In the second part of a three-part series on Auckland’s green spaces, Elly Strang meets some of the community-led groups battling on behalf of nature in our city.
Across Auckland, there has been a huge push from community groups to better protect nature and expand our connection to it by increasing awareness, restoring native trees and improving biodiversity.
The kids are all right
One group teaching these skills from the ground up is Conscious Kids. It was founded in 2015 out of a desire to have a more conscious and holistic form of education for children aged five to 13, with a mission to plant “little seeds for the future” and reconnect them with the outdoors.
It now runs programmes in Western Springs, Devonport, Blockhouse Bay and further afield. Co-founder Maria Mariotti says learning through nature promotes cognitive and physical development, grows social and emotional skills and can have a hugely positive impact on a child’s health and sense of wellbeing.
“It has been proven by many researchers that unstructured, frequent childhood play in informal outdoor settings engenders deep conservation values – more so than any other factor,” Mariotti says. “It is human nature to want to protect what we love, so to make conservation efforts endure, we must emotionally connect children with nature. They are our future and the future of this beautiful endangered planet.”
Making it count
Another group making a difference is Trees That Count. It counts the number of trees being grown nationally, while also encouraging more plantings through its marketplace, which allows individuals, businesses or families to fund or gift native trees. These are matched with planters on Trees That Count’s marketplace throughout the country. In Auckland, it has recorded more than 1.4 million trees planted.
Melanie Seyfort, Trees That Count’s head of marketing and partnerships, says the organisation’s goal is to see 200 million native trees planted in the next 10 years. It also wants to create a culture where planting or gifting native trees becomes a Kiwi way to celebrate or commemorate occasions.
“At Christmas, I think there were almost 30,000 native trees gifted. What we plan to do this year is lead campaigns to help inspire that kind of behaviour. That doesn’t mean all of that has to come as money through our marketplace; it could be New Zealanders create their own new traditions, where they plant a tree at home.”
Trees That Count is a partner in the council’s Million Trees programme and Seyfort says that this year, it’ll be hosting an event for families during Matariki where anyone with a new baby can plant a tree in their honour. A similar campaign in 2018 saw around 11,000 trees donated.
Another community group, Gecko Trust, offers encouragement, advice and resources to help people and communities create healthy environments. General Manager Tim Corbett says its purpose is all about people healing nature and nature healing people.
“Everyone wants to make their own backyard look great – they don’t want to have rats or noxious weeds, and they would love tūī and kererū at the end of their driveway – so they work on their own backyard, and their neighbour does too,” he says. “It becomes a community, and then that steps up to our ideal model, which is a living neighbourhood, where households are joining together to do teamwork on private land, parks, creeks, and all the stuff that doesn’t fall into their boundary line.”
Corbett points to a neighbourhood in South Titirangi where about six households increased the quality of their own green spaces alongside a facilitator appointed by Gecko Trust. Now, the community has about 300 households involved and is on the brink of becoming self-sustaining and self-led, while also having enough confidence to start lobbying the council for participants' needs.
Corbett says if you want a community to be healthy, getting together and working on common projects is one of the best things you can do. “It improves social health and connections between neighbours and perceptions of safety. Elderly people die from loneliness with intensification and, ironically, the closer our sections get to each other, the less we interact with each other.”
He says Japanese and British GPs are even prescribing “nature bathing” for mental health as it reduces cortisol levels and is proven to have positive effects.
Healthy nature, healthy people
Auckland Zoo is one of the city’s most impressive green spaces and is also promoting the environment’s effect on wellbeing and passing this wisdom on to visitors. From July, it will be making more of an effort to tell visitors about the work it does that may go unheard of, such as helping the Department of Conservation (DOC) protect New Zealand’s wildlife, teaching conservation education to schoolkids and supporting conservation projects.
It recently teamed up with DOC and the Mental Health Foundation to collaborate on the Healthy Nature Healthy People programme, which is all about promoting and strengthening the connection between health, wellbeing and nature.
“DOC has recently identified the zoo as a key partner for the movement, as we already reach so many people and promote the health and social benefits of connecting with nature and wildlife,” says Auckland Zoo Head of Marketing and Communications Jooles Clements.
He says the zoo can act as a place of entertainment and fun for people to enjoy, while at the same time increasing environmental awareness, optimism and empathy.
“A good zoo should be entertaining. That’s the first step to building empathy and that is the foundation for conservation action,” he says. “As long as entertainment isn’t at the expense of animal welfare, we’re all for it. Just because we are a science-based organisation doesn’t mean you can’t have fun when you visit us.”