Rewilding social care

“Nature has the power to heal itself and to heal us, if we let it. That’s what rewilding is all about; restoring ecosystems to the point where nature can take care of itself, and restoring our relationship with the natural world. Reconnecting with what matters.”

Rewilding Britain [1]

“Relationships need to be tended and nurtured – we don’t even have the language for this type of activity in our public policy, which eschews the metaphors of the garden for the warlike vocabulary of targets and the front line or a mechanistic language of levers.”

Hilary Cottam [2]

Three years ago, in the middle of the first Covid lockdown, my little garden bought me so much joy, peace and hope. There was something about nature carrying on, while the world as we knew it fell apart, that helped me stay grounded and retain some belief in a brighter future.

The association between wellbeing and nature is obvious and well documented, and that’s not what this blog is about – though I’d totally advocate for care and support plans to include opportunities for people to connect with nature. And wouldn’t it be nice if we talked of ‘pathways’ and ‘flows’ in relation to walks and rivers, not ‘hospital discharge’!?

Rewilding is about reconnecting with what matters. Which is absolutely what we need to do in terms of the way we think about, and work within, social care. So, I’m interested to explore how our practice could change if we eschewed “the warlike vocabulary of targets and the front line” and the “mechanistic language of levers” and focused instead on “the metaphors of the garden”.

If we viewed social care not as an ‘industry’, but as an ecosystem.


“The recent discovery that the roots of mature trees grow towards each other in a complex and inter-dependent ecosystem that, through its deep connectedness which allows each tree to stand tall and mature, serves as a metaphor for our new understanding of human development.”

Hilary Cottam [3]

Our current practice treats people as isolated individuals.

Our current practice treats people.

The medical, mechanical model of care dominates – doing to and for, tinkering and fixing. We work in institutional silos, discrete ‘professionals’ swooping in – usually at times of crisis – to patch and mend discrete individuals. ‘Systems that attempt to fix discrete bodies and body parts as if our lives are not inter-connected.” [4]

And yet everything is connected.

Our role should be to recognise, embrace and enhance those connections, to encourage and support reciprocity and interdependence, which will in turn sustain and enhance people’s lives.

“When organised well, social care helps nurture an ecosystem of relationships and support in our local communities that we can draw on to live our lives in the way that we want to, whatever our age or stage of life.”

Social Care Future [5]


“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”

Alexander Den Heijer [6]

We know that plants need light, air, water, nutrients, and space to grow. If a plant isn’t thriving, we automatically assume the conditions aren’t right – not that there’s an issue with the plant itself – and we try changing the environment it’s in. Maybe it needs more water, or more light. Maybe we need to improve the soil it’s growing in or create more room around it.

Contrast that with our approach to supporting people, where we view them as problems and set about fixing them, paying little or no attention to the environment around them.

Yet it’s obvious that people, like plants, will only thrive if we’re in a nurturing environment where all – not just some – of our human needs are met. A plant may survive for a while in rich soil with plenty of space around it, but if it lacks sunlight and water it will start to fade away. And equally if we have our physiological needs met, but don’t feel safe and secure, or lack loving relationships, recognition, and things to do with our time, we won’t flourish either.


“Had the system, in its quest for standardization, fairness and clarity, squeezed out too much personality, zest and colour?”

Gord Tulloch and Sarah Schulman [7]

“The goal is to enable everyone to flourish.”

Archbishops’ Commission on Reimaging Care [8]

The natural world is a joyous riot of colour, particularly at this time of year as an abundance of blossom clings to tree branches, vivid green shoots emerge from rich soil, and daffodils carpet the ground. And good lives are a joyous riot of colour too. Vibrant. Messy. Glorious.

But our current ‘system’ with its one-size fits all solutions is a monotonous monochrome. People are reduced to numbers on spreadsheets and worktrays and dashboards. Curiosity, creativity and compassion is crushed by commands to ‘close cases’. Opportunities and possibilities are reined in under the guise of austerity and eligibility.

Our goal should be for people who draw on care and support to flourish.

To lead gloriously ordinary lives.

“And that’s what good social care support does – it transforms lives by supporting people to do what everybody else would consider ordinary. It’s only when the ordinary becomes extraordinary by virtue of accident, illness, injury, that we realise how precious the ‘ordinary’ is. Going out with your mates. Picking up a bit of shopping for your mum. This very ordinary stuff is the stuff of life.”

Clenton Farquharson MBE [9]


“I wish I could have told him that loneliness is a human invention. Trees are never lonely. Humans think they know with certainty where their being ends and someone else’s starts. With their roots tangled and caught up underground, linked to fungi and bacteria, trees harbour no such illusions. For us, everything is interconnected.”

Elif Shafak [10]

I’ve written before that I feel the term ‘belonging’ encapsulates all that social care should be about. Living in a place that feels like home, being with the people and things you love, doing what matters to you. Being included and affirmed. Anchored. Secure. Rooted.

Our current practice is fixated on individuals and independence. On resilience and ‘managing without support’. It’s unrealistic, ableist and perpetuates the loneliness and isolation that plagues so many of our lives.

Roots give trees and plants stability and security, and the soil they reach down into enables them not just to survive but to thrive.

We need to identify and strengthen people’s roots by shifting our focus to building, maintaining and restoring connections. We thrive through our relationships – we need to support them to flourish. And “flourishing… depends on systems designed to reinforce relationships rather than individuals.” [11]

“belonging ridded me of my antidepressants about two years ago. I am not independent, I never was, none of us are, and I was miserable trying. Why would we approach someone with a life challenge with ideas of independence, when they need their belonging most? There is complexity and challenges in harnessing belonging, but I genuinely believe the benefits could blow our minds.”

Alice Hortop [12]


“As Thomas Coombes said recently, in the past, campaigners have gone by the maxim ‘sunlight disinfects’: by pointing at what’s wrong, and conveying its harm and urgency, you foster the public and political will for change. But we are in an age of multiple crises, all competing for attention and action, where despair can all too easily suffocate hope. Coombes reminds us that in fact ‘sunlight grows’: that we need to be putting equal effort into pointing towards what’s strong, and how it can become the norm.”

Neil Crowther [13]

Social care exists in the shadows. Gloom and negativity pervade the national narrative, with an obsessive, doom-laden focus on what’s broken and failing. Our practice focuses on the dark side too – abuse, risk, anticipating what could go wrong. And people who draw on social care are too often hidden away – separated, excluded, ‘placed’ elsewhere.

We need to shine a light on all that is good about social care and ensure that people drawing on support take centre stage and share the spotlight. And our practice needs to shift to a genuinely strengths-based approach, with a sincere focus on what’s strong, instead of ‘signposting’ people back into the shadows to divert them away until things get even worse.

The sun gives plants energy, and they grow towards the light. Illuminating what’s good and what’s possible gives us all energy too, and fosters hope and belief in a brighter future for all of us.


“In carrying out a proportionate assessment local authorities must have regard to the person’s wishes and preferences and desired outcomes… Local authorities should not make judgments based on preconceptions about the person’s circumstances, but should in every case work to understand their individual needs and goals.”

Department of Health and Social Care [14]

Seeds are magical. All that potential and possibility captured in a tiny pod.

Our human equivalent is our ideas and aspirations. Those personal dreams we hold on to.

Like seeds need the right amount of warmth, light, water, and air to sprout, we need the right environment to realise our dreams.

There’s little space for imagination in rushed, tick-box assessments and a standard set of service solutions. There’s no place for experimentation in systems designed around accountability and compliance.

Our conversations with people seeking support should start by identifying the seeds, then aim to create the conditions for them to germinate and grow. Time. Curiosity. Listening. Trust. Connection. Control. Choice…

And our working environments must enable tiny ideas to grow too, with enough autonomy, trust, and permission to try.

“Exploring new ideas, talking about them, trying things a little differently – this is how we produce new possibilities, new rhythms and in time, new cultures.”

Gord Tulloch and Sarah Schulman [15]


“Because a person’s needs are specific to them, there are many ways in which their needs can be met. The intention behind the legislation is to encourage this diversity, rather than point to a service or solution that may be neither what is best nor what the person wants.”

Department of Health and Social Care [16]

Diverse ecosystems provide stability, resilience, and the ideal conditions for growth, and in turn the diversity of individuals and communities should be recognised and viewed as a strength.[17]

Care and support options should be as diverse as the people seeking and drawing on support. And the involvement of a diverse range of people with diverse lived experience and as such, diverse knowledge, skills, and ideas, is essential to ensure that care and support options are co-designed and delivered collaboratively.


“Nature is diverse, dynamic, unpredictable and complex so there’s no one-size-fits-all route map to rewilding. It’s about taking a holistic approach that lets nature lead the way as much as possible – to grow, evolve and change on its own terms.”

Rewilding Britain [18]

If we’re really going to reimagine – or indeed rewild – social care, we need to shift from the dominant, industrial, Chronos time approach to practice and to practice change, and work instead in Kairos time. The time of nature, of seasons and weather and tides. Of creativity, and possibility, and opportunity, and serendipity.

There’s no one-size-fits-all route map to rewilding – or to good lives – or to practice change.

The change we need can’t be described in a plan or scheduled with a calendar or measured by a clock. This is change that spreads slowly but reaches deeply, with gentle ripples and then bigger waves meandering through our consciousness and our conversations and our cultures, flowing and connecting and creating change along the way.

Organic. Experimental. Fluid. Human.

Rewilding is a story of hope.[19]

And at its best, social care is also a story of hope.

So, let’s leave behind the divisive language of the battlefield (frontline, duty, officer, hero…) and the mechanistic language of the sorting office (efficiency, screening, triage, outputs…) and be influenced instead by the bountiful, beautiful, and optimistic language of the natural world.

Reconnect with what matters.

Rewild social care.


[1] Rewilding Britain

[2] Radical help, Hilary Cottam, Virago, 2018

[3] Welfare 5.0: Why we need a social revolution and how to make it happen, Hilary Cottam, UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, September 2020

[4] Welfare 5.0: Why we need a social revolution and how to make it happen, Hilary Cottam, UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, September 2020

[5] How to build public support to transform social care: a practical guide for communicating about social care, Neil Crowther and Kathryn Quinton, In Control for #socialcarefuture, April 2021

[6] “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower”, Alexander Den Heijer, Good Reads

[7] The trampoline effect: redesigning our social safety nets, Gord Tulloch and Sarah Schulman, Reach Press, 2020

[8] Care and Support Reimagined: a National Care Covenant For England, Archbishops’ Commission on Reimaging Care, January 2023

[9] The care we want, Clenton Farquharson MBE, Think Local Act Personal, 10 May 2019

[10] The island of missing trees, Elif Shafak, Penguin, 2022

[11] Welfare 5.0: Why we need a social revolution and how to make it happen, Hilary Cottam, UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, September 2020

[12] Should “independence” be at the heart of OT? Alice Hortop, The OT Magazine, 8 March 2023

[13] Escaping the social care doom loop, Neil Crowther, Making rights make sense, 23 February 2023

[14] Care and support statutory guidance, Department of Health and Social Care, 19 January 2023

[15] The trampoline effect: redesigning our social safety nets, Gord Tulloch and Sarah Schulman, Reach Press, 2020

[16] Care and support statutory guidance, Department of Health and Social Care, 19 January 2023

[17] Making it real: how to do personalised care and support, Think Local Act Personal (TLAP), 2018

[18] Rewilding Britain

[19] Rewilding Britain

3 thoughts on “Rewilding social care

  1. A good article but bias in it only looks at one type is care Social Care. There are two systems here which need addressing. NHS used to have beds available for people with health conditions. Over the years they have gradually disappeared. Leaving private care homes to brokerage to take a person with health issues. Now they are finding that the money paid does not cover their costs and private companies work on profit basis. Also they cannot employ the carers they are not there anymore. There is social care and continuing healthcare which is there for people with a primary health need and their needs are above and beyond that social care can legally supply it’s above their legal remit. Therefore it is the ICB responsibility totally. icb turn people with dementia down for CHC on a regular protect their budget. This is forcing social into the position of supplying healthcare they should not be doing.


  2. What an absolute splendid expression of empathy and sense of synergy with all and nothing! “IT”

    “IT” that is to be trusted in beyond our understanding.

    Please take IT from one who has sensed all you express and more that to know to much of IT may seem momentarily miraculous yet simultaneously for the sensor unsustainable without the realisation of considerable sharing and help.

    “How well we share dictates how well “IT”


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