Learning from community open spaces: Spaces by Design with Wandle Housing Association tenants and staff

Designing and managing public space is complex work, and often spaces are established or improved, only to find that after a while they aren’t successful.

Earlier this year we explored the challenges and opportunities around public and communal spaces in a Spaces by Design course with Wandle Housing Association residents and staff in South London. As part of this we visited a number of local community open spaces so that participants could experience and learn from them and meet people involved.

Together, we learned valuable lessons and experienced some wonderful community spaces.

The Edible Bus Stop at Landor Road
Here, local people have come together to create a wonderfully colourful and tactile public space. Careful consideration has gone into the design and material selection; with benches facing each other to encourage interaction, and clever use of recycled kerbstones form decorative raised beds. The garden is tended monthly by a dedicated group of volunteers and has brought a real sense of community to the area.

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Blooming Stockwell
A community garden tucked behind the Stockwell Community Resource Centre, the space had clearly been  designed with consideration for community uses. The online case study that inspired our visit spoke of creative community uses and of courses being taught from a space. However, we learned that initial funding from the housing association that set up the garden had run out and activity stopped. The centre manager is in talks with several local groups about building a user group to re-activate the garden.

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Larkhall Park Community Garden
In Larkhall Park Community Garden we heard how empowering communities through skills development can support them to lead and become champions for positive change. The national charity Thrive established Larkhall Park Community Garden and set up a community group to take forward the garden. As this group formed, the members asked for an additional year of support to consolidate their skills, structures and systems. In April 2015 the group took over the keys to the space and is now implementing their vision for the garden.

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What we learned
After visiting these spaces, the group reflected on the different experiences and what we could learn. Here are the key learning points and some questions to consider if you’re part of a group or organisation that is thinking about setting up or getting involved in transforming an open space:

1.    Who sets up a space makes a difference to management and use of the space

Things to consider:

  • What do communities need to set up a space?
  • How do you sustain community interest if establishing something on their behalf?

2.    Start with a long-term vision and plan for the life of a space 

Things to consider:

  • What management and volunteering structures do you need in place from the beginning?
  • Who will use the space and how might their needs change over time?
  • Could starting the project with a collaborative approach enable a more sustainable open space?

3.    How funding is planned and allocated is crucial to the success of the project

Things to consider:

  • How long does the initial funding last and what does it cover?
  • Should funding be allocated to skills develoment, supporting collaboration or the hand-over of the space to local residents?
  • How will the project sustain itself once initial funding ends?

4.    Investing in people and building capacity takes time and resources – but delivers valuable benefits

Things to consider:

  • What support and skills development do community groups need to set up and manage spaces?
  • Who is going to invest in building community capacity?
  • How can all parties benefit from skills development? E.g. staff and residents learning together, building relationships; creating a resource in the community.

If you’d like to find out how The Glass-House can support your open space project please contact us.