibly because even wealthier children eat ‘the wrong things’, albeit from choice (kids of all sorts it seems won’t eat their greens). But perhaps some groups consume ‘nicer’ food than others, even though the direct nutritional value - or not - of food consumed by children may (sometimes) vary independently of income.

So what more if anything needs to be done about family eating patterns, or advertising food to children, on the television and elsewhere? How much value should we put on meals together as a way to promote family well-being and cohesion?

And how important, as a good start, is breast-feeding? Should we as a society do more to encourage it?

Or should we emphasise exercise more than nutrition, to protect children's physical and mental health?

Organic? GM? Nano? Sell-by date? (Is it wholesome?)
Confusion reigns when we look at the science behind modern food production.

Is organicWho says so, and why is it so pricey?) What about free-range? What's a superfood? And do superfoods really exist?

Has the product we're about to eat, or an antecedent of it, been genetically modified? Is that good or bad? – and for whom? consumers, farmers or other people in the developing world? Also, how has it changed the food?

What of new techniques? Are any food nanotechnologies involved? Whatever would they be for? Are they good or dangerous?

Who decides ‘sell-by’ dates? And by what criteria?

Can we trust the Food Standards Agency, the government and European legislation and everybody else involved in food regulation and statutory labelling? What about the consumer organisations and the supermarkets? Who knows best?

Presenting, preserving and not wasting our food (Is tinned OK and who needs packaging?)
How can we tell whether tinned food is as good as frozen or fresh? How much packaging is required for hygiene and how much is, for instance, simply there to make food look good?

What's the relative energy and resource cost of different ways of preserving food?

And, crucially, how can we ensure that food we buy is not wasted? At present one third of food purchased - in restaurants, shops or wherever - in the UK alone is simply thrown away: hence the Love Food Hate Waste campaign. Perhaps even with today's relatively higher prices we are more careful about food if we're locavors, when we know locally who grew or prepared it, and where, than when we don't?

Food miles (Does it cost the earth?)
Food travels the world in strange ways. We (in the UK) get tomatoes and lamb from the other side of the globe, yet we also grow them ourselves.

How to tell people usefully about the food mile cost of what they eat may be a moot point. It’s not just how many miles, or even carbon footprint: it takes some eight units of grain to produce one unit of beef; but some people still reckon that good value - including, no doubt, growing numbers of consumers in China and India, who have a preference for an affluent Western diet.

So sometimes the real cost or value can only be calculated by comparing what would happen if foods of equivalent nutritional or other sort of value were produced in a different way. And how would you put that on a label?

Biofuels (Is growing 'food for cars' acceptable?)
We all know that we're using too much oil, charging around in cars and planes when often we don't need to.

Biofuels seemed for a while to be the perfect way out of this - grow crops to substitute for more usual oils. But now, as the UK's Chief Scientist has said, we know there are costs too; some biofuels are neither sustainable, nor ethical.

And on top of this we must acknowledge that biofuels, like food for people, takes up valuable land space. The question is, what's the 'right' balance - if there is such a thing?

Water used (Will it increase global tensions?)
There is an emerging awareness that food is mainly water, and that water is the also the most precious (and sometimes wasted) commodity in its production.

If the beef-to-grain carbon ratio is high, the equivalent water ratio is many times more so. (Let us pass on the comlex issues around food for domestic animals and pets - there is an important balance to acknowledge here between these animals' functions as sources of security and comfort for people, and their costs to the environment - but who has looked at this balance?)

There are those who believe that water, not oil, will trigger the next global disputes; but as yet few of us have thought how to approach the global issues of water scarcity and food.

Food prices (Can we afford it?)
The cost of food against income has fallen for most of us in the first world over recent years. Now it’s beginning to increase again to more traditional levels – though it will probably stabilise - as global issues such as draught, climate change and biofuels impact on the market.

Food habits have changed from agrarian times, but often seem nonetheless to lag behind the reality of what's available, and may say more about cultural expectations or how a person ate when they were young, than about what's now regarded as 'best' for them (or, indeed, with modern advertising the converse may also be true on occasion).

Perhaps people need to know about less expensive and more nutritious alternative foods, if the ones they’re used to become more expensive, or may now be known to be less 'healthy'? But who can best tell them?

Commercial advantage and competition (Do supermarkets cause ‘food deserts?)
Allied to this is now a fear that supermarkets placed in disadvantaged or poor areas will result in so-called food deserts, where poor people can no longer afford to buy even the basics of a decent diet.

But some observers say that food deserts are really different types of access, or actually an urban myth or 'factoid'. Evidence for these food deserts is to date far inconclusive – indeed, some research indicates that when supermarkets come to poorer areas, both the economy and local people’s diets may improve.

So how can we indicate economic ‘value’ and nutritional benefit in the contexts of where people live, what they expect to eat and how they get access to their food?

Customs, symbols and traditions (What sort of foods for whom?)
Shared food has always been a way of bonding - we cut cakes and 'raise a glass', offer potlatch, drink tea and conduct many other ceremonies across the world to denote belief, position or togetherness.

Then there's the fascinating question of why different people in different places and at different times eat different sorts of food. Sometimes it's easy to explain - 'luxury' and difficult to obtain foods are reserved in almost all cultures and communities for conspicuous consumption on special occasions, for instance - but often there are other styles and patterns to eating too.

And what do we know about 'healthy' diets across the world? Why do people in some places live longer and fitter lives than others? What traditions and customs help us keep our communities intact? And is any of what we might learn about customs and habits of food consumption transposable from one community or culture to another?

Seasonal, allotments and home grown (Should we grow it ourselves?)
Locally produced foodin season' is the new mantra, but it can’t be the whole story. There are many localities which can’t provide the full spectrum of nutritional need. Varied diets often require varied sources.

Nonetheless, an appreciation of the cycles of nature helps us to understand how our food is produced and what makes it special. ‘Seasonal’ recipes draw attention to the possibility of ingredients with a low carbon footprint, just as allotments, smallholdings and local market gardens offer the possibility of learning about how what we eat grows.

Producing and sourcing food locally may not resolve all our problems, but they certainly have their place in the spectrum of things we as consumers can enjoy and need to know. How about allotments for everyone who wants one (there are long waiting lists in some places), and special efforts to grow – and eat - vegetables and fruit in schools and other community locations?

The food economy (How does all this fit into UK plc?)
There are many things to think about here; just ask the politicians, farmers and market gardeners. And that's before we get to talk about European subsidies and farming compensation packages...

That however is not the whole story. Slowly, we are grasping the interconnections between the economic impacts and needs of farmers and growers, and how official policies affect the welfare of the wider rural and urban economies. Never again, hopefully, will problems like foot and mouth be addressed without understanding the fragile complexities of the rural economy as such; and hopefully too in future the wider public will perceive the business and scientific complexities of matters such as animal vaccination.

But let’s understand that not all food needs to be produced in rural areas. There’s plenty of scope also for townspeople to develop opportunities and skills via commercial companies and social enterprises around food, as is evident from the popularity of city-based organic foodstores, local vegetable deliveries and farmers’ markets... not to mention the universal interest in restaurants and cafes in modern day society!

Food, farms and famine (What about the developing world?)
If opportunities for stabilising the food economy remain to be developed efficiently, effectively and well in Western economies, how much more so is this true for those parts of the globe where even the grain supply is critically under-resourced, and where water and food are in desperately short supply. These were the sorts of concerns of the Downing Street Food Summit in early 2008.

Many people would like reassurance that the food they purchase is ethically sourced and gives a fair return to the farmers who produced it. And we need to understand much more about the food supply chain, as Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy has been saying for years.

Movements such as Fairtrade are gaining wider recognition – plus a greater share of commercial shelf-space - and are critical to our understanding of food as a global issue.

Sustainability and ‘food security’ (Will there be enough food for everyone?)
There are those who fear we are sleepwalking into a global food disaster. We need to find ways of adjusting our eating habits (and other consumption) without delay.

Currently it’s said that humankind acts a though we had three planets-worth of resources at our disposal, not just one. And that's before we start to look at how population is increasing (in the UK as well as almost everywhere else).

It is also suggested that, in contrast to the current situation, the UK (and doubtless numbers of other nations) could with ease be self-sufficient for food if everyone were vegetarian - even though our lifestyle in the Western world is many times as water and carbon intensive as that of people in developing countries. Veganism, of course, is even more effective as a way of feeding everyone. Becoming 'selfsufficient-ish' (and largely vegetarian-ish?) can be achieved in most, except perhaps the most extreme, locations.

These last few observations offer a rather pointed context for all the other matters discussed above.

Read more about Food
and about Sustainability As If People Mattered.

What questions and views do you have about food?

Diverse crowd 177x110 076a.jpg Today (20 February 2008) saw the formal launch of the British Urban Regeneration Association (BURA)'s Equality and Diversity Framework and Network. The event, at the Abbey Community Centre in Westminster, was attended by people from across the regeneration world, and produced much discussion about how BURA and its partners could move forward.

In my role as BURA Champion for Equality and Diversity I was lucky enough to join our President, Sir Jeremy Beecham, and other colleagues, in presenting and discussing initial ideas about this challenging issue.

Your views too are welcome. To begin the debate, this is what I said:

BURA Regeneration Equality and Diversity Framework Launch
Wednesday 20 February 2008, Westminster, London

This event was set up, as Sir Jeremy explained, because of serious concerns which the BURA Board has about inclusivity in regeneration.

The evidence is before our eyes; the top of the profession is overwhelmingly populated by white men.

Regeneration fits the white male stereotype for leadership in Britain only too well; and the stereotype extends even to the BURA Board itself, where Directors are elected from amongst our hundreds of members.

Something has to be done. No-one disputes that, as regeneration practitioners, we must address inclusion; but few of us have articulated how this intention fits in with regeneration. And fewer still I suspect, are sure how to do it.

The BURA Board has therefore decided to invite your help and support as we move forward on this challenging issue.

What is inclusivity and why does it matter?
A look at the work of the Equality and Human Rights Commission gives us a good feel for what an inclusive society might look like.

It would be a society in which people had safe and secure opportunities to enjoy a happy and healthy life.

In this society people of every sort would find themselves in positions of influence and leadership, and able to work towards a situation which in turn releases the potential of others.

This would be a society in which we, as regeneration practitioners, understood the impact of our work on all our fellow citizens, and then applied that knowledge across all our activities.

It would be a society in which, say, Asian women in Bury had as much opportunity to develop their interests and employment potential as white men in Cheltenham. It would be a society in which families in both these communities were equally likely to see their children born healthy and strong, with an equal expectation of a long and happy life.

In a nutshell, it would be a society which is stable and sustainable.

And if regeneration isn’t about achieving socio-economic stability and environmental sustainability, I don’t know what is.

Regeneration is more than the sum of its parts
I believe firmly that the task of today’s regeneration practitioners is to work themselves out of a job. We need to believe at a very deep level that ‘regeneration’ is not the same as ‘construction’, or ‘remediation’, or even as ‘planning’.

Critical though these callings are, real regeneration is much more than that.

After 30 years of regeneration in Britain, we should now be seeking very actively to reinvent ourselves as ‘sustainability practitioners’, as professionals who work to maintain an equitable, healthy and safe environment for everyone.

This reinvention of ourselves would require massive changes in the way we work, in our collaborations across disciplinary boundaries, and in our perceptions of how fellow citizens who are not exactly like ourselves experience their lives.

We can’t do that if we don’t understand how to achieve inclusivity, and why it matters.

But there is a very long way to go.

What is BURA doing about itself?
* Firstly, we have undertaken a thorough audit of our own organisation.

* We have looked at the gender and ethnicity of all members of staff and the Board, going back for three years, and for staff we have correlated this with salary bands. We shall report these findings to the Board when it next meets, and post a summary of this information thereafter on our website.

* We will also decide as a Board, in consultation with, we hope, our new Chief Executive, how much more data it might or might not be appropriate to record about the Board and staff.

* And we shall consult too on whether and, if so, how we need to look at the ‘inclusion’ characteristics of all BURA members.

* We would hope at the same time to start research on these characteristics as they apply to the regeneration sector as a whole, and to see how this compares with the data for the British population overall.

What is BURA doing to support progress in regeneration overall?
* Importantly, we are not seeking to compete with anyone; we are offering a supportive network which encompasses the whole spectrum of interests - inclusive, not competitive, with the sole aim of moving this positive agenda forward.

* Also, we recognise that no-one as yet has all the answers; we are simply trying, with everyone else, to identify both the challenges and the opportunities.

* We are launching today a Regeneration Equality and Diversity Framework, an ‘umbrella’ group welcoming people and organisations from every part of regeneration, ‘professional’ to ‘community’, to address a wide range of issues around equality and diversity.
This group will not seek to undertake work already done by others, but will help to link together the inclusion themes which regeneration good practice must address.

Some examples of what the BURA E&D Framework seeks to achieve
* We will support the exchange of information and views about what are the most immediate challenges for Equality and Diversity in regeneration in the UK.

* We will seek to collaborate with government at local and national level, and with research bodies already examining aspects of Equality and Diversity.

* We will develop the BURA website as a free open-access resource, available to all, hosting weblinks to legal and professional aspects of regeneration practice – including equality and legal audits – and enabling wider discussion between BURA members and partners.

* We will offer practical help and support to people from different communities who wish to become involved in regeneration – perhaps for instance by offering bursaries and work placements – in a collaboration between BURA and our members and corporate partners.

* But most of all, we will seek to work with all of you to make the BURA Regeneration Equality and Diversity Framework not just a talking shop, but a vibrant and positive reality.

In for the duration
* This is however slow-burn. We're asking the questions but we don't as yet have many of the answers; everyone here today can help.

* The BURA Board are unanimous that we must work hard to make our Equality and Diversity Framework a reality, not just an ambition.

We very much hope that you will want to be part of this reality.

Contact Hilary at BURA

Bulldozer & big hole, old building 6144 (103x129).jpg All regeneration and strategic planning professionals need to have excellent formal qualifications and wide experience; the job is far too important for anything less. But what other characteristics are also required to make a good regeneration official into an outstanding agent of delivery on the ground? Here is a list of such characteristics, from a rather specific observational position.

Here are some suggested stereotypical characteristics of the ideal regeneration or urban / rural planning worker:

Ø Willing to listen and learn; everyone has something to offer

Ø Open to the idea that communities change over time

Ø Realistic about the balance in plans and designs of art and application

Ø Knowledgeable about the area’s infrastructure and transport arrangements

Ø Involved in the community and active in establishing good local facilities

Ø Not afraid to challenge the status quo, but also keen to keep the peace

Ø Gets quickly to the bottom of the issues; there’s lots to do!

Ø Manifestly focused on what works and what’s sustainable

Ø Ultra-aware that time is precious; opportunities need to be seized

Ø Motivated by making things better for all stakeholders

Ø Sensitive to the requirements of those less able to articulate their needs

Have you spotted the tongue-in-cheek subtext of this list?
The 'hidden message' is of course offered only fun; but the actual listed characteristics are in my view a fundamental requirement of any competent regeneration worker, however formally qualified they may be.

What do you think?

This list was devised as part of a discussion about developments inhigh-rise living, for an Urban Design Week Coffee Shop Debate in Liverpool, September 2007. It was also published as a New Start external blog.

Burning red downtown spire (small) 125x91.jpg Regeneration and development are often focused on what's 'unique' and 'special' about a location. What does it have which others don't have? This is a good question, but it needs a context. There are many ways to define 'special' - and even more to define 'unique'. Not all of these special qualities translate well beyond local boundaries. Maybe it's when locations work with outsiders to find commonalities and difference that they can make this 'USP' regenerational focus most effective? But how can this be done? And by whom?

Marketing and renewal have in recent times become closely connected in terms of what happens to areas which require 'regeneration'. Along with the basics of reasonable housing and facilities, there is often a clear focus on what sort of 'unique selling point' (USP) a location can offer, as plans are made to develop and energise a rather stagnant local economy / community.

As an initial strategy this is sensible. Asking people to reflect on the defining features of their locality is a good way to support emerging ideas about how to improve things. Direct stakeholders' views are always crucial to the exercise.

Local perspectives
It is not always reasonable to expect those who live in a place to be aware of what is unique about their location, and what may not be. How can we be sure?

But encouraging the view that a place is better / more interesting than anywhere else can be a political or cynical ploy, not a genuine attempt to move forward. How much easier to leave people in their comfort zone, than to challenge local assumptions which perhaps make a difficult situation more immediately palatable for those who have to cope with it every day...

Wider responsibilities?
One aspect of regeneration in practice is a responsibility by those who take the lead, to ensure that the wider picture is at least available to direct stakeholders. No-one can insist that everyone has a wider view, but it seems reasonable to require at minimum that this is easily available. (Not all regeneration powers-that-be would agree about this requirement, of course; and many of them are not equipped for various reasons to do it.)

Finding common ground
Suggestions that things could be better if we emulated others elsewhere - or indeed the proposal that, instead of insisting we're unique, we acknowledge commonality with others who also do things well / have a given local attribute - need not be negative.

Offered positively, information about other places and ways of doing things becomes a strength. Why not share a problem or a benefit? Increasingly, disparate geographical areas are coming together in this way. The North of England Mills and Canals conferences have been going for some years; BURA has recently identified both the Seaside and Universities as shared challenges and opportunities for the towns and cities concerned; rural areas have long-time histories of sharing good practice in agricultural produce shows and much else.

Taking it to the people
These good ideas now need to become more visible. For regeneration to be effective ordinary people, the immediate stakeholders in the process - not just the experts - must understand what's happening and why. And part of that much-needed understanding is sharing commonality (specialness) as well as defining uniqueness.

Is there a role here for new ways to reach regenerating communities on the world-wide web? And, if so, who's going to make it happen?

The BURA ‘Futures’ Debate

Tall buildings (small).jpg The 2006 British Urban Regeneration Conference (BURA) conference ‘Futures’ Debate raised many important issues. Critical to all these, if regeneration is ultimately to be effective, will be increasing focus on (1) the implications of global warming and sustainability, and (2) the challenging task of mutual ‘translation’ between the many stakeholders in any developing programme, to ensure that understandings and ideas are shared and can evolve.

I went to the ‘Futures’ Debate at the British Urban Regeneration Association (BURA) Annual Conference in Milton Keynes, on October 11th. The debate was a vigorous affair, chaired and led by BURA Director Jackie Sadek, a woman who knows how to keep the exchange of ideas flowing.

The format comprised an introductory address by Government Minister Richard Caborn, two minute slots each for six leading regeneration practitioners, and responses from a ‘jury’ of expert witnesses. Then the discussion was opened to the floor – more than a hundred practitioners and attendant media representatives from around the country and beyond.

The central issue under debate was how we all perceived the future agenda of regeneration in the U.K.

The event was, as Jackie Sadek herself said, a ‘rollercoaster’ of deeply informed give-and-take, covering matters from the micro and to the massively macro. No single brief report could do it justice, but I will try here to give a feel for the ideas which in retrospect caught my attention, at least.

Keeping the Government’s attention
Leadership and ‘guidance’ from on high were felt by several speakers to be missing from the regeneration agenda. There’s plenty of regulation – to judge from comments, some of it outdated – but too little real enablement. Some said that governmental attention spans are too short; regeneration is a long-term proposition. Others criticised the ‘constant’ changes which they saw in regulation and funding, and wished for more attention to large-scale infrastructure.

No-one, however, suggested that the government is not committed to regeneration as a seriously long-term venture; and most speakers thought it can be demonstrated by ‘real’ examples that regeneration does work. There’s scope here for dialogue at the highest levels, if common positions between protagonist practitioners can be elucidated.

Silos and scale
Regeneration still is not joined up, if we are to believe the comments of many speakers. We continue to operate in silos (including fiscally; no

Leaves (five points) 06.7.30.jpgThe Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has been going now for full five years, and it's showing an impressively modern approach to public engagement, with its very own personal Blog, inviting public involvement, by the new Defra Secretary of State, David Miliband.

I was really pleased when, a few months ago, I heard that I was to be appointed Lay Member of the Defra Science Advisory Council , which is the scientific advisory body to Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

I can't think of much which is more important than trying to get environment and food right. I have a lot to learn as yet about the inner-workings of a large Government Department, but I certainly found my first meeting, in April, quite fascinating. Here is a group of people, the actual Members of SAC and the secretariat and advisers within Defra itself who have hugely impressive credentials and take environment and all that goes with it very seriously indeed.

New Secretary of State, new Blog
Defra is quite a new Department, with an even newer Secretary of State, David Miliband, who was appointed just five weeks ago. The Department came into being on 8 May 2001, very soon after the 2001 General Election, in response to a recognised need to bring together various aspects of what is now its remit. That makes it five years old today.

So Defra may be just a youngster, but it's a youngster with admirable attitude: the new Secretary of State has begun his very own Blog, under strict non-partisan rules, which is his attempt to reach out to more people and to encourage them to engage in the issues around environment and government.

David Miliband's blog is being evaluated by the independent parliamentary body, The Hansard Society, to see how his attempt to 'reach out' is working. I very much hope that well before Defra is ten all Government Departments will have been following the Defra Secretary of State's example for some time.

May Day

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08.05.20 Sefton Park 028a 120x72.jpg May Day has been with us for centuries. Its overt meanings, and even the actual date, may change, but the sense of taking a day to do something different and more personal remains. People in every age and every part of the world have welcomed the onset of Summer and the chance to throw a party.

It's May Day today. The first of May, that unequivocal date which, unlike the contested first day of Spring (is it the vernal equinox on 20/21 March, or the newer BBC version on 1 March?), is firmly set in the European calendar.

When I was small I genuinely thought that May Day was about Morris Dancers and Maypoles. We lived in villages in Hampshire, Wiltshire and then Gloucestershire, and my father was a rural science teacher who took his local community involvement seriously - so we all enjoyed a flavour of the festive rituals of many centuries, and are none the worse for that.

Holding on to traditions and ideas
I suppose that in some ways that was the end of a very long period in history, already mostly shattered by global stife and the increasing grip of technology. Looking back, it might be seen as idyllic, though that it certainly wasn't; give me double glazing, wider horizons and lots of running hot water any day.

But there are vestiges of the 'old' May Day way of life which still resonate. The festivals (May Day, Harvest and what have you) were unselfconscious and for everyone. Our understanding of the seasons and cycles of the earth - I learned about crop rotation at a very early age, and about its history back to mediaeval times not much later - is something which still informs my perceptions, albeit now in terms of eco-systems. And the things we did were family inclusive; sometimes overly so, but at least everyone was there.

New meaning for old ideas
Only after I came to the city did I learn that there was also another 'meaning' to May Day - its use, on the first Monday of May, as a celebration of workers' rights. Thus, 1 May 1886 in the United States saw the very first International Workers' Day.... not to be confused with 1 September, which after historical debate is now set in America as Labor Day.

Such reinvention of celebratory events is not however confined to the U.S.A. In Liverpool since 1978, when the date first became a Bank Holiday, we have seen the first Monday in May used to underpin general festivities, to recognise Trade Unions and, occasionally, to celebrate shire horses. The scope is huge in a place with such long historical links to labour, but also with wide-open spaces such as Sefton Park right by the city centre.

Modern May Day
Activities this year for May Day are a million miles away from my hazy childhood recollections. There range from a demonstration in London to promote a Trade Union Freedom Bill, to a grass-roots Labor Arts Festival in Edmonton, Canada and a Maypole event at Liverpool's Tudor half-timbered Speke Hall and Morris dancers (yes!) outside our wonderful St. George's Hall, via big marches and strikes across the U.S.A. in favour of regularising the status of illegal workers.

Thus morphs the traditional May Day in a more politically conscious era, whether the objective be workers' rights or a determiniation to see celebration through the arts of community in a more fragmented world. We can only be glad, whatever the detailed argument about the causes espoused, that people still see fit to make the effort.

We have lost much of the original understanding of May Day, and I'd guess that many people active today are not even aware of its historical roots. But things change only in some ways. For every person involved in worthy trade union activity today, there are probably still hundreds carrying on the original idea behind May Day, taking a day off work and getting out their lawnmower or barbecue set, as they prepare for some family'n'friends time in the garden.

Let's hope the sun shines for everyone, demonstrators, gardeners and revellers alike.

There is, despite modern technology and communications, a huge divide in understandings between rural and urban communities. Those in isolated locations are in some ways particularly vulnerable, as their young people leave and they resist change. Perhaps in this they have more in common with inner-city living than they appreciate, but the real risk is that these isolated communities may simply disappear.

What proportion of the UK population, I wonder, has ever been to the Scottish Highlands and Islands, or the very tip of Cornwall, or even to Pembrokeshire or Holy Island? Not that many, I'd guess, despite the fame and slightly mysterious aura of such locations.

But there again, I doubt that most people who live in these beguiling places have much knowledge, or even perhaps an accurate image, of what happens in our great cities, or in Britain's busy market towns and ports. And of those folk who are well acquainted with urban society, I'd guess most don't much like it, if they've chosen to live in the more far-flung of our wilder or more isolated places.

Does it matter if people stay in their comfort zones?
Most of the time, it's none of anyone else's business whether people in given locations are aware of other ways of life. None of us has the template for the ideal lifestyle, and none of us can claim we've got it sorted.

There is however a difficulty with the laisser faire approach to lifestyle at the point where it constrains and even threatens the very style we may have chosen. Things are never at a standstill; and this means that with denial of change may actually come the destruction of the way of life preferred.

Small communities become unviable without change
My musings on this subject arise from a recent conversation about an isolated community in north-west Scotland where a new arrival had the bright idea of developing a 'sanctury' to which wealthy paying visitors would come. This idea so shocked the more established residents, despite the promise of more jobs and increased investment in their community, that it had to be dropped.

Yet at the same time, here was a rapidly dwindling and aging population who constantly bemoan the way their youngsters have deserted the fold for places urban, or at least more 'exciting'. What a surprise.

The local perspective isn't all the story
So, on the one hand we have an enthusiastic newcomer who wants to attract new work and interests into the area, and on the other we have a group of villagers who resent and are highly suspicious of all things new.

The idea that visitors might seriously want to pay to come and enjoy what is there every day for locals doesn't come into it, because the locals appreciate in a very different way the wonderful commodities (clean air, peaceful and stunning beauty, calm and quiet) they routinely experience. For local people, this 'experience' is not a 'resource' to invest in reviving their village.

Visitors of course bring with them a certain amount of disruption - but the very topography of these isolated locations means that this cannot be huge. There is absolutely no risk of motorways or hideous ten storey hotels! The problem, it seems to me, is that familiarity - the comfort zone as ever - is often dangerous. If you can't adapt to new opportunities, you are in danger of losing those you already have.

Fear of the unknown
Perhaps the underlying problem is fear of the unknown - a strange and puzzling phenomenon in these days of instant-fix communication, but one which can afflict people anywhere, urban or rural.

But there's a special urgency here for some isolated communities. In modern society a culture which doesn't adapt is likely to be one which contains the seeds of its own destruction. Ironically, without some acceptance of change there is the prospect of a tragic scenario for numbers of small rural communities which until recent times may have existed relatively unchanged for centuries.

The Philosophy Of Hedges

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flowering hedgerow Hedges are protective, productive and permeable. They offer haven but also permit the flow of light and air. They respond to change by organic adjustment and they can sustain themselves. They are a metaphor for healthy boundaries, rural or urban, able to adjust and yet still retain integrity.

hedge & snow Hedges have always fascinated me. As a small child I walked with my sister and father along country pathways between fields, my father, a rural science teacher, all the time pointing out the features of the hedges,and explaining how, as living things, these hedges had been both nurtured and shaped - sometimes for many centuries -whilst they in turn sustained life for other plants, and birds and animals.

The craft of the local hedger, the names of his tools and the names of all the bushes, grasses and wildflowers... details now elude me, but abidingly the ideas underpinning of the significance of hedges remain.

It is not therefore surprising that the gardens of my homes as an adult have always been enclosed by hedges. Some were there long before I arrived, but quite a few have been planted and grown by ourselves. I especially enojy it when I find a tiny shoot growing from a random seed or berry, and can plant it amongst the larger inhabitants of our urban hedgerow. Thus in the fullness of time have emerged quite a number of hollies, some buddleia and even a few rustic roses and hawthornes.

The urban meaning of hedges
small nest My professional life now is a thousand miles away from the innocent rural ambles of my childhood. Perhaps the contrast is almost Cider With Rosie vs. The City; but the significance of boundaries for me continues to be beyond doubt.

People still require boundaries, real and metaphorical, for their comfort and protection. Not many of us feel at ease in unmarked and uncharted territory. But, whether we consider and acknowledge it or not, a metaphorical 'brick wall' can be constraining in a way that a 'hedge' never is.

Hedges let us see the light next door, they permit the passage of air (but diminish the onslaught of the gale), they support life in a host of ways. Brick walls, on the other hand, block light and air, and do not offer sustenance and safe haven to small creatures. Hedges may take years to grow, but they adapt and respond organically to change. Brick walls are quickly constructed but come down only when they are dismantled - and then they are no more.

Protective, productive and permeable
hedge in bloom & nests The hedge as a boundary is a model for both rural and urban life. Hedges protect, but they don't constrain, they are productive but they are organic in their response to their environment, and they are permeable, enabling flow of light and air without any loss of their role in defining boundaries.

Rural fields and urban communities alike need to be marked out. But let's not forget that the marking of boundaries is best done in ways that respond to changing needs and opportunities over time, encouraging cross-over and the flow of the small ideas which may one day become big players on our territory. Hedges with their rich ever-changing diversity, the haven for a host of hidden small lives, serve us better than brick walls.

Frog pond 104x86 06.7.30 009a.jpg The pressing environmental issues of the day can be addressed in many ways. Everyone has their own take on eco-matters. None of these different understandings offers complete answers to very complex questions, but all who ask them do us a service insofar as they keep the issues at the forefront of debate.

Does Prince Charles have a point? You probably don't have to be a royalist to think perhaps he does, environmentally at least. Few can be unaware that conservation and sustainability are important to him.

In that concern of course our future monarch is not alone. Turn the pages of publications as diverse as The Guardian and The Economist, The New Economics Foundation (nef) and The Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), and you will find the same themes: energy and sustainability are the debates of the day.

Similarly with our politicians and policy makers, national and local. Whole departments are dedicated at every level to finding ways forward. Nuclear, oil, solar, wind, tide or biomass? Green bins for garden waste, purple for paper.... Our leaders are certainly onto a winner when they share their thoughts on recycling and energy. Everyone is worried, though not everyone will follow through to action.

The 'action' is however where it has to be. Nothing will be achieved by being worried - though there is undoubtedly consensus that we all should be. And it's here things sometimes start to go fluffy.

There are logics which arise from environmental concerns.

If you believe that things need to stay as they are (or, better still, were), you'll probably take the view that progress is not to be encouraged. What we 'should' do is stick with what we know, but maybe regulate it rather more, so that things don't change.

But if you generally welcome initiative and challnge, you'll want to find new ways to meet the problems which everyone agrees are there, and you may even believe that Science in all its glory has the answers.

The third way, of course, is to try to think out of the box. Should we use so much energy? Are there modes of operation which meet needs in far-distant places as well as our own? What mix of provision and production of enery, food, whatever, will best reduce risk of under- or over-reliance for ourselves and others? Does nuclear increase or decrease the risks in energy? Does GM help to feed people or do we risk damaging them? Should we increase our consumption of vegetables and reduce that of meat? Is intercontinental travel 'bad' because it harms the physical environment or 'good' because it increases human understanding? The questions could go on...

Essentially, the issues relate to human activity - after all, it's largely what we as individual human beings choose to do which has brought about these conumdrums, so presumably it's up to us as socio-political beings to sort it out.

Here then is the rub: Conservation on its own is probably impossible. Science and technology alone probably can't solve the problems. Everything which looks like it might have positive effect is but one part of the total scenario; but the incremental, balanced approach lacks appeal because of its very caution and good sense.

It's much harder to have impact with the slogan, say, '10% this sort of energy, 25% that sort, 5% of something else' (etc), than it is to go for the grand gesture.

The politics and the practicalities often don't stack up when people realise it's they, personally, who will have to make adjustments, not them, unknown folk somewhere else.

Full marks then to those across the entire conservation-progress spectrum, Economist, nef and Prince Charles alike, who keep the debate going. Sustaining public interest (and thereby enabling complex issues to be addressed even when it costs) is a crucial element in the environmental equation. Perhaps different people are asking different questions, but it's a lot better than asking none at all.

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