Episode #121 Down to Earth Derby: Growing a city Green from the inside out
As our world balances on the edge of transformation, how do we rewild ourselves and our inner cities? How do we build communities of place and of purpose that work, that give us resilience, life, hope – and a deep, enduring, magical connection to the earth? Jamie Quince-Starkey and Ross Nicholson of Down to Earth Derby describe the utterly inspiring work they are doing to achieve exactly this.
Jamie has worked with planes, trains and automobiles, but he found himself most at at home in himself, and at peace with the world when he had his hands in the soil, growing thing to eat.
Many of us might resonate with this, but Jamie took it a step further and set up Down to Earth Derby, a life-changing project that, as he says, “is an idea born out of conflict; the conflict of living life in the modern-day and the realisation of the negative impact we have on this planet.
The challenge is making a difference whilst also being realistic and having an understanding of how life is for the average person; I know we can’t just jump ship and move to an off-grid community (imagine if the problem was that simple)!”
It’s not simple, and he was working full time and had recently become a dad, but even so, he set up the project and threw himself into its mission:
– to work for our communities empowering everyone to be part of making Derby a world leader in nature-based urban regeneration.
– to make living with nature a part of our everyday lives.
– to create a movement with the people of Derby through a series of nature-based engagement projects and promoting the new city social.
– to promote and contribute to a thriving sustainable-regenerative economy for everyone, making Derby a blueprint for world-class nature-based urban regeneration.
Jamie was mentored by Tim Smit of the Eden Project, who introduced him to another Derby resident, Ross Nicholson. Ross is co-founder of Neo, an international network of 15,000+ individuals and companies across over 100 countries across the sustainable futures space which ‘makes vital human connections to get stuff done.’
And getting stuff done is what Down to Earth Derby is all about – this is about creating real change in a real city for real people, working on real regenerative principles. It’s an idea that’s evolving in real time and is replicable anywhere in the world. Making change from the ground up and the inside out. “DTE Derby is about growing people, connecting with nature and the importance of creating community.”
Check them out – and see what you can do in your local community. Links below.
Manda: Today I am talking to two people who really do know how and who are doing it in real time, on the ground, in the city of Derby in the English Midlands. Jamie Quince Starkey has worked with cars and planes and trains, making all of them. And as you’ll hear, he had an epiphany while gardening and having that genuine connection to the soil and the land and the sense that he wanted to be part of the solution and that making planes might not be that. And he set up Down to Earth Derby, which does what it says on the tin and is becoming a catalyst for the most extraordinary movement within the city, of creating the circumstances and the situations and the practical, down to earth concepts that allow people to reconnect to the land.
Manda: And with Jamie, we’re talking with Ross Nicholson, who is founder of Neo Journeys, which works to mobilise a 15,000 plus international network to co-create the right conditions for sustainable products, services and business models to flourish. Ross also lives in Derby and is being part of the Keystone that helps the extraordinary dynamism of the community that Jamie is building to connect with the people who talk in terms of money and stakeholders and have visions of five and ten year plans and want to make change, but are so hidebound by the political and bureaucratic structures that they don’t really know how or exactly where they’re going. And so Ross is there to help create the catalytic vision that Down to Earth Derby has become, both for the city itself and as a model for anywhere in the world. This is one of the most inspiring conversations I’ve had and given the state of the world at the moment, that’s pretty good. The sound is not perfect. Caro has done her very best. Jamie was in a car on the allotment and actually I think under the circumstances, the sound is remarkable. But, just let your ears adjust to the fact that it’s not entirely perfect. So as we go there, people of the podcast, please welcome Jamie Quince Starkey and Ross Nicholson of Down to Earth Derby.
Manda: So Ross Nicholson and Jamie Quince Starkey are down to earth. Darby, welcome this wonderful spring morning to Accidental Gods podcast. How are you both and where are you both? Ross First.
Ross: I’m very good. I’m in just south of the Peak District National Park in a place called Brailsford in Derbyshire, Derbyshire Dales.
Manda: And for people who aren’t familiar with UK geography, that’s basically the kind of slightly north of the midlands of England. Okay. And Jamie, you’ve just come off the allotment. Tell us where you are and how you are.
Jamie: Yeah, I’m in my car because I need soundproofing and I’m in the allotment car park looking at some trees, which is quite nice actually. It’s a nice little view. I’ve got everything plugged in. Yeah, to make sure I’m all good, but yeah, I’m good.
Manda: And the allotment car park, tell us where that is.
Jamie: So it’s in Derby City Centre between actually probably the most busiest roads into the city. And you wouldn’t believe it if you were here. You wouldn’t believe it. It’s very nice and peaceful.
Manda: In terms of the calm..
Jamie: Yeah, yeah, it’s totally calm. Not at the minute, though, because their’s a JCB next to our allotment plot.
Manda: Okay. Hence the soundproofing in the car, which is cool. All righty. So, guys, you are both integrally involved in Down to Earth Derby, starting with Jamie. Can you tell us how it came about and how you brought it about? If I’ve understood correctly, you basically instigated this.
Jamie: Yeah, I’ll do my best. And so down to earth, is a project I found three years ago. Well, three or three and a half years ago on my back garden. The only way I can describe how it was found would be an epiphany. I had an epiphany in the garden and it came about from my own conflicts. As in, I build aeroplane engines for living and I’m a nature enthusiast. So it’s quite obvious conflict there. Yeah. And that kind of conflict got to me a bit because I love going out for walks, I love growing food. I find a lot of solace and I’ve found a lot of mental health and physical health improvements from being out and a bit of a spiritual impact as well, if I’m honest. We watch these documentaries, these environmental documentaries that we see a lot now, and it’s all about the doom and gloom and it’s all about how bad humans have been on the planet and how we’re destroying our environment. And it’s all very, very negative, although very good at explaining the message. And part of me, as a shop floor fitter, I’ve worked on cars, planes and trains. I’ve worked in all the industries in Derby and I’ve worked with all the kind of shop floor fitters, working class people, and I know how they feel about things and I know how, how hard it is to feel like you’ve got any power to make changes.
Jamie: Because of a lot of the a lot of the conversations that we have these days, unfortunately, without going too deep in them is that people say, why should we bother? You know, why should we bother doing anything? What’s the point? Which is heartbreaking. And I was in my garden one day after finishing a night shift and feeling a bit like that and feeling like overwhelmed and disempowered with how big the job is to put things right. And I had this epiphany in the garden after working for three and a half hours. Hands in the soil. And people who garden will know how amazing that makes you feel. It really does. It just makes you feel amazing. And I thought, why can’t we just share this? You know, like, why can’t we just share this little this piece with people and make it really accessible? And the point hit me; it was we’re disconnected with nature. We’ve got a disconnection with nature. And we need to reconnect people with nature. And if we can reconnect people with nature, then that’s half the battle. So that was where Down to Earth kind of started. In the back garden. And it was making nature more accessible and it was like, how do we do that? Because that’s just one thought.
Jamie: It was like how do we do that? And the first thing that we were like, Well, people digest content much like what we’re doing now. And we were like, Well let’s get a camera and let’s just use our phones and let’s just film things and let’s just film the impact that we’re having and film how amazing it makes us feel in a Down to Earth way. And yeah, it went from there to getting an allotment plot. And then it was mates and then it was mates of mates and then it was like people who’d just seen what we were doing on social media and they were gathering around us and it was very inter-generational. And then we had people coming for walks because we wanted to take people out in the peak district. Because not only is it about growing food in a bit of a controlled environment, but you need to feel that the bigger aspect and that bit that you can’t control and being at Mother Nature’s mercy and accepting that. That’s a very big point. So you got these two things and then we had a social media community kind of grow out of that. We’ve got a allotment community that’s grown out of that, we’ve got a ramble community and then we’ve got Down to Earth crew that have kind of just gone ‘We want to get involved in this’.
Jamie: So that’s kind of how it’s kind of grown. And it’s been an absolute monster, if I’m honest. It’s been amazing. And the growth has been exponential. And then COVID happened. And then when COVID happened, it kind of made me go, I need to really think about what I want to do. Because I planned a lot of stuff and a lot of talks, a lot of events and a lot of programmes that I just couldn’t do anymore. And it made me really realise the problems that we face, that we need to be doing stuff about now and they need to be quite, quite big but also in a down to earth way. And it was like, it was a bit of a reflective moment for me. Because it made me go, actually, what am I doing this for? And I had this dream and I have this vision of doing something like Eden Project, which is a massive inspiration for me. You know, like it’s been there 21 years now and it’s an old disused Chinese clay pit quarry. And now it’s got it’s got an Eden in there. It’s got some amazing… It’s amazing. Like, you know, if you stand on top of that platform and you look down into this old disused quarry pit and you can see all that growth, you know, like it’s so inspirational.
Jamie: And that’s something that lit a fire in me and made me think, you know what? We’re in Derby, centre of the universe, and we can make things happen here. We can make some amazing things happen here and I know the way that people think. So I honour people and know how the community feels about how they’re being represented, and we know how important nature is. And it’s kind of created a very perfect list of ingredients that, if put together correctly, something really magical can happen in Derby, and I believe it is. And. Yeah. So that’s that bit. And then I had this vision and you know what, COVID. A lot of people just went, you know, what am I doing? Like, I need to chase my dream and I need to make something really happen. And I’ve been able to build my own self belief in what I’ve been doing with what I’ve already got with no money behind me. And I’ve had a lot of people kind of engage with it, and I’ve had messages from people saying, You’ve saved us, you know, and how overwhelming that is, which is when you hear that, it’s like you don’t know what to say. You’ve got purpose to fulfil that service and you can’t back out of that. So for me, we’ve had the allotment, we’ve had the rambles and the stuff that we’ve done, talks filming event wise and the social media stuff.
Jamie: It’s been very conceptual and we’ve learnt it works. You know, this is what people want. And it’s made me go well the big vision of building something akin to Eden Project in Derby, why aren’t we doing it? So I sent an email to Tim Smit quite cheekily, and he asked me if I wanted to come meet him and his senior team down in Cornwall. That was two years ago. Two years ago in summer, I went down with my wife, met him and waffled, much like I’m doing now. And he was like, Yeah, I love it. I love what you’re doing, love what you’re about. How can I help you? By the way, I’ve got no money. And I was like, Well, just be my mate; if you can just be my mate for the time being. And he went, Well, I’ll go one further and I’ll help mentor you. If you really want to do this. So that was two years ago. Two years down the line, we’ve been able to create an amazing team and we’re starting to Put things into practise now and starting to make network and connections with people who actually can make what we’re talking about happen. And obviously, I know I’ve been talking for 15 minutes now, so I’ll be quiet.
Manda: No, I frankly could just let you talk for the rest of the hour. It would be fantastic. There’s quite a lot of questions arose out of that, which I will come to. But we also have Ross as part of the podcast. So Ross, you introduced me to Jamie and you told me some of the real inspiration of his story. How did you come to be involved with Down to Earth Derby.
Ross: The the links really simple, actually. It’s Tim Smit again. Tim Smit’s in my wider network. So a bit of my background potted history is that I’ve been sort of broadly in the sustainability space internationally for about 17 years. I’m from Derby. I happened to study design and architecture as well in Newcastle. I returned from living in London for about 15 years, about five years ago, and Architecture met Derby, met Sustainability, met Jamie, met Tim I suppose. And so, you know, sometimes things are supposed to happen and it did and I’m absolutely delighted. So yeah, it was last summer, I was down at Eden Project with Tim and my company Neo was looking in various bits with him and we were chatting about, you know, he’d just come out of the back of the G7 and all sorts – so a fascinating conversation with him. And anyway, we just got down to sort of join the dots and he said, Derby, go speak to Jamie. So I got back. We’re having a coffee in the Bear Café in the middle of Derby. And I think the joining of forces is really, is that Jamie’s done an amazing job in three years in building a movement. You’ve got about 6000 plus or at that stage, you’ve got about 5000 people locally that were inspired by what he was doing and involved in what he was doing.
Ross: And, you know, my job was to to come in and help scale that. I’d grown one or two sustainable businesses before, etcetera. And he needed capacity as much as he needed strategy. So we spent last year getting the house in order, you know, doing the boring stuff in the background, like making sure we were legally set up properly, making the accounts all set up. And then so that we’d go into this year with building network capacity in the city, building friends and mentors and all the different stakeholder groups in the city to, to take what we’re doing. Which is being an independent catalyst for nature based regeneration in the city. That’s how we frame ourselves. To be able to scale it. And of course, if you’ve got a vision of Derby as a great place to live. And we mean happy, healthy. Everybody’s well-being is cared for and a proud city. And that that can be a thriving blue and green economy. So a sustainable city. Then to go from allotment to Community Garden, there’s a big gap between there and a city that is fully sustainable and regenerative and what have you. So I guess you’re going to ask us later on about how we’ll get there. So I’ll wait for that moment.
Manda: Yes. Thank you. Yes. Because I definitely do want to ask you how. But I want to go back to Jamie for a couple of questions, really basic things first. So for people who aren’t familiar, again, if you already had a movement of 6000 people, that sounds huge to me. I wish we had a movement of 6000 people. How big is the City of Derby? What’s your population?
Ross: Yeah maybe
Manda: Okay. You said we know how the community feels about how it’s represented. And then Ross said we wanted to build this sense of being happy and healthy and proud to be here. And it sounds to me as if there was something of a gap between those. Can you say a little bit more, Jamie, about how the community did feel about how it was represented? Where did that settle?
Jamie: I think when I first started Down to Earth, I felt fed up. You know, the whole reason why I did this was because I was fed up. Just fed up of food we were eating, how we worked, what our entertainment was, fed up with our actual spaces around us; community centres. For an example, right now there’s community centres, there’s one behind me which is the allotment site, and there’s a West End community centre which is down the road from me, and both of them haven’t been updated. One of them looks like from the seventies and one of them from the early nineties. So if these spaces that are for the community aren’t being updated for the people of the city, as people progress through life and as things change. Then they’re not supporting the people, you know. And you don’t even need to look at that… Like we’re all people who live in the UK. The community feeling and the community essence has absolutely dropped, you know, like absolute dilapidated. You look at COVID, how many people isolated. We haven’t got out of a pandemic, right. And what has the pandemic shown me, more than anything? Is that all these problems that were there have just come to the surface. It’s just made them more apparent. And there’s there’s a mental health epidemic, you know, like it’s a mental health epidemic. There’s all these issues and everything that we kind of do….There’s no labels to what Down to Earth is. You know, we can try, we can do our best to label it. And because it just flows and it’s organic, it’ll never happen. And I think that’s the best way. Obviously, me and Ross, we do our best. We do our best to label it for the people we need to explain it to. However, that doesn’t happen. And people come in to Down to Earth to be part of our community, not because of health and wellbeing, not because of whatever we might be offering. It’s because they just want to get involved with something they might be into. You know, we’ve had people on the plot and I know I’m going in and like digressing a bit. But we’ve had people on the allotment talk about grief in a way that I would never be able to talk to one of my friends about grief, because of not being going through that at the same time as these guys. And they just, because they’ve got their hands in the soil next to each other, not opposite a psychologist, right. They can just get through them things because they’re in an open playing field. And I think that’s really important. And that’s the capacity that nature has. And we have to… We are part of nature’s community as well, you know.
Manda: Brilliant. Yes, yes, yes. That’s what the entire Accidental Gods project is about. It’s so wonderful to hear that this is happening and on a genuinely organic level with all meanings of organic. And I’d like to dig into that a little bit more deeply, but before that, I want to have a look at the actual logistics, because other people listening, I hope, will want to go out and do something similar. You call yourselves a catalyst and there’s no reason why the more we get this message out, this couldn’t be happening in every community around the country. So when you first started this, if I understood you had a job, you were making planes. Now it sounds to me like it’s full time making Down to Earth Darby happen. So how did that transition happen? That’s question one. And question two is you went from your garden and now it sounds like… How big is the allotment? Because an allotment can be like three beds or it can be 300 beds. How much physical land are you working with at the moment? What does it feel like? Paint us a word picture of where you are now as you’re heading towards your Darby Eden idea.
Jamie: Okay, good questions. So yeah, I’ll start with explaining how I got where I am at now, doing this full time. By the way, it was probably full time whilst I was working another full time job, whilst I was also looking after two kids under two. So it’s been pretty heavy. It’s been full on, like I was working a three shift pattern and had two kids. One of them born during like the peak of COVID. And Yeah. So my wife, she’s birthed two kids and I’m still birthing one with Down to Earth. That’s what I like to say.
Manda: I’m sure she really appreciates that.
Jamie: I know, I know. That’s why I say it. Yeah. So I basically went down to see Tim a year later after we kind of connected and he was like, Come on and tell me, what’s the crack? So I went down with our team at the time. We went behind the scenes at Eden Project. We’ve seen how things were ran. We had a great time. It’s really, really lovely just to spend some time down there and really see how it went off and kind of talk about our ideas. And we sat down with Tim and had a coffee and he goes, right mate, where are you then. What’s happening? And we kind of explained things, kind of explained the conversations that we were having with the County Council, City Council, different organisations in the city, how we were building, how we had to jump through the hurdles and jump up the stages. And he was like, nah. You’ve got a great idea. He was like, you’ve got a great idea, you’ve got us behind you. You’ve got an amazing, amazing concept. You just need to go on for it. And I was like alright, that’s great. What do we need to do then? Well, you need to build a business proposal. Okay, cool. He was like, well you need to do this with a business proposal; You need to do that, you need to do this, blah, blah, blah.
Jamie: And I was like, Yes, that sounds awesome. But I have got two kids, a job, full time job, and a community that I’m kind of like helping and looking after during COVID. And he went, Okay, well, how’s about I send an email to Rolls Royce for you and see if we can get you off work? And my jaw hit the air. My jaw hit the table. I was like, What do you mean? And he was like, Well, yeah, we do work with Rolls Royce and I’ve never asked for a favour of them yet. And what better favour to ask them than to get you seconded and looked after. So Tim sent a email to Warren East, who’s the head director at Rolls-Royce at the minute. And probably the best email…if I have that email as my CV, I’m sorted for life I think. That’s really sorted me out. I honestly don’t think anyone’s said so many good things about me! So he sent that email to Warren East. In 24 hours, Warren East responded, basically saying I’ve got loads of time for Jamie. Of course I’ll sort that out. We’ll get a year off, sponsored for him. I was like Wow. Tim rang me at night when the email came through.
Jamie: It was about 5:00 and I was getting ready for a night shift and I just went for a nap with my daughter. Honestly, you can’t believe these things. And Tim was like, Oh, how amazing is that? Yeah, it’s great. And I was like, half in a daze because I needed to go to bed for a nap. Then I went to work and I wish I didn’t go to work, I wish I went to the pub. So that was that. Then October the first I’ve been doing Down to Earth full time, which has been absolutely crazy. Crazy ride in the crazy roller coaster.
Jamie: But yeah, so the allotment. The allotment plot, what we have at the minute, it’s two allotment plots put together with a boundary of wooden posts with chicken wire on it. With two sheds and one of the sheds we’ve got painted, with our Down to Earth Derby mural on it, that an artist has done, a local derby artist has done. Which we’re really proud of. She basically is an environmental artist and she gets old recycled reusable paint that people just leave in their sheds and she makes amazing art with it and it’s brilliant, absolutely fantastic. So we’ve got two sheds. We’ve got tools that we’ve been sponsored by Draper Tools from.
Jamie: We’ve got an amazing perennial plot. As you walk in, we’ve got on your left hand side, you’ve got a willow willow dome. It’s been weaved by one of our guys because we’ve got an amazing team of gardeners and growers now. People are really passionate about what they do. They don’t do what they do for money. They do what they do for love. And we’re so lucky and fortunate to have this amazing crew of people together like we are a family. And yeah, so there’s a perennial area which is a lot of fruit trees, herbs and stuff like that, and then it’s a bit formal. So we’ve got some more formal beds and then right at the bottom of the plot is compost, the compost area. So yeah, it’s probably 30 by 20 metres in length and width. It’s come on leaps that space and it’s been, I’d say, you know what? Down to Earth is more than spaces, it’s more than gardens. I’ve been thinking about this over the weekend. It’s more than that. It’s the people that we’ve got together. We can go and do gardens wherever. We can go, bang things up, wherever. It doesn’t matter. It’s the fact that we’ve got this kind of collection of people together. It’s really important. And now we’ve done a garden at a event space within the city, which is one of the most renowned event spaces within the city, which is banging! Like the guys did that in a day.
Jamie: They just got all the gear, they did it on the cheap and they’ve smashed it and it’s brilliant. So people go to this event space, they can get photos in a nice environment. So to go on top of that now, to progress that, is that we’re looking at setting up some more stuff with the city council, some more direct action community greenspaces. Because just as well as allotments are and as great as they are, they’re very niche and very echo chamber and they’re very, very to themselves. And if we need to get people into green spaces and we need to get people integrated into community, we need to revolutionise, you know, like we need to revolutionise how people garden and grow food and connect with nature. Because we did that, you know, we did that when the public parks first announced and the first national parks were first announced, which happened in Derby. It’s time to do that and update that and upgrade that to the next level, which is something that we’re really keen on doing.
Manda: Perfect, beautiful. Thank you. So, Ross, coming back to you, it sounds as if part of your role in this is being an intermediary between the raw energy that Jamie brings and the slightly less raw energy that city councils might have. And so I’m interested in the politics. Partly, let me frame this a bit. I’m trying to write a book of 2024 of what happens if we make it. And part of what I’m realising is that we’re not going to make it with the existing political structure because it’s too slow to get change, it’s too laden down with people whose entire emotional, mental and spiritual framework was set somewhere in 1960. And they’re still in place because we have government of at local and national level, of old people with old ideas. And so I’m wondering, does Derby completely kick that out of the park and is it full of young, vibrant people who completely get it? Or how are you otherwise getting through to people whose mindset is still concrete and roads and cars? Does that make sense as a question?
Ross: Yeah, it does. But I think we’re hitting this at quite a good time. I think we couldn’t have done this five years ago. At least it would be much more difficult. There is something about the sort of, whether it’s the zeitgeist or whether it’s just I think Jamie mentioned it earlier, about the last two and a half years that we’ve all been through, that actually made us stop. And actually change our relationship with the world around us. People who just didn’t then disappear into the wilderness to start hugging trees. Although that would have been nice. But I think equally we’re not in a position where we’re throwing something at people that they don’t get, they can’t relate to in some capacity. Jamie mentioned accessibility. This has to be accessible, and it’s accessible to those people who run public departments, councils in businesses, etc. They all get it. They’re not devoid of kind of emotion. These are people who are seeing what’s happening to the world and actually aren’t switching off and becoming somebody else when they get into an office. If they were going to an office these days. But something has definitely happened in the last two years that has acted as a catalyst to take us to this point. And it’s helped us. I think there’s the other flipside to it. Again, we frame as an independent catalyst. That’s all very helpful when you’re having conversations with certain stakeholder groups.
Ross: But actually we’re a movement. And this is going to happen anyway. So even if there was really, really big resistance in Darby. It’s coming. So you’d better get behind it. Actually, in Derby, full credit to the vast majority of people we’ve spoken to who hold the power: they do get it. We’re getting to the point where they have to go: We get it. Our hearts are in it. Our minds are in it. Now show us your wallet. But we are months away from that. And what that, to talk about the boring money side of it; What that will give us is the momentum for the movement to grow from 6000 to 60 to 600. And to help other cities. Right? So, you know, it isn’t a Them and Us in Derby. That’s not been my experience. And we have networked massively in the last year. The beauty of Derby is that at 230-40,000 people, you can get around it pretty quick. Physically, it’s not a big place. You can get around it pretty quick. You pretty much get to the point where you’re in six degrees of separation mode, and our story’s landing really well. So I think we couldn’t have done this as quickly for lots of different reasons. We couldn’t have done this five years ago.
Manda: Yeah, I’m also wondering whether it’s to do with the geography. Because as you say, Derby’s is quite a small city. It always reminds me a bit of Edinburgh, whereas I grew up in Glasgow, which is a big industrial city, but in Edinburgh you can see green wherever you are it’s Arthur’s seat in the middle and you can get out to countryside really quickly. And Derby is in the middle of Derbyshire obviously, and I used to go climbing in the peak district and it’s God’s own rock. It’s the most beautiful place to be. And so people who have either been born and chosen to stay or have moved to Derby are there already, I’m wondering, because they’re connected at quite a deep level to the natural world in a way that would be harder for people in the middle of Birmingham, say, or definitely in the middle of London or New York or huge cities around the world. That’s question number one. And that’s for Jamie. I’m also really curious, Jamie, where the Eden Project… Are you now going to find a disused quarry somewhere just outside Derbyshire? Or what does your Eden Project vision look like? So first off, is this a Derbyshire unique thing? Or do you think it can be replicated in any city? And second, tell us a little bit more about Eden in Derbyshire.
Jamie: Oh, so I think coming to the accessibility thing is really important, is that no, we have got the national park on our doorstep and the city has got some nice public parks. However, it’s not just physically inaccessible, it’s psychologically inaccessible to the marginalised communities that make up the city and the communities of Derby. And I think no matter what urban environment you’re in, we’re all getting disconnected from nature, you know, like we all being separated from it. And people are starting to go ‘We’re not actually part of nature’, which is shocking because if someone like us in this conversation now, would say to people, would stand on that soapbox and go, ‘You’re a part of nature. You know, like this is this is the environment. You’re there’. And they’d go, ‘Shut up you hippie, go hug a tree’. And you know what? Why wouldn’t they say that? Because they haven’t had the integration that we’ve had with nature. And it’s really hard to go through them steps, which is what we do. We don’t tell people what to do and change. We show them, by just being us and just being about and just getting involved and just enjoying it, having a laugh, having the banter. And people go, You know what? They see me, and this is the blessing and the curse of Down to Earth.
Jamie: They see me and they go, I can imagine playing football with him. Well, maybe not anymore. I’m semi-retired. They can imagine playing football with me. They can imagine going to the pub. They can imagine working with someone who’s doing this. That’s going to empower these people, which is really important. So we’ve got people who in our group, right, some of them come from Nottingham, some of them come from Birmingham. They see all the issues that we’re all about and we’re trying to resolve. And going back to the next part of your question, the Eden Project kind of thing. It would be great wouldn’t it if we could just bang a Load of Eden projects up and down the country. However, to integrate them into communities and other people without just banging it on there and saying,Eh up! This is for you to enjoy. Without them having a say so. It won’t work. And one of our, first my kind of first thoughts, was to get a quarry and do something in Derbyshire. But as time’s progressed and COVID progressed and our conversation progressed and we’ve distilled this vision and tweaked it as it’s grown organically, we’ve realised there isn’t a need there.
Jamie: The need is within the city, the need is in the urban environment. We need to rewild people, right? We need to actually rewild people by connecting them with nature, because by 2050, the majority of populations are going to live in urban environments. So we need to get that urban environment to be as natural as possible. And it’s all well and good rewilding places and giving farmers carbon credits to bang trees on their on their fields. Yeah, all well and good doing that. But we’ll still sit in our cars and sanitise our hands and and steroids and just sterilise ourselves from that outdoors and take pictures and all that’s really nice out there. Not walking barefoot. We’re not embracing nature and living in symbiosis with it, which can sound quite far afield and can sound quite radical. But there’s a transition to get to that point, and that’s what we do. We’re about making that point. We’re about taking people on that journey in a way that isn’t shoving it down their throats. It’s bringing them along for the ride. And these people will enjoy that.
Manda: Yeah. You’re not trying to lecture them. You’re not trying to patronise them, you’re giving them something and they find the value in the something rather than being told that it’s good for them by somebody who’s white, middle class and has a big car and can go to the countryside. Which is brilliant and beautiful. Thank you. So, Ross, back to you. You talked about networking a lot, about being able to get to the six degrees of separation and about building a movement so it’s happening anyway. And it can go from 6000 to 60000 to 600,000 to the whole nation, hopefully, because everyone is six degrees of separation somewhere and then we get to the whole planet. Have you had a sense as you’ve been working through this, of an acceleration in the spread? Are we in an exponential growth curve now or is it still one conversation at a time?
Ross: I think at a Derby level, it’s multiple conversations, to your point, about the make up of Derby, it’s quite a touchy feely place, but it’s certainly somewhere you can walk from one side to the other side of the city in 25 minutes, and that’s really important. So there is something going on there that actually makes it accessible in all senses of the word. I think we’re not the pioneers here. We hope to be pioneering inside of Derby, but there are other cities doing great stuff as well. And our aspiration is to be a blueprint for perhaps those that are a bit further behind us, and we work in unity with them to help them get to where we’re at. But it’s also about us learning from those other cities, too. So no, it does feel exponential in its growth and there is not one stakeholder group that we haven’t spoken to that isn’t behind us on this. But the point Jamie made. If you take it back to an individual level, you know, there’s a whole group of people living in the city who won’t care about this. But we’re convinced there’s a group of them that do want to care, but have no idea how to get involved. And that’s back to accessibility at that level. So, you know, we have as we talk about the concepts that we’re developing, so how do we go from allotments and community gardens and we say community gardens sort of 2.0 because we know there are challenges with that model, right through to helping the city become truly sustainable and regenerative.
Ross: We have to do that in small steps. So we’re doing it with the community and not at them. And I think in the city we’re being seen as those that can do just that, that we can create scale, but we’re not going from community gardens to this catalytic organisation that leaves that behind. It absolutely has to be about bringing the community with and how you do that. So some of the things we’ve got earmarked and sites for are things like a botanical bar, right? So, you know, it’s the new social. And so you’re introducing people without them changing their habits at all. They’re actually starting to get connected with OK, I get that. That sounds, that tastes interesting. Smells interesting. The experience is different. A result. What and this stuff came from around the corner? Right. Okay, what you mean I could grow that? You know, windowsills, etc.. Most people have got a windowsill and that’s where it can start. So really important that we do it that way. And we wouldn’t do it any other way, would we? It’s just that’s just kind of the way we’re going to do it. This is absolutely with. Just back to the Movement.
Manda: And it’s back to this is how we build community. I’ve been running this podcast for two and a half years now and pretty much when I asked people, How are we going to get through this pinch point in humanity? They all say, Well, we need to build community. Pretty much you’re the first guys who are actually doing that. And I would love to unpick it, but I suspect that there is no unpicking it. It’s just that you’re incredibly authentic. You absolutely care and get the need to create this. And you have the feeling of what it is when you put your hands in the soil. And just by being that, the community builds then because people resonate with authenticity, I think. So Jamie, coming back to you, first of all, does that feel fair? And then I have a new question. There’s a guy called Tim Gill or possibly Jill who he’s got a book just came out about this time last year called Urban Playground How Child Friendly Planning and Design Can Save Cities. And I was very impressed with his work. And he says that children are the indicator species for a city. In the way that salmon are in a river, you’ve got salmon swimming upstream in the river than the river is healthy. If you’ve got kids out playing in a city, pretty much unsupervised, then it’s a healthy city. And he has examples of particular places where that is the case and an awful lot of examples where it isn’t. And I’m wondering, are you getting kids coming and really wanting to put their hands in the soil and and watch stuff grow and do all the things that that we did when we were kids that modern kids seem not to get to do. Is that happening?
Jamie: So yeah, to answer firstly and on Ross’s point and kind of goes back to one of our earlier conversations in this. In the community sense, it’s not just us, you know, like and we can kind of separate ourselves from the authority and the governance and them bodies. However, we haven’t got time to be us in there. Like we have to integrate and we have to… Five years ago, actually, when I did that first clip for the film that we did, when I was saying how fed up I was, at being not represented, blah, blah, blah. If you said to me then what I know now, of these people that we’re in conversation with and how supportive behind us and how optimistic I am. Honestly, I would have gone ‘jog on, mate. That’s never going to happen. They’d never look after you. They don’t care. They don’t want to do this’. And they’re us, you know, like they care about the same things. Unfortunately, because of how democracy works in this country and bureaucracy and how compartmentalised everything has become, there’s so many gears in the machine that it’s really hard to break down them things to get to the things that they want to do, that actually got them to do the job that they wanted to do in the first place. You know, like that’s the reason why they did this, because they wanted to make changes. And then, like what we’ve seen like with policy making and blah, blah, blah, and they’re on board, you know. Like they basically turned around and said, How can we enable this? How can we make this happen? Because what you’re what you’re about is everything that we want to make Derby about’. And to hear that from people who are the chief executive city council to people who are leading and running the university and the colleges and all this, is absolutely incredible.
Jamie: You know, like that’s some of the some of the ingredients that we need to make this happen, which is great. And then to answer to the second part, getting kids involved, you know, like just I think we we can aim for kids and that’s good to aim to get kids involved. And that does work. There’s a lot of good projects that are doing that, especially in education, in schools and running programmes. But then me personally, what I found is the best thing is to get the parents. Because if you get the parents, then the parents will get the kids in at a young age. And then if the kids are getting in at a young age, then it just becomes part of them. It’s something that I say to myself a lot and I still reflect on it. And I never will be this person. But like my kind of, one of the sayings to myself is you’ve got to be the person that you want your children to be. You know, you’ve got to be that role model. You can’t have Cristiano Ronaldo and Yuain Bolt being the role model for your kids all the time and influencers and celebrities; like you’ve got to be that person.
Jamie: And as embarrassing you are as a parent and as your kids will see you, you will still have a massive impact on how they become as a human as they grow up and develop. And you need to just be that person, you know. And that’s a way of being that’s a natural way of being. It’s not, you’ll never tick off because you’re always and as a parent, you always go, you know what? I’m not good enough. Oh, God, I wish I did this, wish I did that. And part of that, we just got to get rid of. We’ve got to get rid of that thinking. We’ve just got to be. And I think that’s really important. But yeah, I think a lot of that stuff that we want to do within the city…. I went along the riverside, so we’ve got the river Derwent, it runs to the peaks from South Derbyshire to North Derbyshire, runs to the peak district through the city. The city has it’s back turned on the river. Which is crazy, you know, like the whole city is on one side of the river. And then we’ve got this amazing river with river gardens, with one of our spaces that we’re looking at. And I walked out and Ross, you’re like this as well. I walked there on Saturday. There was no clouds in the sky. And you’ve got a bus station that isn’t the prettiest. And there was kids playing on the river garden and there was nothing.
Jamie: There was nothing for them. There was nothing to do. And it’s obviously where the kids are; the mums and dads are waiting with the kids to get on the bus and it’s just plastic floating about and like burger boxes and stuff along the river. And you’re just like, is this really what we can offer? Know, like, is this it? Is this what we’re going to give people? And is this what’s going to inspire them to make changes? And then it hit me and I was like, imagine if we just put an outdoor play area along the river. Obviously be safe, along the river and under sails under canvas, so kids can be there throughout all seasons. Plant it up, make it look really nice, make it really natural. Then parents who are waiting with their kids to get the buses, you know, they’ve got a reason to start coming into the city a bit more for them. There’s a lot of people, there’s a lot of communities within the city, that won’t actually be able to get out of the city. And I know how hard it is.. I’ve got two kids under two, and to get them prepared to go out for a walk, takes longer than the walk. It takes longer than the walk. And, you’re like flippin heck, like, you kind of don’t want to do it! You know, like there’s something that just makes you think, You know what? I can’t be bothered.
Ross: I think you’re right. It does coincide with the change. One thing we are fortunate, I think, with Down to Earth as a movement is that we are hitting it at the right time, as we said earlier. But one of those reasons coming from what Jamie was saying, is that the city is completely changing. Most cities, the high street is completely changing. People are still going to be living in cities in greater numbers. But the experience of a city is going to fundamentally change. So the economics of the city is now changing. And actually the big change that those leaders are realising, is that there is great value in green spaces and the balance of green spaces and live-work accommodation. You know, these hybrids that are coming up now, it’s great. They get that if you build an apartment block right in the middle of the city and they’ve got access to green space or even rooftops where food is being grown, that I can go to and see my stuff, the stuff that I buy, my groceries being picked, and I can walk from there and have a coffee on the way back. And all of a sudden we become a pretty cool city. But yeah, the dynamism of that, or sorry the dynamics of that, is changing significantly and that works in our favour. So I think it’s important, you know the hearts and minds are there for sure. The leaders get it, but actually there’s the business case to back it up now.
Manda: Right. And I’m guessing also there’s the C40 movement, there’s the Doughnut City movement. There’s a whole bunch of cities around the world that are locked in nations where the leadership of the nation might be desperately trying to restart fracking. But at a city level, we’ve got city planners, city leaders, city councils who really want to be, as you said, regenerative and sustainable. Is Derby, do you think, connected into other networks like this, or are they relying on you to give them the vision? Because it seems to me just to expand the concept a bit, that when people really want to do something, they often don’t do it because they lack the vision of what’s possible. They only have the ideas they already have. And if you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always got. And they need fresh ideas and somebody coming and go, Yeah, but we could do this and it would work. And then if it would work, feels plausible, they’ll do it. So is Derby linking with other cities that are trying to create regenerative urban environments? Or are they kind of doing it with you in the the Derby bubble?
Ross: We’re going to be the catalyst, that word again, to those connections beyond Derby. Through my business, I know C40 well and and lots of others. So and in fact, we’re going to be linking soon to somebody in our network who happens to be from the Midlands area, who actually supported Singapore in their development to create a participative economy. Which led to cars be taken off the roads, etc., etc.. So hopefully we can make the the link there to lots of other cities around the world who have got the knowledge and know how to get it done. And your second point on aspiration. Eden, have been fabulous in that, in bringing our vision alive through fantastic images that they’ve created and scribbled whilst we’ve been downloading what it could look like, and to give something visual to the leaders that just made them go, ‘Wow, we could do this’. It definitely, massively increased their belief.
Ross: Of what could be done. And there was a question that was asked by one of the council to us. They certainly said something around, ‘but how do we do this?’ I said, all of this has been done before. None of this is new. To your point about connecting with other cities, it’s just about learning from other cities. And we can connect you with anybody you need to know to get it done. So it’s almost I couldn’t quite answer the question. It’s just like we’re not creating something new. It’s everything. It’s just we’re creating our version of it.
Manda: Exactly. We’re bringing it home to Derby. But this is stuff, we’re just putting the pieces together, assembling them in a slightly different jigsaw than the other jigsaws that already exist. But this is stuff that people have done. And then you can go to the other people and go, Yeah, but Derby’s done it this way. And that’s how we get, I think, the momentum building for exponential change. Is that everybody builds on the shoulders of the people who are doing something similar. So we’re heading down to the end. Thank you both. I desperately want to come back in two or three years time and see where you’re at. But as a kind of precursor to that, Jamie this season of the podcast is leading up to something we’re calling Thrutopia where we’re trying to get writers in to write the 2030s as they would be if we made all the right choices now. And what are those choices? So if you were to look forward 8 to 10 years in Derby and everything that you could possibly imagine now had come to pass, can you tell us how Derby would look and feel? And I know this is an experiment and very likely it won’t happen. But just give us a concept, I think.
Jamie: It’d be the feel more than anything. It doesn’t matter how it looks for me. It’s more about what people are thinking. And I think that’s very, very important, because where we are now is that people say ‘That’d never happen in Derby. Nothing ever happens in Derby. Nothing ever happens here. Why should we bother? Blah, blah.’ And so to answer that, my thing would be – people would go, What’s next? Where are we going to go from here? Like, that’s amazing. Like, I can’t believe we live here. And I can’t believe I want to bring my kids up here. You know, like, that’s what I want. I want people to come to Derby and set up their businesses here. Come for the amazing university degrees, because the education system here is amazing. And then obviously, you’ve got the industries, the industrial giants that support the workers of Derby. But I would love to see Derby become a full circle garden city, that is in the future, you know, like bringing the future. And is connected with nature, you know, like there’s no point making it difficult. Let’s keep it simple. Like everybody has a relationship with nature and it just becomes a new normal.
Manda: It’s so amazing. That would change the world. Yeah, yes, definitely. I came across a meme on Facebook today which said it’s from Aldo Leopold. ‘We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect’. And I would think we wouldn’t begin to use it at all. We’d begin to live with it and ask it what it wants. And then the world would be a completely different place. And if Derby could be the leading edge of that, that would be astonishing. So Ross, as we’re closing, if people listening to this were inspired and wanted to pick up the same threads as you are in their cities and their communities, have you got anything that you would recommend that they they do as a starter?
Ross: Listen. Listen to nature. Listen to the community around them. And stay with that. Because, again, back to the one thing that we’re not going to lose is that where we started. This is a movement across the country, we hope. And even beyond that. But we start small, start with what we’ve…. The reason we’re not doing the quarry. You know, although we had a conversation about it with somebody who had a quarry, he went, Hey, you should come and do this. We start small and we bring everybody with us. And such is why we’re doing allotments to community gardens, to small concepts around the city, but lots of them that are interconnected. It’s difficult to do a one off and then have people believe that that’s the way things are going to be.
Ross: It’s having an interconnected vision. And you take it one step at a time. Yeah. And the big thing about Derby is belief. I’m totally with Jamie on that. Eight years from now. If suddenly there’s this undercurrent of belief that anything’s possible.
Ross: Then we’ve done it. So it’s building.. You have to build belief over time.
Manda: Yeah. And I have an image of a playground all the way along the river. And people are coming on the buses to bring their kids to the playground. The kids aren’t just playing because their parents happen to be waiting for a bus. I think that would be completely amazing.
Ross: Well, I say yes. And the fact that we keep talking about kind of making those parents making adults feel like kids again.
Manda: Yes. Yes. I mean, that sense of the world as a playground and we can enjoy that sense of creative excitement rather than just drudging through the days, trying to get to the next day without having too much of a catastrophe. That would be that would be brilliant. Okay, guys, I think we’re done. Thank you so much. Unless there’s anything either of you wants to add as a last thing, then thank you for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast.
Ross: A pleasure. We could say get in touch.
Manda: Okay. We’ll put all the links in the show notes for sure, if people want to get in touch. I suspect that will happen. All right. Thank you both. It was wonderful.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Wasn’t that a completely inspiring conversation? It certainly utterly cheered up what had otherwise been quite a distressing day. It seems to me that this is the core: building communities by listening to what they need and what they want. Helping people to have a pride in being of the land and with the land, and then creating such momentum that there is no way that the people who might otherwise stand in the way can stand in the way. But also, they don’t want to, because they can see that this is a future that everybody wants to get to. Where we are happy and healthy and proud of where we are. So if you can see any way that you can get out and begin to create something like this in your immediate community and your immediate environment, then please do check out the links in the show notes. Get in touch if you need some help because the help was offered and see what you can do. In the meantime, we’ll be back next week as ever, with another conversation.
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