An Earlier Vision

This is a thought piece I circulated a couple of years ago when many of us were thinking about the proposed woodlands sell off.  Although it was inspired by Aston’s Eyot the actual site is not so important. Rather the piece aimed to prompt wider discussion on the benefits of restoring productive landscapes in and around our city.

A vision for Aston’s Eyot, Iffley Fields
Paul Jepson, March 2010

This thought piece is intended to prompt wider reflection and debate of the future of Aston’s Eyot, a 12 ha patch of rough scrublands located at the end of Jackdaw Lane and running down to the river1. The site is owned by Christchurch College and was tipped with rubbish during Victorian times. The resulting nutrient rich substrate creates a wildness of vegetation that is valued by local dog walkers, a local nature group and rough sleepers. The vision outlined here is to transform the area into woodland that provides both a biomass energy source for Oxford and a range of recreational and social benefits. The vision is to simultaneously enhance the quality of living in Iffley Fields and contribute to the vision of a low-carbon Oxford.

The concept
Ash is one of the best fuelwood trees and it grows rapidly on old Victorian tip sites. The core of this idea is to harness the site’s history for the future through the production of biomass – wood that can be sold for fuel wood-burners in residential properties or larger biomass burners in flats, offices and colleges.

Ideally the woodland would be run by a social enterprise (a business that generates social benefits) that might manage a number of similar sites in and around Oxford.
There is already a sizeable ash plantation on Aston’s Eyot. Extending this and transforming the site into a working woodland would create a more inclusive recreational setting and richer wildlife habitat, it would open new entrepreneurial opportunities in Iffley Fields and contribute to the realization of broader policy goals that are important to many of us. These include climate change and the vision of a low-carbon Oxford and issues relating to homelessness, mental health and antisocial behavior.

An area managed to produce fuelwood would comprise a shifting mosaic of stands of trees of varying age and height. This would form a rich habitat for insects and woodland birds. The tracks for planting, managing and extracting timber would create a network of routes for walking, dog-walking, biking, horse riding and the ‘managed’ feel of the place would help foster a greater sense of safety. It could significantly enhance the value of the site as an educational resource for SS Mary and John and other schools in the area. In addition, a managed woodland offers opportunities for forest schools, courses on wildlife and practical woodland management as well as school rambles, picnics and cross country runs.

The creation of an ‘Oxford forests and biomass’ social enterprise could help address modern social ailments relating to mental health, depression and stress. The therapeutic value of nature walks, gardening and so forth is increasingly recognized. Woodland management is an activity that combines the outdoors, skill development and sense of achievement and fraternity. Foresters and woodland managers tend to be rugged practical types who create strong role-models. A working woodland could provide casual employment and work schemes for people who have difficulty holding down a regular job and/or who are participating in rehabilitation schemes. In addition, it could become a place of training for more practically minded youth and offer us a different form of ‘allottmenting’.

Energy and Enterprise
Split logs and other fuel wood products could be sold locally and help reduce household and commercial energy consumption. Improving the energy efficiency of properties is a key aspect of policies to reduce carbon emissions. Old housing stock is difficult to insulate so one attractive option is to heat living areas with carbon neutral wood burning stoves. Creating a local supply of fuel might catalyze the emergence of enterprises selling stoves, installing flues and supplying logs. On a larger scale, the combination of a new generation of biomass boilers plus a local fuelwood supply could offer colleges the possibility of low carbon heating and a buffer against rising energy prices.

A managed woodland would introduce a new and positive dynamic that would enhance the lifestyles of residents of Iffley Fields and beyond. The production and circulation of fuelwood will help restore and create connections between everyday living and our local landscape, between different people in our community and between local action and global issues. On one level it would offer the possibility of summer woodland picnics and winter evenings round the fire. On another level it would create new things to talk about, new people to meet and new activities to get involved in. On yet another yet another level it could provide a focus and catalyst for the many gifted residents of Iffley Fields who are looking for local opportunities to contribute in a meaningful way towards devising solutions to the big social and environmental challenges of our times.

Is this vision really possible?
Clearly this is a provisional idea which would require a feasibility study to take further. A key aspect of this would be working out how much timber could be produced from Aston Eyot’s and other sites in Oxford. The support of the governing board of Christchurch College would also be vital. Taking a positive view the following observations suggest that such a vision could materialize if it gained support.

• We have access to (and are part of) progressive forestry woodland and landscape management networks located in the university, local consultancies and NGOs such as the Earth Trust, Landshare and the Woodland Trust.

• Knowledge on the technological and business aspects of producing energy from biomass has improved dramatically; a university-spin off company advises clients on integrated estate management and energy production.

• Oxford Colleges, like any businesses, respond to external trends and are becoming more concerned about their environmental and social image and impacts.

• The Said Business School hosts the Skoll Centre for Social Enterprise and we already have a landscape gardening social enterprise operating in Iffley Fields

• The emergence of successful local veg-box businesses demonstrates both the interest, capacity and potential for new enterprises based on locally grown products.

• With entrepreneurial leadership such an initiative could attract finance from a range of sources; for example grants from the Landfill tax, services contracts with Council Depts (e.g. Social &Community Services) and investors in social enterprises.

• The idea could be scaled up. There is more old-tip land along the Cherwell and between the Cherwell and Iffley lock and in addition there are the old city woodlands at Bagley, Brasenose and Wytham.

• In East Oxford we have one of the most environmentally and socially aware populations in Britain.

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