Human Nature

Posted: Wednesday 13th February 2019

Eco-volunteering makes us happier, strengthens communities and protects biodiversity. Oliver Balch gets his hands dirty investigating opportunities to help in King’s Cross

Wednesday, 6.45pm. For a hardy group of running enthusiasts, the weekly date is sacrosanct. But it’s not just the promise of exercise-induced endorphins that causes them to gather every week at the St Pancras and Somers Town Living Centre; It’s the opportunity to make a difference to the neighbourhood of King’s Cross and the surrounding area. Co-ordinated by marathon runner and trainer, Paul Brown, the group of red t-shirt-wearing joggers are part of a London-based social enterprise called GoodGym. The idea behind the initiative is simple: go for a jog and, while you’re at it, do something to spruce up your local area. Every week, the St Pancras group undertake a different task. Many have an environmental angle, from helping gardeners maintain their fruit and vegetable plots at Antrim Grove allotments, through to tidying the permaculture garden at Cecil Sharp House (home of English Folk Song and Dance).

“GoodGym combines doing good with running, which helps me forget I’m even exercising. It’s great!” says Judy, a runner with Brown’s group. Judy and her fellow runners set themselves the goal of collectively completing 240 ‘good deeds’ and running 3,500kms in January. Ivo Gormley, founder of Good Gym, which now coordinates running groups in cities across the country, is not surprised by her response. Participating runners consistently report the joyful feelings they get from working with like-minded people to improve the environment on their doorstep.

“It’s fun,” he says. Simple as that. And the evidence backs him up. Scientific studies have consistently shown that volunteering makes us happier. Indeed, psychologists have even borrowed from the runners’ handbook and coined a phrase for this altruistic buzz: ‘helper’s high’.

Volunteering isn’t just good for individuals, either. The almost two billion hours of time British citizens give up every year to volunteer has a profound impact on our communities and the natural biodiversity where we live. Moreover, in a time of shrinking government spending, many charities increasingly rely on a helping hand from the general public. According to government data, in fact, every hour of labour that volunteers give has a market value of £14.43. “There are environmental tasks that need doing all over the country; creating and maintaining green spaces, looking after our riverbanks, paths and cycle routes, planting and digging for our parks,” says Gormley. The value of volunteers in terms of protecting the biodiversity in the King’s Cross area is not lost on Karolina Leszczynska-Gogol. A senior site and project officer at Camley Street Natural Park (which is run by the environmental charity, London Wildlife Trust), Leszczynska-Gogol, absolutely depends on the support of a dedicated group of volunteers to keep the park functioning.

King’s Cross Academy Family Fun Day at Camley Street Natural Park at King's Cross

“There is no way I could do the practical conservation work required without the support of volunteers. The site just wouldn’t be able to exist without them,” she says. The team of volunteers who regularly turn up to help (sessions are on Thursdays and Fridays from 9.45am to 1 pm) number around three dozen. Some travel from as far as Ealing and Muswell Hill, but most live within walking distance of the urban park (located on Regent’s Canal, just behind St Pancras station). The proximity is important.

After all, people take great pleasure from knowing that the streets in their neighbourhood are that little bit cleaner and greener thanks to their hard work. The park is currently closed to the public while a new visitor centre is being built. Behind its closed gates, however, the Trust’s faithful volunteers remain hard at work. Their current job list includes cleaning the hedge line of rubbish, replacing the hazel fencing and planting colourful Purple Loosestrife and Marsh Marigold ready for spring.

A number of web-based services exist to point Londoners to nearby community groups and environmental charities on the lookout for volunteers. Good examples include the London Environmental Network, Project Dirt and TCV. Last year, London Mayor, Sadiq Khan’s volunteering unit, Team London, even set up a speed volunteering service for time-squeezed Londoners who want to give back. The initiative gives people the opportunity to offer their time to eco-projects on a one-off basis and at short-notice. A staple on all these platforms for the King’s Cross area is the Skip Garden. As the name suggests, the not-for-profit initiative takes refuse skips and converts them into mini-farms. ‘Less rubble, more rhubarb,’ their slogan runs. The brainchild of Global Generation, a King’s Cross-based charity, the initiative has welcomed volunteer support ever since its inception a decade ago.

Building the new Skip Garden at King's Cross. Students from UCL Bartlett School of architecture, volunteers and construction workers are involved in the build

Much of the design and construction of its current site in Lewis Cubbitt Park, for example, owes to pro-bono support from students at the nearby Bartlett School of Architecture. Every Wednesday night, for example, volunteers meet at the Skip Garden (from 5pm to 7pm) to lend a hand at growing food and general maintenance. Opportunities also exist to prepare and even serve the seasonal lunches the Skip Garden Kitchen café provides to the paying public (Tuesday to Saturday), as well as to support the charity’s regular outreach programmes, including its bi-weekly ‘lunch and learning’ sessions for primary school children. New opportunities are cropping up all the time, says Jane Riddiford, founding director at Global Generation. Construction will start in the spring on a new one-acre garden with the British Museum. The charity also has plans to add to its two existing gardens (it operates another, the Paper Garden, in Canada Water) with a new barge project on the canal near Granary Square.

Skip Garden

“We really value the involvement of people of all ages and circumstances,” says Riddiford. “It keeps the spirit of the gardens alive. Ultimately, our gardens are designed to bring people together — children, adults, local older people, refugees, young people with additional learning needs, everyone.”

Another popular initiative for green-fingered residents on a mission to save the bees is the King’s Cross Bee Trail. Available via a freely downloadable app, the trail starts at Granary Square and takes about 45 minutes to complete. The idea was developed by The Honey Club, a social enterprise set up by Global Generation, the charity Urban Bees and global brand consultancy Wolff Olins. The project has a citizen science element to it, with participants able to track and log the number of bees they spot.

Bees for a Better World, King's Cross

“Hundreds of people have used the App to learn about bees; how to identify and help them,” says The Honey Club’s Alison Benjamin. Bees are a critical — and increasingly threatened —pollinator. The results, which are shared with the environmental charity, Greenspace Information Greater London, play a vital role in building up a picture of how the capital’s bee population is faring. Two years on from the Bee Trail’s launch, the Honey Club hopes to identify a local business that can provide it with financial or technical pro-bono support to update the app. The request is not unusual. Companies large and small across the King’s Cross area are more involved than many may assume in protecting and maintaining the neighbourhood’s green spaces and other biodiverse-rich areas. Take Thames Water: several times a year, London-based staff at the water utility join Thames21, a local authority-backed conservation group, in helping clear up sections of Regent’s Canal. The employee volunteers report the same ‘helper’s high’ as any other volunteer. Thames21 isn’t the only one to be tapping into the potential of employee volunteering. Charities such as the Royal Parks, the Wetlands Trust and the Canal & River Trust, partner with London-based firms in similar ways. Usually, such opportunities are packaged up as team-building events. In the business jargon, corporate volunteering represents a classic win-win: the environmental group gains valuable assistance; the employer gets to demonstrate its environmental responsibility; and employees go back to their desks happy to have dirtied their hands doing something worthwhile.

Global Generation Skip Garden, King's Cross

Eco-conscious companies can exert a “significant, positive impact” on their local communities, notes Jon Lloyd, a consultant with the advisory firm, Corporate Citizenship and co-author of a recent joint report with the Corporation of London on community investment. “Businesses are contributing with resources, such as the time and skills of employees, as well as cash and in-kind donations,” says Lloyd. “They can also help through their wider influence, such as their marketing reach or their ability to convene groups of interest.” A topical example of the latter from the King’s Cross area is the participation of local retailers in the nationwide Refill project. Through a location-based app, participating shops, restaurants, cafés and other venues signal to passers-by that they are welcome to pop in and fill their (ideally eco-conscious reusable) water bottles for free. Leon and Pret in King’s Cross station, Starbucks and Costa Coffee in St Pancras International, Bar + Block Steakhouse and Premier Inn are among the dozens of outlets in the neighbourhood to have signed up.

It’s another of those win-wins for local businesses, notes Gemma George, who leads the Camden Climate Change Alliance (CCCA) at Camden Council. Not only do business owners feel they are doing their bit for the planet, but regular customers appreciate it and new customers are more likely to walk through their doors. What local businesses are doing behind the scenes is equally impressive and potentially much more significant for the planet. George cites extensive energy efficiency measures, such as low-energy lighting refurbishments and heating system upgrades, and changes to the fabric and design of buildings, including roof gardens on office blocks. “It’s impressive to see the enthusiasm of our members undertaking volunteer environmental activities and behaviour change projects,” says George. “However, considering the physical characteristics of the workplace is also key to reducing the impact on the environment.”

Opportunities now abound to do your bit to help the environment — whether it’s the macro challenge of mitigating climate change, or the very localised challenge of protecting the King’s Cross neighbourhood’s biodiversity. With the promise of ‘helper’s high’ for your efforts, isn’t it time you got your hands dirty?

This article first appeared in the winter 2019 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.

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