Nature Based Leadership and the Green Minds systems approach - Zoom-in

Cover photo : systems approach of leadership in nature
Systems Approach of Leadership in Nature, Illustration credit: Green Minds
Keeping the balance between doing too much and not doing enough is challenging, implicitly necessitating an overall integrated perspective and strategy. From here results the systems approach at the core of Green Minds, which makes sense of the ‘whole’ by identifying patterns of behaviour inherent in the structure, rather than focusing on individual behaviours.

Green Minds aims to put nature at the heart of decision making and inspire a new wave of citywide investment in nature-based solutions. Said differently, it pursues living with the natural environment and not just in it. But management for nature is always a tricky issue - especially in the urban context where conflicts between uses and approaches are more significant.  Leaving nature to ‘do its job’ through a process Green Minds calls ‘urban rewilding’, can lead to the perception of neglect.  Without an appropriate degree of maintenance, it can create barriers to access for particular groups and prevent other community uses of natural spaces such as sport and recreation.  Often the positive impact is longer term and the relation cause – effect is not always easily identifiable.  As a result, finding the right balance between conflicting priorities, whilst allowing nature to flourish, recognising the critical importance of nature for a healthy city - is a big challenge.

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Insights from the semi-guided interviews built around the 5 questions.


rewilding network

rewilding people and places

people in nature

mural with PCA students

rewilding network forest

Green Minds has adopted a systems approach to delivering their aims.  This started with the comprehensive mapping of people’ understanding, perceptions towards nature in the context of the city of Plymouth, aiming to identify key stakeholders, challenges, opportunities, themes and most importantly key leverage points for the project to focus its activities on. 

systems map
People’s perceptions and reactions to nature-based solutions and changes in nature. Credit: Green Minds

The research was mainly done through a series of semi-guided interviews built around the following 5 questions:

1) What do you value about Plymouth's parks, coast, and nature?

2) What excites you about nature in Plymouth?

3) What do you do at the moment for nature in Plymouth?

4) What do you need to enjoy/experience nature spaces more? Do you think you could do anything to encourage more nature in the city?

5) What else could Plymouth City Council do to help you experience nature more in your local nature space?

Green Minds West of the city
Credit: Green Minds

Alongside stakeholder interviews, the partnership was supported to develop their own understanding of systems and working with complex issues.  This led to a series of focus groups and paired sessions where project partners shared their own values around nature and explored their understanding of the system of land management and the potential for ‘urban rewilding’ in Plymouth, reflecting on their own experiences to date. This was supplemented by information gathered from a series of workshops and surveys with a city Rewilding Network set up for citizens by Green Minds.

The data gathered from all these interviews and workshops was pulled into core themes, and these were further developed at a systems mapping session with the project partners.

systems map partnership
S​​​​ystems map created with the Green Minds delivery team of experts

The systems map is an evolving tool enabling understanding and communication and can help to orienting the partnership work, identifying areas of focus and biggest impact.It is a form of conceptual modelling to provide insight into the way different factors work together to enable or prevent the implementation of a particular change (Wilkinson, Hills, Penn & Barbrook-Johnson, 2021). Through this analysis, interrelationships between different parts and behaviour patterns are identified, which is very effective to support decision making, knowledge transfer and policy making for complex issues (Carey et al., 2015; Sedlacko et al., 2014). In order to enhance stakeholder involvement, build social capital and support for the project, the systems mapping was made in a participatory way, by involving a facilitated group process that develops and analyses a specific system at a particular point in time as described by Sedlacko et al. (2014). 

The insights from the systems mapping workshop were translated into an animated representation by the project partners guided by experts and then conceptualised into a simplified systems map available at

Some key themes emerged from the exercise, which the group felt could form important leverage points to focus on – in particular Leadership, Environmental Justice, Policy and Values.  It was agreed that widening out participation was a critical element to enable us to better understand the system, providing new insight to support effective interventions. 

The work has led to the development of the Green Minds Nature Based Leadership programme started in Autumn 2021. Moving beyond the environmental sector, this is a 6 month programme for professionals across a range of sectors including children and adult social care, health commissioning, engineering, sport and the arts.  Working with sustainability experts Natural Change and taking on board research from the Common Cause Foundation, the programme’s initial focus is on exploring values and building trust and understanding between participants.  This will be followed by group and mentoring to support participants to develop their own action plan within their own professional spheres, as nature based leaders. The programme aims to build a network of nature based leaders that will continue beyond the life of the project.

Acknowledgements to Zoe Sydenham and Jemma Sharman for their important contribution to this zoom-in article.