Speech — Surrey Hills AONB Symposium: ‘Making Space for Nature?’ Welcome Remarks, 25 November 2020

Good afternoon, and welcome!

The University of Surrey is delighted to be hosting this symposium again. We had hoped to be able to welcome you in person, but I think we are all getting used to finding new ways to share our knowledge and passion.

The University is proud to play an integral role in the Surrey community. Our leading research into issues of environment and sustainability puts us in a unique position of contributing to nature conservation and the wellbeing of Surrey and its citizens.  

I am delighted to see our Professor Richard Murphy on today’s impressive panel of speakers: Richard is director of Surrey’s Centre for Environment and Sustainability, which is renowned for their thought leadership on ‘living sustainably’ now and in the future.

This mission directly reflects today’s theme, which asks: how can we ‘heal’ nature and achieve a healthy and balanced natural environment in which everything and everyone can thrive?

Earlier this year, an inter-government coalition chaired by Sir Robert Watson reinforced the evidence that: ‘Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating’.  Sir Robert warned of the grave impact on people around the world as we risk eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life.

This is reflected across our national landscape. Ten years ago, the Lawton Review’s “Making Space for Nature” report was published, which is also the title of our Symposium this evening.  10 years on, Lawton asserts that there has been too little action, and that England remains among the most nature-depleted nations in the world. Nearly half of all our species are in decline and about a quarter of our mammals are threatened with national extinction.

A view from St Martha’s Hill, Guildford

It is very sobering to consider this. These losses represent a decline in resilience of the ecosystems that we love and upon which we depend.

Last year, with the theme of ‘Our Natural Health Service’, the Symposium profiled our University’s research on understanding and supporting our precious natural environment. In the context of this extraordinary year, the healing of nature and people has become a major concern and priority.

We have certainly forged new and unexpected relationships with the outdoors. While there has long been evidence for the positive effect of nature on mental health, suddenly many of us experienced this first-hand: when literally everything else was off-limits and locked down, nature was still accessible and belonged to everyone.

For some of us, the experience of the peace, richness and wholeness to be found in nature was a revelation and has become a cherished new habit.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that there is a new film version of The Secret Garden, a story about the healing qualities of nature. Many of you will be familiar with this classic book from 1911, or with one of its several film adaptations. It is particularly relevant to consider its message in 2020.

In the garden of the title, nature has the power to heal, create relationships and bring joy; it helps mend the wounds of the past, transforming grief into possibility. The characters are restored by rediscovering their faith in nature and the circle of life.[1]

Silent Pool, Albury

How does humanity keep our part of the bargain, and address the desperate need to restore and heal nature?  

Through inspiration and collaboration.

Now is a time of reflection, inspiration and great change. Such times favour people and organisations of boldness and foresight – like the University, Surrey Hills AONB and all our local partners who accelerate ideas into practice in the urgent quest for a sustainable planet.

By continuing to strengthen these partnerships, we create a powerhouse of new thinking, formidable influence and innovative approaches that will bring us ever closer to our goal.

Thank you and enjoy the evening.

A view of Guildford Cathedral from Stoke Park, Guildford

[1] https://theconversation.com/the-secret-garden-a-place-of-healing-during-covid-19-148122?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20October%2022%202020%20-%201765817113&utm_content=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20October%2022%202020%20-%201765817113+CID_5d0acf7da57612f75130dfc7cb744934&utm_source=campaign_monitor_uk&utm_term=The%20Secret%20Garden%20a%20place%20of%20healing%20during%20COVID-19