Our green spaces have been making the news headlines for all of the wrong reasons in the last year. Though on the plus sides it’s become clear how much we really care about them.

First there were the proposals, in January last year, to sell off Forestry Commission land. This created a huge public outcry and the Government had to abandon its plans, setting up a panel of experts to map out their future.

Then we had the proposed changes to the planning system. Critics, including the National Trust, saw this as a threat to the green places that lack real protection but people value.

None of this reaction would have come as a surprise to Octavia Hill. A social reformer, pioneering environmental campaigner and founder of the National, she championed our green spaces during the period of rapid industrialisation and huge change that gripped Victorian Britain.

This ‘growth at all costs’ model threatened to gobble up vast swathes of land putting profit before people. Octavia Hill and her fellow campaigners saw a clear threat and wanted to protect these ‘green lungs’ in our towns and cities as places to enjoy the benefits of being in the outdoors, whether urban or rural.

Out of this vision the National Trust was born as an organisation to acquire places of ‘historic interest and natural beauty’.

It’s this campaigning spirit that has been the inspiration for setting up the Octavia Hill Awards. We want to celebrate her life and legacy – she died in August 1912 – and recognise today’s ‘unsung heroes’ of the environmental movement, who make such a difference to our lives.

Octavia Hill had the foresight to see a clear link between our human need for access to green spaces and its connection to the benefits for our health and wellbeing. Her vision was a prediction of today’s increasing recognition by society that being closer to nature, wherever you are, has real benefits.

Across the UK there is an army of people that have been at the forefront of campaigns to save allotments from development or have helped to set up a community woodland. Without these volunteers the places we take for granted could vanish and our townscapes and countryside would be much poorer for that.

The huge demand for allotment plots is just one example. Waiting lists are long and yet the supply barely changes or is more likely to shrink. Community growing places – whether in parks or on National Trust land – have begun to spring up. The Landshare project has successfully matched people waiting with available plots.

For these new awards we want to hear about the ‘growing heroes’ that keep these places ticking over and reaching out to that appetite and basic instinct to grow our own food.

One of the categories in the awards focuses on the people that are inspiring the next generation of outdoors and nature enthusiasts.

There has been a lot of airtime and column inches devoted to our lack of connection with nature but there are people bucking this trend and making a huge difference. It could be a teacher that runs a forest school or set up a wildlife garden; or perhaps a ranger whose work is passing on their knowledge and passion.

People power has shown in the last year that when we come together we can make a difference. The Octavia Hill Awards is also looking for the organisations or groups that have successfully campaigned on an environmental issue, big or small, and made policy makers and people, sit up and take note.

It will often take a well known public figure to champion a cause for it to find its way into the national consciousness. We’ve seen this with school dinners and the debate around overfishing. We want to find out who the public thinks has shown determination and commitment to get an issue firmly on to the agenda.

It’s not until something is lost or under threat that we realise how much we value it. Octavia Hill had the vision that seeing green and being green is good for people and community. And it’s not just the spectacular that matters but the local field where kids have a kick about or a patch of woodland where bluebells flourish.

These awards want to show how inspiring individuals can bring about change or communities can come together to create a collective voice for a better way of doing things. At a time of great uncertainty it’s the places that we value the most that can give us the confidence in the future.

Nominations for the six categories of the awards close on 31 January 2012. More information can be found at http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/octaviaawards

(By Hilary McGrady, National Trust Director for London and the South East)