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Routes to Roots: A proposed solution to improve woodland access | EnviroSprint 2021 | Jamie McCoy

With a background in ecophysiology and developmental biology, being tasked with developing a solution to improve woodland coverage in the UK was about as far from my area of expertise as it was possible to get. This was the premise of ‘EnviroSprint’, a three-day challenge run by infohackit in which researchers from NERC DTPs were placed into inter-disciplinary groups to develop innovative solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing environmental scientists and policy makers today, ranging from soil carbon management to the sustainability of deep sea mining.

Developing a solution to such an enormous problem as improving woodland coverage in the UK seemed far-fetched, however, completion of the challenge highlighted a number of areas of importance for developing research scientists. With this in mind, I’d like to share my experiences of the challenge.

Design sprints – solving big challenges quickly

‘Sprints’ are time-constrained processes (usually over five days) used by companies like Google in which workers from a number of departments map out challenges, explore solutions, and create prototypes to address them. For EnviroSprint, teams from NERC DTPs ARIES, EnvEast, C-CLEAR, Cambridge ESS, ENVISION, IAPETUS2 and SPITFIRE, were placed into groups within one of five challenge areas. Over the course of three days, post-graduate researchers (PGRs) identified a question in their challenge area, refined ideas into an innovative solution, and pitched their solution to expert judges. Within each group a facilitator kept the team on track, and a communicator collated and created materials for the final pitch, all under the watchful eye of a challenge expert, who introduced the challenge and helped the team along the way.

The challenge – the UK’s low woodland coverage

On day one, teams were given short talks by their challenge experts to introduce them to their challenge area, our team’s being that of the extremely low woodland coverage in the UK. Whilst countries within the European Union benefit from a woodland area coverage of ~37%, the United Kingdom stands in at a meagre 13.2%.

Percentage of forest coverage of land area in Europe. Average woodland coverage in countries within the European Union is 37%, whereas coverage in the UK stands at just 13.2%. For more information see this report by the Woodlands Trust. Image credit: European Forest Institute.

Our woodland areas provide a plethora of ecosystem services including carbon sequestration (UK woodlands currently hold ~213 million tonnes of carbon), and reducing the impacts of flooding. Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted just how important these spaces are to our health and wellbeing. Despite this, public access to these spaces remains poor, and continues to decline. Currently, less than 1 in 5 people in the UK have access to a wooded area of at least 2ha (around the size of two football pitches) within 500m of their home.

Ancient woodland photographed by Richard Banton (CC BY 2.0)

The importance of access to green spaces, particularly over the last 12 months, resonated with each team member, and it was clear that for more of us to be able to experience the benefits of our woodland areas, public access needs to improve. With this in mind, we settled on the question ‘how can we improve public access to our woodland spaces, in particular those from urbanised areas with low green space access?’

The solution - Routes to Roots

With our question identified, our team began thinking how we could answer it. To start, each team member developed their own solution independently, and pitched them to the group. We combined the best parts of each member’s ideas into ‘Routes to Roots’ - a transferable framework for establishing dedicated transport links from urban centres to local woodlands, with the aim of boosting public engagement with these spaces. For this to work, a centralised body would link transport companies and local government bodies to woodland experts, to make use of existing infrastructure when establishing public transport links.

Within the framework we also proposed to set up ‘adopt a tree’ and ‘plant your own tree’ schemes around the woodland, by working with forestry bodies such as the Forestry Commission and Woodland Trust, all with the aim of facilitating its expansion. The primary funding for all of this would come from local government subsidies and forestry bodies through their commitment to offsetting emissions and aims for Net Zero. Content with our solution, we ‘storyboarded’ our ideas onto a virtual whiteboard ready for the final day of the challenge.

Routes to Roots’. Dedicated public transport links to near urban forests are established from population centres with low greenspace access, with park and ride locations for bike hire within the forest.

Pitching our prototype

The final task of EnviroSprint was to present the labours of the last two and a half days of work to fellow PGRs, and to expert judges. These judges included research experts in nature based solutions to climate change, and experts from the Environment Agency. After some fascinating presentations from each of the teams in our challenge, the expert judges decided on a winner based on the feasibility and the novelty of the concept – and to our delight Routes to Roots was chosen! The winning teams were all told they had won a prize, and shortly after the challenge, we were contacted with ours. Having developed a solution towards tackling low public engagement with woodland areas, we were aptly given the opportunity to present our ideas to the Woodland Trust. Recently, we pitched Routes to Roots to around 15 members of the Woodlands Trust, and enjoyed some lively discussion over what parts of it could be feasibly implemented and potentially taken further.

A final word

After almost 15 months of on and off lockdowns, countless disruptions to travel and limited opportunities to meet with other PGRs, the EnviroSprint challenge was a refreshing chance to connect with researchers from a multitude of institutes. Whilst radically different to the areas of research of each team member, the challenge was an exercise in working with others across multiple disciplines to find creative solutions within a tight deadline. Given the diversity of research backgrounds, subject areas and stages of research, each team member also approached the challenge in a different way. Taking a step back and being able to approach a problem in a new way is a great skill when progress is slow or even halted by unexpected problems in your research.

Finally, the challenge was really made by working with some very talented and hard-working PGRs, so thank you to my fellow ARIES students Nele Reyniers and Sarah Berk, Freya Muir (IAPTEUS), James Johnston (Cambridge ESS), our team communicator Xiaoqing Chen (Cambridge ESS), and finally our team facilitator Michael Buckingham (SPITFIRE). You can find a link to our team’s webpage here.