I was at a party recently thrown to mark the hosts’ thirty years in their adopted home of Crediton. Reflecting on their time in the town, and the changes they had seen over that period, they picked out the successful campaign to build the first new town square in the country for many decades. This, they said, had transformed the heart of the town (in fact the project was termed The Campaign for the Heart of Crediton), hosting farmers’ markets, outdoor theatre, a food festival, and much more, and was something they were proud to have been involved in.
Why did the town square stand out in this way? What’s so special about public outdoor space? Why does it matter, to whom? Do we have enough of it, and what are we doing to protect and improve access to it?
Outdoor public spaces have been described as our collective ‘front porches’, our ‘open-air living rooms’, our ‘outdoor leisure centres’, where we get to brush shoulders with our neighbours and get out, healthy, and active. They are the stage for collective celebrations and expressions of identity (look out for more about this in a future blog). Public open space has the potential to be as inclusive as it comes.
Outdoor space can also be the setting for participatory politics, and this is when the ownership of the land becomes important – remember the Occupy London movement being denied access to privately owned Paternoster Square, adjacent to St Paul’s Cathedral, in 2011.
A lot of what is written about public space has an urban slant, and a tendency to focus on high-profile, city-centre developments. If you want your public space to encourage social cohesion, however, smaller spaces nearer to where people live, rather than large urban showpieces, are likely to have more impact on people’s lives.
Playing Out – not just for the kids!
The idea of play streets – closing residential streets to traffic so that children can play out of doors near where they live – has been gaining momentum in recent years, especially in the light of a series of reports outlining the dramatic reduction in the time children spend playing outdoors. Playing Out, a parent-run organisation, began in Bristol in 2009 and has helped communities across the country organise local outdoor play opportunities. There is a nostalgic appeal to seeing children playing picturesque skipping games in residential streets, added to the mildly rebellious thrill of reclaiming the street for the pedestrian in the face of ever-increasing traffic. Children get to hook up with kids from other schools, or in different age groups, and the experience helps them prepare for greater independence as they get older. Further initiatives in this vein are beginning to look at how to extend the idea to support the outdoor play of children living in high-rise housing, or in more disadvantaged areas.
Play streets don’t just benefit the children, however. The coordination required to organise a play street, preceded by an element of market research, to see if it will be welcomed and used, all brings adults together who might not otherwise do more than nod to each other over their car roofs in the morning. These adults then tend to congregate in the street just as readily as their offspring, and who knows where this added layer of neighbourliness and small-scale community action might lead?
Much has been made, from nineteenth century social reformers onwards, of the link between public outdoor space (especially green space) and improved public health. The link between an engagement with the natural world and general wellbeing is also a familiar idea – the Naturally Healthy movement brings these two elements together, suggesting GPs ought to be able to ‘prescribe’ a dose of the great outdoors to people in the same way (or ideally instead of) painkillers and anti-depressants.
It has been recognised that access to the countryside can be challenging, even in Devon, where we are surrounded by it. Mid Devon, for example, is a predominantly rural area, however it has some of the lowest levels of access to green space in the county, because so much is privately-owned agricultural land, with limited public access. Access to the outdoors can be unequal for a number of reasons. Often public transport is inadequate, so getting out into the countryside can require access to a car. There can be particular access problems for people with disabilities, who might require wheelchair-friendly pathways, or special equipment, to get out and about.
Even urban green spaces can face challenges relating to access, though these are more likely to be linked with the reputation of an area, or the quality of infrastructure within it. This example from Exeter shows how it is possibly gradually to shift perceptions.
Breathing new life into Merrivale
Otherwise known by the locals as ‘the back fields’, Merrivale Park in the St Thomas area of Exeter has long been left to its own devices. Nestled in the middle of a 1930s red-brick local authority housing estate, it is unknown even to many long-term St Thomas residents, and in need of some TLC, strewn with broken glass and dog poo. A fondly-remembered and now closed youth club sits at one end, forming a rather forbidding entrance.
Residents Sam and Tim Snell have been working hard to change this. Together with other residents they formed a small committee, Friends of Merrivale Park, in January 2018, contacting the council to get the grass cut and the bins reinstalled. Meanwhile local groups Exeter City Community Trust and Freemoovement were persuaded to set up regular sports events in the park.
The group applied for councillors’ grants, compiled two surveys about the park and held regular events throughout the summer, providing opportunities for local people to come together. The Woodcraft Folk youth group planted some wild flower seeds, and the park is now much better-used. Friends of Merrivale have also been supported to apply for a Grassroots Grant for some newer play equipment.
Local people are still rather reticent about using the space – it takes time, as well as physical improvements, to change prevailing attitudes. But all the signs are good.
Public policy pulls in different directions on outdoor public space. On the one hand the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government makes available funding, administered through local authorities, for the refurbishment of existing parks and public spaces, but also the establishment of new ‘pocket parks’, to be used by the community as quiet spaces, to grow good, and provide play opportunities. Some large funders also have an interest in innovative ways of reviving parks. On the other hand, there is pressure on local authorities to maximise income from publicly-owned land, and the lure of developers’ cash can be irresistible. In this climate, the Campaign for the Heart of Crediton’s success is indeed something to look back on with pride.
Nicola Frost, Knowledge Guru, DCF