Land use is fundamental to nature conservation, urban environmental management and sustainable development. Since cities first developed provision has been made for formal and informal open spaces, either for the privileged classes or for the mass of the people. In the United Kingdom, the rapid growth of towns and cities in the nineteenth century soon led to calls for parks to be provided for the health of factory workers. An early example, perhaps, of what we now call sustainable development, with benefits to the economy (healthier, happier and therefore more productive workers), social life (people relaxing and meeting in the parks) and the environment (as open spaces were created amongst the streets, mines and factories).

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the development of the science of ecology and the growth of the nature conservation movement. Three main phases in the development of nature conservation in Britain may be identified. First, it was almost exclusively about land use and management, although the land concerned was rarely in towns. The National Trust was formed in 1895, and its remit included the promotion and protection of 'places of natural beauty and historic interest for the benefit of the nation'. Most wildlife trusts came into existence to acquire and manage land: by the 1990s the nation's forty-seven wildlife trusts owned or managed over 2500 nature reserves. Second, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, these and other organizations expanded their work to include substantial education, interpretation and advocacy programmes. This combination of conservation management and engagement with people and policymakers put the conservation organizations in an ideal position to contribute to sustainable development. As this concept took root, they were ideally placed to demonstrate the links between the natural world, social equity and economic development, thus entering the third, and current phase.

In the 1990s the nature conservation organizations were also able to embrace and promote the new idea of 'biodiversity'. This is defined as the variety of species, their genes and their communities and interactions. The term first came to public notice following the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. One of the outputs of the Summit was the Convention on Biological Diversity - a commitment to conserving and improving global biodiversity signed up to by many countries, including the United Kingdom.

One more thing was necessary to open the way for biodiversity to play its rightful role in improving towns and cities. This was the acknowledgement that wildlife and its habitats are just as important in towns and cities as in rural and remote areas. Although there are still people who think that nature can only thrive in the countryside, and that somehow the wildlife of towns and cities is second rate, or a poor imitation of 'proper' wildlife, there is increasing recognition of the part that properly functioning ecosystems play in improving both urban environments and people's quality of life. This recognition has grown out of the activities of the vigorous urban nature conservation movement which sprang up in the late 1970s and included, in 1980, the formation of what is now the Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country, and the London Wildlife Trust.

Wildlife in towns all over the world has to contend with typical urban characteristics. For example, towns and cities are generally warmer and dryer than the surrounding countryside because increased energy-flows warm buildings and hard surfaces. This 'heat island effect' is linked to the fundamentally arid nature of towns. Rainfall runs over sealed surfaces into drains rather than being gradually absorbed into the ground, as in the countryside. Other common characteristics include the presence of exotic species and 'urban specialists', such as feral pigeons, brown rats and house sparrows, the masking of the soil profile by the remains of previous development, and the unique assemblages of species which occur when cosmopolitan nature expresses itself on 'brownfield sites'.

If the nature conservationists have arrived, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, in our post-modern metropolises, what sort of welcome are they getting from the eclectic mix of urban regeneration professionals or 'urbanists'? Not much of one - judging by government pronouncements about, and activities related to, the urban renaissance. This seems to be almost entirely focused on social and economic developments. There are references to 'the physical environment', a determination to rid towns of eyesores and derelict land, and a desire to improve streets and squares to encourage socialising. Even so, there is no breadth of vision, or depth of understanding, of the relationships which should be recognised and nurtured between people and the natural world.

Since the break up of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), responsibility for 'the environment' has been separated from transport, regional development, planning, and local government. These functions are now split between four ministries (the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Departments of Transport, Trade and Industry, and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). This has serious repercussions for sustainable development which demands integration and strategic thinking in these areas. At least local authorities still combine the necessary functions and, moreover, have a discretionary power under the Local Government Act 2002 to 'do anything they consider likely to promote the economic, social or environmental well being of their local area'.

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