Residents of all ages have been invited to look upon an area that people say they find scary with fresh eyes at a foraging workshop in the city’s Bunny Walks. The session, led by herbal artist and author Lora Aziz, introduced families to the rich flora and fauna of the Chelmer Valley Local Nature Reserve which connects residential areas to the city centre.
Bunny Walks felt ‘unsafe’
The area of the reserve known as the Bunny Walks is a well-used cut through, but women and girls often said they felt unsafe in its winding pathways along the River Chelmer.
Over the last 12 months, the Bunny Walks have been the focus of a Home Office-funded ‘Safer Streets’ programme aimed at improving our relationship with this key green space. New infrared CCTV, better lighting, street art and youth engagement are just some of the tools deployed to make the Bunny Walks feel safer for everyone.
Wildflower walk led by Wyrd Flora
The latest stage of this project has been focusing on ways to turn a time-saving route to and from the city into more cherished space that people enjoy spending time in. So, the community safety team at Chelmsford City Council commissioned Lora Aziz of Wyrd Flora to give locals a better understanding of the biodiversity of their doorstep.
The walk set out from Anglia Ruskin University with an exploration of edible plants and hedgerow berries found on campus, from lemon-flavoured sorrel leaves which can be eaten raw, to elderberries which must be cooked before eating.
Families learned where to look out for dandelion and burdock plants close together along the River Chelmer, and the best spot to find hazelnut trees, haw berries and even hops.
Lora Aziz hopes sessions like this will help residents to see the Bunny Walks in a new light.
“This is an area where we find ourselves enveloped in nature and for many of us, that isn’t always a comfortable place to be. Just two minutes ago we’ll have been in the high street or a shopping centre and then we are suddenly in a quiet space surrounded by trees and wildflowers. These are often the areas that we’re not so at ease with.
I think if we say the word nature, people can find it a bit daunting because you’re passing through wild spaces you might not know much about and being insecure in your environment is one of the things that leads to feelings of not being safe. If we know our environment well, then we can often feel a bit safer.”Lora Aziz, Wyrd Flora
Not just about CCTV
This emphasis on creating a sense of interest and pride in the Bunny Walks is one of the innovative approaches being used by the Safer Streets programme. Although upgrading lighting and CCTV is a key component of the scheme, partners working on this initiative believe that a more holistic approach is needed if our relationship with the reserve is to change.
Over the last 12 months Chelmsford City Council has been working with a broad coalition of partners including the Essex PFCC, Essex Police, Essex Fire and Rescue, Anglia Ruskin University, the Environment Agency, Street Pastors and youth outreach specialists Reach Every Generation to deliver a broad range of projects in the area.
School workshops on healthy relationships, youth work inside the Bunny Walks and education sessions in with Chelmsford City Football Club are some of the measures put in place to tackle behaviours that people say make them feel unsafe.
Projects to increase Bunny Walks’ appeal
Other projects have sought to increase the area’s appeal to families, replacing the graffiti on a gloomy underpass with colourful nature murals by street artist Scotty Brave.
A free multimedia app has also been launched to allow parents and children to explore the area with ‘Harry Otter’, a character found throughout the reserve, and a storytelling area created from a fallen tree is another new feature helping to transform this green space into a more engaging destination.
The centrepiece of this community space is a long table created by Wyrd Flora and fittingly, this is where Lora’s wildflower walk came to an end with foraged tea and tales of the natural world.
Cllr Rose Moore, Cabinet Member for Greener and Safer Chelmsford, who brought the session to a close with readings from ‘The Lost Words’, feels that the story of the Bunny Walks is starting to change.
“This project has highlighted that we need a more creative approach to safety than simply investing money in better CCTV and lighting. For women and girls to truly feel safe we need so much more – from changing the attitudes and behaviours of people who use the Bunny Walks, to understanding and connecting with this beautiful, wild place; to consider it our home – our sanctuary, too.
The Chelmer Valley Local Nature Reserve has a mosaic of habitats that can’t be found anywhere else in Chelmsford. With over 30 different species of wildflower in its meadows, hedgerows abundant with berries and an array of creatures, from lizards to birds of prey, it’s a magical place. To feel that connection with nature without having to leave the city centre is special.
The more it is appreciated and used as a destination, rather than just as a short cut to the city centre, the better chance we have of transforming our relationship with the Bunny Walks.”Cllr Rose Moore, Cabinet Member for Greener and Safer Chelmsford
Download the free Bunny Walks app
Planting is planned for the new storytelling area to bring more visitors and wildlife to the area next spring.
But there’s no need to wait until then to take a trip to the Bunny Walks. As year draws on and the weather changes why not pay it a visit this autumn? Although Wyrd Flora’s event has now finished, you can find out all about the flora and fauna of the reserve in a new app created by ATS Heritage for the Safer Chelmsford team at Chelmsford City Council.
Details about how to get to the Chelmer Valley Local Nature Reserve and all of Chelmsford’s green spaces can be found on the Love Your Chelmsford website.