Sing a song of urban nature

London seen from high, looking over the City
Andrew Simms
Music can help us fall back in love with nature in the towns and cities where most people live, and is vital to survive and thrive.

One way to show what we value and are prepared to fight for is to write and sing songs. Our Urban Nature is one small example. Nature sings to us with the dawn chorus to welcome every day, let’s sing back just as often as we fight to restore it. 

It was the odd silence on the streets during the pandemic that reminded many city dwellers urban nature was all around them. It had been all along, overlooked, dancing green shoots claiming cracks in concrete, wildlife watching beady-eyed from tree branches, waiting for dark to empty bins.

But only when the monstrous herds of urban SUVs were corralled, their fumes and fury absent from neighbourhoods, as people stayed at home to slow the spread of the virus, did birdsong break through. Urban green spaces, under constant threat, were embraced again, their essential worth to human health and well-being revealed. It was the great reminder, nature doesn’t just need us to protect it, we need it to thrive.

March for nature

Close your eyes and think of a time when you were happy, the chances are it will have been in nature. Yet everywhere there seems to be a war on nature, in the voracious consumption of the world’s wealthier people, the three tonne SUV tanks driven to the shops, frequent flying and global land grabs. And it’s a conflict with a lethal boomerang effect, as we suffer the extremes of global heating and habitat destruction increases ‘zoonoses’, the spread of viruses from animals to people.

Humanity’s future relies on us falling back in love with the nature that has been marginalised, trodden-on and forgotten in the towns and cities where most people live. But how can that happen? 

One answer is initiatives like the unprecedented coming together of climate campaigners, traditional conservation organisations and countless others for the Restore Nature Now march in London on 22 June, 2024.

Our Urban Nature


Another is to reconnect with nature in everything that we do. A chance question to an old friend while sat discussing climate campaigns in a wood full of birdsong on the edge of Stockholm, led to the discovery of their rich musical background and the idea to write and record a cycle of songs about encounters with nature and green space in one of the world’s megacities, London. So birdsong, nature’s music, inspired the new collection of songs ‘Our Urban Nature’, celebrating non-human urban life. Even in hard-landscaped, heavily polluted London, once I looked I realised how much urban nature shaped my life, experience and memories. The lyrics I wrote that resulted were put to music and performed by Anna Jonsson, Sara Nilsson and Nina Wohlert, in a group specially formed for the project, Tree Oh!.

Anna Jonsson had worked as a special advisor to Sweden’s minister for the environment when the post was held by the Green Party, before setting up think tank New Weather Sweden, as sister organisation to the New Weather Institute in the UK, but was formerly trained as a musician. “There was a lot of joy going back to music, discovering the many ways to combine creativity with the climate struggle,” says Anna.

One way to show what we value and are prepared to fight for is to write and sing songs. Our Urban Nature is one small example. Nature sings to us with the dawn chorus to welcome every day, let’s sing back just as often as we fight to restore it. 

“Receiving the lyrics when the children were asleep and turning to play the piano to find the tunes and see spontaneous, crazy, joyful ideas become something, take on their own life. It might seem peculiar for us to be singing about London, but the stories about connection to nature in the towns and cities are universal and human. Even though these are very specific, they tell stories that can touch everyone,” she says.

Green London sings

Music can tackle complex issues in attractive and accessible ways. Crystal Palace is a lament on the long and complex legacies of empire. It was inspired by the park where the former Crystal Palace, originally built for Great Exhibition of 1851 to celebrate the British Empire, was moved in 1854, before burning down in 1936. Ever since there have been debates about what to put in its place, just as we’re challenged to replace lifestyles of western over-consumption. 

One Tree Hill on the other hand, is about a journey from living for short term financial gain to embracing the greater importance of nature. Named after a small park in a place called Honor Oak in South London, it is the place where the campaign to make London the world’s first ‘National Park City’ was launched, an initiative to get people to see cities differently as places for nature, and where nature is respected as much as it would be in a traditional national park. From the top of One Tree Hill there is a clear view across the River Thames of London’s financial centre, the City, which finances so much ecological destruction for short term gains. 

Completely different again, Battersea Park is a song of joy, a reminder of intensely personal moments in special places that root in the soil of the soul. The London park on the river Thames, near the famous power station, icon of former fossil fuel dependence reinvented as a shopping temple of overconsumption, is a place where people come to walk, run, play sport, do yoga, and go boating. It is also where, next to a beautiful Pagoda by the river’s edge shaded by great London plane trees, my daughter Scarlett had her naming ceremony.

Life out there

Parliament Hill recalls the total eclipse of the Sun in August 1999 that I viewed from the hill overlooking London. It was a moment of discontinuity that suddenly, shockingly, reminded you of your connection to the immensity beyond our small, fragile planet, with its vanishingly rare and precious conditions that allow life to flourish. For me it held a mirror to the human obsession with wondering about life in outer space while wilfully destroying it under our feet, and was a reminder that ‘we are the life that’s out there’. 

Finally in this this first volume, Rise Up is a short cry of the heart was inspired by a run through Stockholm’s nature reserve on the edge of Bagarmossen where Anna lives. Running over the uneven trails forced intimate attention on the nature around you and the presence of water everywhere is an inescapable reminder of the vulnerability of cities to rising water, leading easily to the idea that we too must rise up for change. Unglamorous but essential urban green spaces like London’s Mitcham Common will be celebrated in a follow up EP. 

Nature cures

But today we are living through a mass extinction event, the result of a neglectful, destructive relationship between humanity and the rest of nature. And in harming nature we harm ourselves. We have the chance to become re-enchanted though, if we connect, respect and enjoy nature in the towns and cities where most people live. Nature doesn’t need to be loved in a functional, self-interested way, but knowing that access to green space reduces anxiety, boosts the immune system and improves mental health clearly adds to the case for restoring nature. Unequal access to green space due to race and income makes this a case of racial and class justice too.

One way to show what we value and are prepared to fight for is to write and sing songs in their honour. Our Urban Nature is one small example of how, with friends and colleagues in the climate movement, we have tried to celebrate our love and inseparable connection to nature. It continues the great tradition of singing for joy and to gather our spirits as we march towards our challenges. Nature sings to us with the dawn chorus to welcome every day, let’s sing back just as often as we fight to restore it. 


‘Our Urban Nature’ is available on most digital platforms. Music written and performed by Tree Oh! (Anna Jonsson, Sara Nilsson and Nina Wohlert), concept and lyrics by Andrew Simms. 


Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute and assistant director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, co-founder of the Badvertising campaign, coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, an author on new and green economics, and co-author of the original Green New Deal. Follow on X @AndrewSimms_uk or Mastodon

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