All too often our public spaces, particularly in urban areas, are dominated by off-the-peg, one-size-fits-all monocultural zones of development. Large scale plans, imposed from above, are often insensitive to the multiple communities, ideas, needs and aspirations of diverse neighbourhoods. In big urban centres there are many audiences, and many spaces. It will be fascinating to see how the localism and neighbourhood planning agendas impact on these areas. Recognising and supporting the creativity inherent in diverse communities changing their surroundings, a process often termed ‘placemaking‘, is one way to help ensure a sustained and successful impact.
Community-led management allows us to think anew about the places we all share. It allows us to reimagine the relationship between our communities and public space, and demands and is driven by collaboration By working at a local level, in harmony with the needs and creativity of communities, we can transform underused assets into common spaces. The High Line in New York City is a fantastic example of creative management.
The Friends of the High Line formed in 1999 to protect a historic elevated freight train line from demolition and to advocate for its use as open public space. They solicited design ideas and demonstrated that it made better economic sense to create a public park, giving a new lease of life to a vital piece of industrial history, rather than tear it down. It is this transformative aspect of the project that is truly creative. It uncovers new connections and inspires new ideas from former ‘wasteland’. Rather than homogenising public space by eliminating the different histories, cultures and needs of places, the High Line demonstrates an approach that turns a space’s unique qualities into a valuable asset.
This approach is not without its tensions, however. Public funding was instrumental in setting up the High Line, even though the Friends now have to raise a substantial proportion of the park’s annual budget. Money was diverted from housing, childcare and other budgeting priorities for a project that some argue has gentrified a deprived area of the city. Rising property prices and high-end housing development threatens to exclude low-income families from the neighbourhoods around the High Line. One of the “holy grails” of community led regeneration is how to bring about creative improvements to local economies in a way which benefits the people who need it most and who have an historic connection to the area. By focussing on land, management and shared common value, Shared Assets hopes to play a role in developing solutions to this conundrum. Our work on ‘creative control’ of the Limehouse Cut, in collaboration with the Landscape Interface Studio, was an exercise in exploring solutions to this challenge.
Living by Example
Local authorities do not always have the capacity to address the lack of public space in deprived urban areas, particularly when budgets are being seriously squeezed. By harnessing local aspirations and community-based knowledge, these constraints can be navigated. For example, the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, in London, have managed their ancient woodland site ever since the Greater London Council (GLC) was abolished in 1986. By engaging over 3,000 local and corporate volunteers per year, they have overcome years of neglect and improved the woodland significantly for wildlife, local residents and education initiatives. They organise regular public events and funding campaign, allowing them to maintain an active presence and carry out all maintenance. The creative approach helps to unite local knowledge and experience with specific places so that they can be adapted and used in innovative ways.
Adapting urban and environmental assets for use in the community is empowering, but is also a learning process. Communities gain an understanding of themselves and their environment when they transform it collectively. Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park is managed with the intention of preserving what makes it a unique and accessible space for local people in the most economically deprived borough of London. Managing assets so that they can meet the specific needs of the communities that live there is as important a concern as the ownership of those assets. Management by users orients decision making towards impact and helps to develop plans which are responsive to the particularities of place and community.
Resources have to be managed effectively in order to unlock the social, environmental and creative potential they contain. In a previous post, Lorraine Hart argued that it takes a certain amount of flair and originality to do this managing well. A creative solution to asset management would be one which uses local knowledge and expertise to connect asset owners with communities and wider society. When it works, the social and environmental benefits are there to see.