Some 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).
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 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.
There 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.