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Engaging Environments: caring about communities

How can greenspace volunteering be made accessible for everyone? The seventh and final post in a blog series about the Engaging Environments project in Birmingham written by our former Community Engagement Officer, Rob Tilling.

I have known Waqaas* for around ten years. He slips into and out of my life at different times. I originally met him through indoor volunteering work he was carrying out at an old workplace of mine. He has some specific physical and other special needs, but this does not stop him from being a driven and single-minded individual. He found me again recently and contacted me through social media as well as text messages and phone calls. He is quite driven. 

Waqaas was concerned that he saw problems in his local environment that he felt could be tackled by people like him, but he really didn’t know how to engage with local institutions or individuals in his community. I spent much time trying to guide him around these issues and help him to take some of the action that he wanted to see in his neighbourhood. In particular, he was concerned about the littering in his local park. Due to his personal needs, he was unable to tackle the problem himself, but he wanted to see it improved. At a distance, with Waqaas, I could only offer advice, and he was very pleased to hear it but unable to progress the ideas we discussed. 

Interestingly, Waqaas blames his own “community” (Asian people) for being dirty and unhygienic. He cited a range of city suburbs away from where he lives as being far more clean, and he associated this with the ethnicity of the residents in these areas. He did not question this problematic belief at all, boldly reaffirming it on numerous occasions. 

He spoke to me on a large number of occasions, sometimes in one-sided voice messages that had a tendency to ramble. Despite my attempts to support his enthusiasm, it was not easy to engage with him on a green site. Waqaas wanted to volunteer close to his home and I was able to link him up with another “green organisation” close to where he lives. This didn’t amount to anything useful, perhaps because the other organisation wasn’t able or willing to offer Waqaas the support he needed. 

Waqaas also wanted to volunteer with me, rather than someone else. This was very difficult for me to offer given his distance from my current work sites. I spent time detailing to him where he could volunteer and offering him support with selecting bus routes, but that didn’t appear to be enough for him. Waqaas really wanted, or needed, someone to come with him on his journey to the work site. Unfortunately, I was unable to offer that to him, although I came close to trekking five miles in each direction to collect him and move him across the city by bus. At the time, this seemed like too much to be doing and offering, but it has led to some regrets about him not having been able to access our work days. 

*name has been changed to protect anonymity 


This blog is part of a series of vignettes written by our former Community Engagement Officer, Rob Tilling. Rob shares his experiences and encounters with different volunteers who took part in our NERC-funded ‘Engaging Environments’ project in Birmingham. The aim of 'Engaging Environments' is to adapt citizen science projects such as Earthwatch’s Naturehood programme in a way that meets the needs of different communities and to make environmental science more inclusive. Rob established a series of locations – allotments, areas of council land and neglected green spaces, where people can come together and undertake practical tasks which are good for wildlife and nature but also for their own wellbeing. In line with the mission of Naturehood, the aim is to inspire people to take action for wildlife in their own gardens and green spaces. The NERC 'Engaging Environments' project continues. A documentary about this project can be watched here.


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