What would you do with this space?

Disused overgrown tennis courtSome disused, overgrown tennis courts near where we live are going to be converted into a community play garden, and I would love to hear your ideas about what could be done there. I am keen for the garden to be a great place for local children and families: where they can have the kind of playful, hands-on, exploratory experiences of nature that I highlighted in my Sowing the Seeds report.

I say ‘near where we live’ – in fact the space is immediately beyond our back garden. I can see it from my home-office window as I type. (If this sounds somewhat implausible, it is. Especially since we only moved here a year ago, and I cannot claim any involvement in getting the project off the ground.)

The land is owned by our local authority, and some fleet-footed officers working with local residents in another nearby street spotted the opportunity to put in a bid to the London 2012 Changing Places programme, Transform being delivered by Groundwork London (the Olympic Park is just a couple of miles away). The funding is around £40,000 in total (USD/AUD 60,000 approx). The project needs to (amongst other things) “improve environmental behaviour and choices and practices”, and also needs to be accessible to the public (though not necessarily all the time).

Disused overgrown tennis court - pic 2

I am considering joining the voluntary residents’ steering group that is being set up (how could I not?). There have been a couple of meetings since the funding was awarded, following on from some meetings in advance of the bid. My impression is that there is little or no hostility to the basic idea, and a lot enthusiasm from some residents for gardening/horticulture, and for natural play/outdoor learning.

So – read on, take a look at the photos and let me have your thoughts! I will share mine too in due course, and I will also keep you posted on progress in the coming months.

The site
The site consists of two flat tennis court areas separated by a 2-foot high retaining wall where the ground level drops, and surrounded by 3-metre-high chicken-wire fencing (which needs repairing in places).

Much of the ground around the tennis court surfaces and retaining wall has reverted to nature in the 20 years or more since the courts were last used. Silver birch, ash, sycamore and the odd buddleia are all evident, along with brambles, ivy and nettles.

Skeleton of hut buildingThere is the skeleton of a hut building near the entrance to the site which, while not totally sound, looks to me like it could be repaired and used in some fashion (perhaps simply as a shelter with a water-collecting roof).

Context and constraints
The site is only accessible via a dirt track (wide enough for a car or van) that runs along one long boundary of the courts and that gives access to a row of garages and sheds at the bottom of residential gardens. It is practically invisible from any of the nearby streets, but is overlooked by the backs of two-storey terraced and semi-detached houses (including our own) along three sides. The fourth side is the edge of a small woodland nature area. The adjacent gardens tend to be around 30 – 40 metres long, so the site feels somewhat isolated, as it is quite distant from the nearest doors and windows. This means that it is likely to be of most interest to the people who live in the streets immediately around it.

The site is likely to be locked most evenings and quite possibly at some other times too. Key holder arrangements are yet to be clarified. One primary school is about 5-10 minutes’ walk away, while several others, and two secondary schools, are 15-20 minutes’ walk away.

It is unlikely that there is enough money to dig up the tarmac tennis court surfaces, and there may not be enough to provide a water supply either (though there may be an existing water supply – this is not clear). There is no money for running costs, only for capital works. This means that ongoing maintenance and upkeep is likely to depend upon local voluntary input and fundraising.

I am particularly keen to hear from people who have done something like this before. How can we generate constructive ideas about design and upkeep? What are good ways to involve children and young people? What has worked well, and what has not? Have you any lessons to share? Any pitfalls we should look out for? Whatever your thoughts, I would love to hear them.

34 responses to “What would you do with this space?

  1. wow…. where to start!..there is so much I could say, and experience to share, that I would write a screed! but you will know from my book the sorts of things I would say about design/inclusion (see link on http://www.landscapesnaturally.co.uk for anyone who has not seen “Naturally Inclusive” )
    In my view a first step would be to explore the existing site (as far as is feasible with due regard to conditions etc) with local children and families, to identify parts that are already great to play in! and undertake an engagement process with them and the local schools (my bread and butter of course!) Groundwork will no doubt be planning to do this? it needs to be thorough and dynamic (not just one or two meetings) to ensure that the resulting design brief is robust and “owned”. ( I often use model building, as well as real scale design workshops, as part of this process as it is very successful in drawing out adults and children’s ideas that can then be translated into design.)
    The “community safety” implications will be a key part of the design process too I imagine. The properties backing on to the site will be the “eyes and ears” and you have quite rightly highlighted that they need to be drawn into the project early on. Careful design can maximise informal “surveillance” too, and your local police community safety design advisor or team may also be able to give you useful help on this as well.
    During the later stages a very successful community building/engagement process, in my experience, should also include some elements of self build/guided build as part of the capital works too. Lots of skill development and fun for all ages working together!
    … so much more to say, but run out of time! hope these few points are a useful start to the debate…
    What a great project on your doorstep!..enjoy!

  2. Tim, I think you’ve answered most of your questions yourself.
    In fact, give it another ten years and it’ll look much like the abandoned WW2 airfield (on a much smaller scale) where I grew up and played.
    Why do much at all, apart from an RBA and checking at a sensible frequency for the obvious (real) dangers. Maybe there is scope for adding a few design flairs to enhance the existing affordances? If there’s space for kicking a ball, riding a small bike, building dens, hiding, exploring and all the rest of what encompasses play, then you’ve got a great little site there.

  3. Hi Tim – this looks like a wonderful wildish urbanish place. You might like to have a look at the meadow orchard project in Crouch end which (I think) started as a mental health project and is now run by volunteers who ‘are making it up as they go along’. I have a friend involved who would be happy to tell you more if you are interested. Good luck! Hattie

  4. oh by the way what I meant to say was ….. get in there and occupy! enjoy it and use it for whatever anyone wants to do there – picnics, football, bbq, secrets, feeding the birds, film show, street p[arty….. then it will become clearer what is needed to make it easier for everyone to do what it is they want to do there… sort of thing

  5. Great! one of my research participants has just had a natural play space turned into a tennis court – oh the irony!

    First thing that immediately springs (aha!) to mind is water. The free stuff. An invaluable play resource that can be harvested through rain water collection. Of course, this does not go down well with the risk-averse (it’s not chlorinated, but neither is a puddle….). Bear in mind the dual use of any roof that may go up, or design roofs or climbing platforms to include this purpose. Scrapstores often have guttering to add to the theme of messy water play, which can extend off the tanks. I tried to get this going in Bristol parks when all the play capital was about but the local authority wouldn’t go for it due to the usual reasons, fair enough. An independent group could experiment with less to lose. Importantly, 2 further uses:

    1) if any planting happens, it will need a feed and drink from time to time…
    2) for emergencies i.e. fire buckets.

    There you have water and fire play potential. Free water will come in useful even if only under supervision (sigh).

    Any local permaculturists involved on the steering group? They will have interesting contribution to design and hopefully some people power if anything gets constructed – there are always willing permaculture students / enthusiasts who will volunteer. Just saw on Twitter – the London Permaculture Festival is happening this Sat 21st. Best of luck.

  6. Hi again,

    If it were m, I’d get in and have a quiet look. Nowhere is ever unoccupied! There are probably several local children and teenagers who already use it and are shivering in their trainers at the thought that some adults are going to move in and turn it into a ‘play garden!’

    I’d go straight to the kids and ask who uses it, what’s it used for and how it is organised now. Beware the best intentions of the well meaning. Easiest way to lose anything that seems a little ‘wild!’

  7. Mmmmmmmmm my m lost an e!

  8. All good comments above. Especially agree with Craig (food for thought there for Playing Out aswell – could organised street play actually discourage older kids from being out?). Best thing would be for it to be somewhere people can make their own, including kids, where there is a sort of DIY / wild attitude and some way to allow for that through a risk-benefit policy of some kind? But maybe I’m dreaming. No idea how well a sanctioned free for all. Would work in practice! Maybe something in between would be better i.e. some freedom to build/improve/change things ad hoc but also some boundaries around this? Anyway, lucky you to have this opportunity to start from scratch and lucky residents’ group to have your expertise!

  9. Hi Tim, I’ve just been given a book (from Sharon Danks of the International School Grounds Alliance) by and about the life work of Karl Linn, called Building Commons and Community (with “lessons learned in the 1960’s” for instance). I visited a couple of the community spaces he helped to bring about in Berkeley and it’s inspirational and deep work. I think you might find some of it useful for thinking about how this might be long-term about families as well as play. I agree with Craig about the starting point though.

  10. Wow, thanks to everyone for such prompt, fulsome and helpful responses! I am fairly sure the site hasn’t been used by kids for some time (though it was used quite a lot a few years ago, according to a neighbour who told me his boys practically grew up there). The reason I know this is that for most of the last year, it was being used as an illegal camping spot by adults from Eastern Europe (we could hear their conversations sometimes!) So I think there is a need for some interventions, to encourage people in and to signal the changes of use. There is also a concern from local residents that the site could be at risk of future problematic use, and also of development, which sharpens the issues about visible community ownership and support. I really like the idea of encouraging people to simply occupy and use the space as it is, so I will try to take that forward. Hattie – I think we could learn a lot from that Crouch End project – so yes please to introducing me to your friend! As promised, I’ll keep you posted through further comments here, and possibly further blog posts.

    • Hi there, I am not always on my computer and so keen to respond – Just happen to be in the last bits of a book and also notified of posts to this site by the exotic sound of am asian plunky instrument as it arrives in my inbox – so looks rather like I am hovering!

      Yes of course, such an area definitely needs ‘some interventions.’ Fully understandable and will bring huge community benefits I am sure.

      In my work in schools I spend quite a lot of time with teachers helping them see how sensitive the nature of children’s play and work really is. ‘Quality play’ disappears very quickly under pressure.

      See this from a blog of mine:

      “Look around the edges of the playground for evidence of the quiet worker, a little like the almost-extinct-endangered-species, to see how s/he is searching for that hidden, out-of-sight, quiet place to get on with the job. Note the scratchings in the hardened pile of building earth, left behind after ‘building improvements.’ The ‘diggers’ have been at work.”

      So, apologies for the repetition – it’s just worth a quiet walk about to see. Endangered species are always on the edges, the peripheries. Who knows what you’ll discover.

      Thanks, Craig

  11. Hi Tim – The Mmofra Foundation has been doing interesting work turning “two acres of land in the Dzorwulu neighborhood (Accra, Ghana) into a groundbreaking natural playspace” . I’m particularly inspired by their approach to frugal and effective collaboration: http://mmofraghana.org/our-work/playtime-in-africa-initiative/

  12. Nature wants it back, so why don’t you lend her a hand? Build an area like it was 500 years ago, some places for families to stroll and linger, take photos, build memories.

    Well that’s easy for me to say mate, I’m on the other side of the bloody world!

  13. Hi Tim, just a link to permaculture festival tomorrow where there will be a meadow orchard table, Claire White who organises this fest will be around and you could talk to her as she knows all about permaculture gardening, and she was one of the people who got meadow orchard going with permaculture at the heart

    • Hi Rachel – thanks for this link. I’m not sure I can make that event, but it is great to make the connection with Meadow Orchard and with permaculture. I’m sure we will want to follow that up. Thanks too for the email: I’ll get back to you soon.

  14. How exciting! Some scarecrows would be fun (once they have something to scare away).

  15. Tim, please use your Influence to get Groundwork to hire a specialist playspace designer with an excellent track record of dealing with tricky clients (in this case a tricky mix of residents, council, Groundwork and so on).

    Which is not, please note, an attempt to denigrate community involvement and hand things to the wise experts – not at all. We have criminally under-used talent in our smaller play specialist organisations, which Is being priced out of the game because big voluntary organisations are getting bigger as their increasingly risk-averse purchasers go for the supposedly safe option.

    I’m thinking of Grant Lambie, whose work I particularly like – he is the polar opposite of the ‘KFC’ approach – he has wonderful skills in working with children as clients in the design process, without going overboard on ‘consultation’ to the detriment of expertise and experience. He could do a cracking job on a site like that, and I’m sure you know others yourself who would also be good choices.

    Please don’t miss a potential opportunity to showcase the talent of wonderful playspace designers!

    • Arthur – thanks for this. I’m on the case! I know of, and like, Grant’s work – and he’s not the only one out there doing interesting things, as you imply.

  16. Please could you let us know any more about the ” voluntary residents’ steering group “?
    We too are (very) local residents and would be interested in joining, in fund-raising (perhaps), in volunteering (with pick axes if necessary).
    We haven’t heard anything about the plans, although we’ve seen the space being slowly cleared when we’re round there (so I counter the ‘unused’ claim I suppose)
    There are others nearby with young families who would welcome a space, especially those who have no gardens to enjoy.

    thanks in advance!

  17. (I’m beginning to wonder if last year, whilst enormously pregnant I attended a lecture of yours in the course of my training as a playworker….)

    • Hi Mim. The steering group has not been formed yet – at the last meeting people were asked to say if they were interested, and a further meeting is happening tomorrow (Tuesday 24th July). It would be good to make contact by email, as it sounds like you’d be a great asset – see here for my contact details. And we can work out if it was me you heard last year!

  18. Tim, there’s a great community garden, Sunnybank Park, in Aberdeen. It started about three years ago and possibly had some of the challenges that your space will face – see http://www.facebook.com/groups/SunnybankPark/. Also, (I’m sure you will, but) please leave at least one area simply for kids to dig in – you can never have enough mud pies!

  19. If you have areas of tarmac/concrete you want to ‘green’ without the expense of breaking it all up, try using a lump hammer and metal spike to make small holes and cracks and then filling these with soil and buddlia seeds. Beautiful, great for butterflies and in a few years the roots will have cracked a lot of the hard surface apart! If you then want to clear the area for another use you are likely to be able to do it by hand rather than with machinery, making it a great winter group activity.

    • I love the NON-short-termist, ‘harness the power of nature-ist’, sheer cunning of this suggestion!

      Buddleia is one of those initial invaders that colonise a neglected-by-humans space, others being the mighty nettle and bramble—both much harder to fettle when the time comes—and the patron plant of London’s ‘bombsites’ which became adventure playgrounds — the rose bay willow herb, a.k.a. the ‘fireweed’, with its tall hollyhock-like stands of screaming fuchsia fronds, waving like a bundle of thin ladies at a vicarage garden party trying to get to the bric-a-brac.

      Buddlism, if I may call it that, is a great thinking path to travel down – have a look at this:

      This is the ‘how do you build a prairie?’ chapter from Kevin Kelly’s mighty masterwork ‘Out of Control’. It explains the art of ‘rebuilding’ a vanished ‘natural’ ecosystem – it CAN be done, but it can’t be done KFC-stylee by simply whacking in the mix of plants that you want to see. Groundwork and all the other landscapers take note.

      That chapter will take you down that Buddlist path some fair way….

  20. Ranger Rose, Arthur – I agree, it’s a lovely suggestion. I’ll see if I can get it to take root (duh-dum, tshh).

  21. The idea of small design intervention is important, as you say to highlight visible community ownership. The hybrid-use function of such an intervention is the most important thing – such as rainwater collection (/cover!), a picnic space, a place for a litter bin, a large notice board – unlike online forums these keep the sense of persons and locality strong and show real signs of visiting regularity, an event space for storytellers, readings talks, screenings etc, storage for gardening/mobile play equipment if any.

    This site seems perfect like you say, all the above uses could be accomodated by the shell structure alone (importantly alone to maintain the wildnerness feel) with any local resident-support, and better still a design that allowed the thing itself to overgrow and need little or no monitoring, the makings are all there.

    A simple rebrand: a new sign, a cupboard, a bin, and a noticeboard, an awning for the structure, an opening and follow-up events, and then leave the thing alone for the kids and families without over pressuring it?

    As a recent architecture graduate with strong views on immaterial place-making, I would be interesting in getting involved in any workshops, discussions and graft from a design-for-play perspective.

    Have you been to ground level at the Haygate estate recently?

    • Hi Jack – sorry for the delayed reply, I missed your comment over the summer. Plans are emerging for the site. While these do more than simply renovate the structure and adding some bits and pieces, I think they will allow the wilderness feel. Thanks for the link to the Heygate website – I haven’t looked around, though do know some of the back story (and pretty complex and messy it looks too).

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