Oxford City Council has committed to increasing biodiversity and double the tree cover across Oxfordshire following recommendations from the Oxford Citizens Assembly on Climate. Enhanced biodiversity has been judged central to the overall ‘net zero’ vision for Oxford and the plan will seek to tackle the climate crisis and ecological breakdown in tandem.

Tree planting activities have long been a collaborative effort between the citizens and their governments to celebrate Earth Day and other environmental causes. But the dire climate situation has added a transformative sense of urgency, prompting a new push that has seen over 7,000 trees planted across the city in the past five years.

Tim Stevenson OBE, Lord-Lieutenant of Oxfordshire, is a long-term advocate of increasing tree cover and biodiversity. “Doubling tree cover in Oxfordshire is a crucial response to climate change,” said Stevenson, who has called on private landowners “across the county to come forward and help us with the land we need (to plant on).”

The City Council owns and manages just over 600 hectares of accessible green space in the city and surrounding area, including a country park, 33 nature areas and over 60 urban parks, as well as managing a number of sites such as the popular Port Meadow, which has been meadowland for at least 4,000 years. Projects to enhance biodiversity are frequent in Oxford. Earlier this January, new trees were planted as part of a wider £75,000 refurbishment of the Manzil Way Gardens in Iffley in East Oxford.

In January 2019, the Oxford City Council voted unanimously to declare a climate emergency and also agreed to establish the Citizen’s Assembly on Climate. The assembly, which has 50 demographically-representative members, discussed how best to cut carbon emissions after lectures from experts and collaborative workshops. The Assembly decided that their ultimate goal was to make Oxford City Council a net-zero council by the end of 2020; the City Council has committed to this goal and has promised to make Oxford a zero carbon city “at the earliest opportunity”.

“I’m particularly happy that we’re not simply proposing that the council should do everything or take the lead, but rather asking the question ‘who is best placed to take responsibility’, so we can figure out together how we can all do our bit and play to one another’s strengths.” Councillor Tom Hayes, Cabinet Member for Zero Carbon Oxford said of the Citizen’s Assembly and other community initiatives. The Assembly concluded that the City Council alone was unable to fund all the work required to make Oxford a zero carbon city.

The team planting trees on Mazil Way earlier this month. Picture by Ed Nix

This new initiative of tree planting provides more than just carbon reduction however. They mitigate flooding through preventing soil erosion, offer ascetic value and shade to neighbourhoods, and potentially reduce stress. Lab-based studies using MRI scanning shows that the brain will instigate its stress-inducing “fight-or-flight” mechanism subconsciously when it sees urban settings, whereas natural settings prompt the areas of the brain where empathy equally accessible.

Research at the University of Glasgow shows income levels are correlated to green space exposure, suggesting that access to nature is highly influenced by the level of income. Generally, those with higher incomes had more exposure to the greenest areas, which have higher land values, and had lower rates of circulatory diseases. The Oxford City Council aims to this. They have planned to reduce unequal access by ensuring that trees are planted in areas with a high score on the Index of Multiple Deprivation (MD), a tool used to measure health deprivation, barriers to housing, and access to education.

“The roundtable we’re supporting seeks to solve our problems in terms of finding suitable land, increasing tree cover in those areas of Oxford higher on the IMD, and better coordinating the work of the council and people and groups in and around the city,” said Cllr Hayes.

Oxford City Council has responded to other recommendations proposed by the Assembly. They accepted the proposal to create a Climate Emergency Budget, with £1.04 million in council funding and £18 million in capital investment, to combat the climate emergency. This is in addition to £84 million of ongoing investment to tackle the climate crisis throughout Oxfordshire. Beyond this, the Council has promised to raise the energy efficiency of new homes and community buildings, cut transportation emissions, and boost renewable energy installation to help Oxford become a zero carbon city.

Consultations with citizen scientists, community action groups and the Citizen’s Assembly will continue in the spring to decide how best to expand biodiversity and plant trees equitably throughout Oxford while taking care not to interfere with established habitats.