Urban play regeneration is alive and kicking as natural play projects appear across the country, reports Tom James
As the play industry cashes in on a multi-million pound Government bonanza and urban regeneration is fuelled courtesy of the controversial landfill tax, natural play is becoming a key focus. A flagship project in the London Borough of Ealing, marks the start of what will be an, 11-site network that aims to develop natural play areas fashioned entirely from sustainable materials and incorporating grass, sand, bark, mounds, trees and unusual climbing equipment to encourage adventure and creativity in play for children of all ages.
Groundwork, the pioneers of the natural play concept, will work alongside Waste Recycling Environmental Ltd (WREN) which has pledged significant funds to help develop the areas. WREN funds are generated from environmental taxes paid by the Waste Recycling Group Ltd (WRG) under the Landfill Communities Fund, a voluntary scheme created to help benefit those who live within ten miles of a landfill site. Landfill tax came into operation in 1996 with the aim of reflecting the impact of landfill on the environment and also to help achieve targets for more sustainable waste management. Regulations allow landfill site operators to direct six per cent of the tax they collect towards approved environmental projects.
Funding for the Ealing project, however, came from another non-profit-making environmental body, Biffaward, which ploughed in nearly £258,000 to enable Groundwork to develop what’s been dubbed Playing It Naturally.
“We recognise the importance of the programme as a beacon for natural play,” says Gillian French, Biffaward programme manager. “Groundwork needs support in order to create opportunities for healthier play, and we are delighted to be able to provide this.”
The scale of landfill tax funding for urban renewal programmes perhaps passes under the radar as headline inner-city projects grab the limelight. But the fact is that WREN has awarded over £122 million in grants to more than 4,800 community projects throughout the UK, with Biffaward providing more than £100 million to over 2,000 projects, a quarter concerning play.
WREN has pledged to work alongside Groundwork for the series of natural play sites, funding ten projects to the tune of £385,000 as part of the Adventure on your Doorstep initiative.
“The money will add to the significant figure we have already donated - with £1.5 million having been awarded to Groundwork projects since 2007,” commented a WREN spokesperson. “We have funded 38 Groundwork projects over the last two years and we are delighted to continue the relationship.”
WREN, like Biffaward, is keen to stress the significance of its involvement in a vital aspect of children’s development. “We recognise the important contribution that play areas make to building a healthier, happier society as well as rejuvenating both rural and urban recreation areas,” the spokesperson added.
Work was planned to begin on some of the Adventure on your Doorstep sites last month with the first site due to be completed towards the end of the summer. The sites confirmed are Graisely in Wolverhampton, Winsford, Cheshire,
New Basford, Nottingham, Coningsby and Horncastle in Lincolnshire, Bewsey Meadows in Warrington, Canley, Coventry, Netherfield Local Park in Milton Keynes, Minster on the Isle of Sheppey and the Avon Drive play area in Brickhills, Bedford.
Groundwork conducts most of its projects in deprived areas, striving to help rebuild areas starved of regeneration. The Adventure on your Doorstep sites are all planned to be in such areas or in pockets of deprivation that exist in more affluent areas. The mission for each site design varies - from a wish to combat anti-social behaviour, or the need to replace old, potentially dangerous, play equipment, to enriching biodiversity and wildlife and combining with existing local community schemes.
For example, the Winsford project will see the creation of a natural playscape on open land in the centre of an area that suffers from major outbreaks of anti-social behaviour. The hope is that it will provide play opportunities for children while reducing the potential for vandalism.
The Coningsby scheme aims to utilise the ‘natural’ element of the project, creating it on a site for wildlife and biodiversity incorporating native tree and hedgerow planting, with wildflower meadow and native bulb species. An area for young people to use their imagination and be creative is the vision here.
Both the Horncastle and Minster projects seek to combine the natural play scheme with local community projects. Horncastle is part of Groundwork Lincolnshire’s Housing Support Programme and the project aims to lift residents` satisfaction with the neighbourhood by engaging them in positive community activity. Following talks with residents and local housing associations, a need for play facilities was identified; with the hope that natural play will help to remove the stigma the area carries.
Swale Borough Council on the Isle of Sheppey is linking with Groundwork and local group, The Friends of Lovell Road, to revitalise an ageing facility. The friends group wants a play facility where children can integrate with others in a natural environment with `natural`, rather than hi-tech, surveillance. The play concept also chimes with the council’s Play Strategy - part of which aims to provide play facilities for older youths.
Other projects such as Bewsey Meadows, a former landfill site, follow a theme common to many of the projects – to remove a stigma. Natural play is seen as a tool to help turn a neglected area that has sunk into disuse and disrepair into something the local community can be proud of. The space has been identified as an exciting and particularly challenging development for this style of play.
The concept of natural play is on the rise all over the country and WREN is keen to be associated with that. “It is all about bringing together natural elements such as grassy mounds, tunnels or tree trunks with the very best play equipment such as skate bowls and swing baskets.” Despite expressing keen interest with the designs, WREN is taking a back seat on the creative side of the project and leaving this to Groundwork.
While funding from landfill tax currently continues to fire urban renewal programmes, there is a cloud on the horizon. “We receive over 800 applications for funding each year and we would be happy to consider any new projects Groundwork has in the pipeline,” says WREN. “However, the income we receive from the Landfill Communities Fund has reduced in recent years, meaning we are not able to fund as many projects as we would like.”
Case study - natural play in Medway, Kent
Clare Lanes, development officer for Medway’s country parks, and Emma Powell, senior landscape architect for Groundwork Kent and Medway, describe the impact of the Hillyfields natural play site since it opened in December.
“The design was inspired by the extensive consultation carried out by Groundwork on behalf of Medway Council,” Clare Lanes says, “as well as Aileen Shackell, who wrote ‘Design for Play England’. “The area lacked any facility like this, and now we believe elements of the play park are definitely the future of play in terms of including risk and exciting play for all ages.
“In line with our maintenance programme, the site is visited daily by the grounds team to clear litter and rake sand and woodchips; the area is inspected quarterly for any equipment failure. Urban rangers patrol the site regularly during the week and the Friends of Hillyfields tend to keep an eye on things.”
Plans are in the pipeline for a new play area at Riverside Country Park later this year, she reports. “We are about to begin consultation work on 22 Playbuilder sites and some of these elements may be included in these play areas,” she adds.
Emma Powell comments: “The site had previously suffered from low-level vandalism and anti-social behaviour, with graffiti, litter and youths on motorbikes. It was important to ensure that the materials chosen would be robust and fit for purpose. “Equally, it was vital for the site to have good visibility and surveillance as it is next to a road, so it was also important to ensure the play space was safe with as much activity away from the road as possible.”
The community was involved from the beginning, she adds. “The Friends of Hillyfields continue to act as the eyes and ears for what is going on every day.”
Groundwork undertook outreach work, door-knocking the local community, writing letters, placing posters on site and leaflet dropping. It then organised workshops with the local school council which included writing poetry, stories, visiting the site, playing games, interviewing officers at Medway Council, creating collages and a wish tree.
All the ideas fed into what became the final design, she recalls, as did those from a one-day event held on-site, which included a play display, poetry competition, football skills and juggling workshops.
“This scheme has worked because of two things,” she believes. “First, because of the lengthy community engagement process and inclusion and support of the local community with the final design. It is now highly used and self-policing.
“Second, the play space has clearly been tailored for that space only. It is exciting, challenging, stimulating and is a fun place to visit and ‘hang out’.”
Most of the materials are not recycled, she adds, “but more sustainable options have been chosen - gabion walls, for example, which don’t require concrete foundations and can be easily dismantled and reused”.
“We re-used some of the existing timber play equipment to make balance beams. Instead of typical bow-top railings we dug a perimeter ditch. All the spoil from site was reused to create mounds.”
Case study - King George’s Fields, Hanwell, Ealing
For more than a year, Ealing councillors have worked with Groundwork, local residents and schoolchildren to create a play area they hope will break the mould of the risk-averse, fun-free facility common in towns and cities. “The theory behind the design is to emphasise that the total environment can offer huge scope for play, not just an area in the corner of a park or garden,” says principal landscape architect with Groundwork West London Adam White, who conceived the idea with his business partner Andree Davies.
“Think grassy mounds, innovative planting, timber decking, trees, water, bridges and boulders complemented by modern, well-designed play equipment and you’ve got an exciting and challenging space in which to play with unlimited creativity and imagination,” saysAdam White. “The project sits somewhere between the traditional playground design and the play value of building snowmen or climbing trees.”
Steve Marshall, Ealing’s head of Greenspace, adds: “The project is almost ready for completion. However, the designers are keen that the grassy mounds and plantings have time to establish, so the opening was scheduled for early in May.” The day was due to feature activities such as play workshops on den-building, willow weaving, tree climbing and shrub planting.
Adam White led the team that modelled the design as a show garden at the 2007 RHS Hampton Court Flower Show – winning both a coveted RHS Gold Medal and the BBC People’s Award.
Groundwork approached the council in 2007 to discuss the idea of recycling the materials from the show garden in a community park. “We took our RHS design and redesigned it to a larger scale for the Ealing project. We didn’t want to waste any of the materials,” adds Adam White.
The council was keen to take up the project and the design process was undertaken through a series of workshops with young people and local residents.
Pupils at St Marks Primary School were involved throughout the process, offering ideas on what they felt made a good, fun play area.
The council’s acceptance of the proposal requires a long-term maintenance commitment from the borough due to the unconventional nature of the materials used – a commitment it is ready to take in hand. “The maintenance implications have been agreed and the schedule of activities that need to be fulfilled to keep the play area clean, accessible and safe are in place,” says Steve Marshall.