We were incredibly pleased to host a lunchtime learning webinar on setting up a community nature project on May 6th. Bringing together four fantastic speakers, the 1.5 hour session shared both practical advice and inspiring personal stories stemming from their diverse perspectives.
Our research has found that many different kinds of knowledge are needed for community nature projects to successfully set up and flourish. From knowing how to design a site with the sun in mind, to managing group dynamics, engaging diverse audiences, to working out land permissions – it’s all holistic! We also found that one of the best sources of information come from people who have either done it themselves or have supported such projects, however this wealth of knowledge can often be stuck within their own sector (e.g. health, conservation, education, design) or location.
This webinar was our first step in trying to share knowledge more widely and to build a community of people who are passionate about our connection to nature. Our speakers come from current projects as well as from design, academia and thinktanks. Each focussed on different aspects of setting up, providing a well rounded foundation for our audiences!
Please see the speakers and the presentations below:
Professor of Urban Natural Environments, Health and Wellbeing, University of Sheffield
Design as a Process: 10 things to consider when designing your site
Design as a process: 10 things to bear in mind when designing your site
This short talk is about design as a process. You may have enough resource to get a landscape architect to design your site, and even hire contractors to create it, but in most cases the design of your site is likely to be something you do yourselves: a slower process that happens in stages over time. This talk is intended to help people involved in that kind of design.
Design is a process of using the resources you have in the best possible way to create something that meets your needs. If we are thinking about landscape design this means looking at all your resources, including the site, as well as your social and financial resources. So here are 10 top tips for getting the best out of the resources you have:
1. Think about making spaces not just about the objects you can put into them.
Making a good outdoor space involves making the best out of every aspect and potential of that space, including for example, existing trees and vegetation, level change, views and sunshine. If all you think about is the objects you are going to put into the space the chances are that you will just end up with a collection of objects, which may not be positioned as effectively as they could have been if you had thought about all the other aspects first. So….
2. What’s already there? Reuse it if you can.
Use what you’ve already got on your site. Plants have a close relationship with local growing conditions so the plants already growing on site might be better adapted to being there than the plants you try to introduce. So think about whether you can make use of what’s already there. It’s often much harder to get new trees and plants to grow than it is to reuse what you’ve already got. Be prepared to broaden your outlook as to what is a good plant and what is a ‘weed’. Existing vegetation may also be providing a vital living area for animals and insects: taking it away might even threaten their survival. Trees and vegetation can also help to shape the spaces you are creating, creating micro-environments that feel comfortable and interesting to spend time in. One way of reusing the plants already on site is to think of them as the framework for the spaces you are going to make: think of it as carving out the spaces where you’ll do your growing and other activities.
3. Are there any signs of wildlife? Make sure you look after the wildlife in your design.
Looking after wildlife has lots of benefits both for people and animals. We know that insect and animals, and biodiversity in general, are threatened by human activity. Making or retaining a space for nature can help animals thrive in cities and built up areas. If you’re interested in growing fruit and vegetables then pollinating insects are essential for a good crop, so making sure you are providing them with what they need is vital. Most people who spend time out in nature, and children particularly, are fascinated by bugs, birds and animals. Encouraging them to use your space makes the experience of being there richer for people. So spend some time on site really looking around you. Are there any narrow paths and gaps in the vegetation along the site boundary? These may be a sign that the site is being used by badgers and foxes. Other important animal signs include evidence of digging, animal droppings, birds nests, discarded material such as cherry stones, pine cones and snail shells. Find out what these animals and the all-important pollinators need and build it into your design and the way you look after the site.
4. Where does the sun come from? Important for growing and outdoor activity.
Capturing the sunshine is really important in most of the British Isles, as it’s frequently cold, wet and windy. It’s much easier to enjoy being outside if your body temperature is comfortable. Most plants also need sunshine to thrive. Some vegetables can manage on 6 hours of sunlight per day, but many crops such as tomatoes need at least 8 hours. So you need to work out where the sunny spots in your site are and make sure that you are using them to their best advantage. South or west facing slopes usually have the most hours of sunlight, and create the best growing conditions for plants that need lots of sunlight.
5. What’s happening around the site? Use the positives and minimise the negatives (views/noise?)
Often what is happening around your site can be nearly as important as what you do on site. Great views can provide a fantastic focus for seating and social areas as well as an important destination: somewhere to climb up to and sit and enjoy the view. Equally, masking unpleasant views is likely to improve the experience of a place. Noise from roads or machinery can also detract from the enjoyment of being outside in nature, but can be mitigated by hiding the source of the noise. Air pollution from traffic is also an unseen yet common urban problem but belts of vegetation can be effective in reducing pollution levels.
6. Know what type of soils you are working with. Are they dry or damp, acidic, neutral or alkaline?
Most sites- even really small ones- have a lot of variation in soils even within the site. Sunny spots and areas heavily shaded by dense vegetation typically have drier soils, whilst some areas are permanently damp or even waterlogged. Some plants thrive in dry soils, others prefer more moisture. Note where these areas are, as it will help you plan your spaces and what you are going to plant. Aside from moisture levels, plants tend to fall into one of three categories in terms of the soils they prefer, acid loving, lime loving or having the ability to grow in a wide range of soils. Whilst most soils are somewhere in the middle of the range and most plants will tolerate a range of conditions it’s worth checking out the soil ‘pH’ (a measure of how acid or alkaline it is). You can do this by buying a soil testing kit but it’s cheaper and probably more informative to look at what’s already growing in and around the site, and ask a knowledgeable local gardener or grower for advice.
7. Any safety concerns? Do a check for sharps and toxic materials e.g. asbestos.
Most urban sites have a legacy of previous uses, which may include sharp objects such as broken glass or even potentially dangerous materials, such as asbestos. Make sure that all sharps and toxic materials are safely removed from the site and safely disposed of. Local authorities can usually provide advice about safe disposal. A small number of plants can also create problems. Japanese Knotweed is an invasive plant that is very difficult and very costly to control and dispose of, and is classed as ‘controlled waste’ under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, requiring disposal at licensed landfill sites. You should think twice before taking on a site containing Japanese Knotweed.
8. How will people enter and move through the site?
The design of the circulation: the way people enter and move through the site, is crucial for all sorts of reasons. Access to the site needs to be convenient for all, regardless of mobility issues. Good access and circulation can also have a range of other benefits: creating a sense of arrival, welcome and safety; making good connections between different parts of the site; making way finding easy; creating a sense of discovery and surprise; and facilitating the movement of gardening equipment and materials in a way that does not detract from the user experience.
9. Think about the ways you might want to use the site and how you can create the settings for those uses.
Once you’ve really got to know your site you can start thinking about all the ways in which you want to use it, and how you are going to create the settings that support those activities. Remember to keep thinking about trees, plants, wildlife, sunshine, level change and all the other things mentioned so far. The settings you create will be much more functional, interesting and beautiful if they are really well integrated with the site and with each other. Level changes ( e.g. steps) can provide seating as well as access and help to define different spaces. Seating offering sunshine, shade (e.g. from trees) sociability or solitude can give people a choice of different seating options. A sandpit or children’s play area close to raised beds might allow parents to garden whilst their children play safely close by.
10. Which facilities do you need? Do you need a good boundary, secure site storage, water and toilets?
There are a number of facilities that are very useful, and arguably essential in the medium to long term, but they can also be costly to install. Community facilities are vulnerable to theft and vandalism and so you may need to consider the installation of a secure boundary and site storage for equipment. Having a good boundary and sense of enclosure can also help a place feel safe and give a sense of being away from day to day cares and responsibilities. Access to toilets and hand washing facilities is also important to enable people to spend longer periods of time on site. Water is required for irrigation of plants. Whilst it is a great idea to capture and reuse rainwater on site this is unlikely to provide sufficient water to keep even an allotment sized plot going through the growing season so think about how you can get access to a reliable water source.
In conclusion: whilst creating an outdoor green space is often portrayed as a quick fix on TV and other media, creating a beautiful place for people to share, use and enjoy often takes time, and can be a process of trial and error. Experimenting is good! The important thing is to enjoy the process and celebrate your successes!
Project worker, Caldmore Community Gardens, Walsall
Engaging Diverse Local Communities
Transcript (edited for readability)
Engaging diverse local communities
Thank you very much for inviting me for the session. It’s a real treat to be doing it over lunch time. It’s a really busy day for us because we’ve got a big community event tomorrow. Everybody’s running about preparing and I feel like I’m skiving a bit!
My name is Anna Webster. I work at Caldmore Community Gardens in Walsall, West Midland. I’ve been involved for almost 10 years and the garden has been in place for a bit more than 10 years now.
I’ll tell you a little bit more in terms of background about the neighbourhood and also about the garden itself. Caldmore is one of those inner city, very diverse neighbourhoods. Probably the majority of the community would be of South Asian origin, mostly Bangladeshi and Pakistani, and a quite sizable Eastern European community. About 86% children are from a BAME background in the local school, so that probably tells you a little bit more about what the neighbourhood is like in terms of ethnic background. We have a lot of different traditions, different languages, different expectations and attitudes towards communal life. It’s very exciting and very inspiring but sometimes it comes with challenges with miscommunications, different worldviews, difficulties in terms of engaging with those communities. It’s also constantly changing.
My background is Polish and when I became involved in the project the Poles, and maybe Slovaks and Czechs were the new community, locally. Now, it’s very different. I would say the new communities would be a new wave of Afghan and also Syrian refugees. There is quite a big new African community and people from some of the newer EU countries, like Bulgarians and Romanians.
There has been an awful lot of change over those 10 years. The big questions to a community project that wants to involve people from all of those communities are ‘how do we bring people together?’ How do we involve them? How do we communicate with them? How do we reflect the community that we are a part of?
Obviously there are some misconceptions and stereotypes. For example, more established communities might be attaching various labels to the new communities. They could be blamed for antisocial behaviour, of fly tipping, or the general lack of pride in the neighbourhood. That’s something that’s been coming up all the time during those 10 years, just attached to different new groups.
But also there is a general lack of knowledge, lack of experience of diversity. People are having to come to terms with needing to navigate your way through a diverse community. This is why I think in some ways we have made part of our mission as a community space, to be this ‘bumping contact’ or an exploration space, where people could get together and get to know each other a bit more, and overcome those stereotypes and misconceptions.
Because it’s quite a transient community and a lot of new people coming in, there aren’t a lot of established groups. The new ones take quite a long time to become organised. Often there aren’t groups that we can tap into which sometimes could be an easier way of getting people involved. If you’re starting a project in your neighbourhood and you’re lucky enough to have, I don’t know, a group of Yemeni moms who already meet, or you have a very active mosque or a Polish Saturday school, then that’s a real winning situation. It’s quite a big opportunity to invite them to start using the space. If you’re talking about trying to invite individuals from those groups, in some ways you might be helping them to become a group by doing, for example, thematic events. That’s much more of a challenge.
Caldmore is quite a young and poor neighbourhood so people have limited resources. For us, it has been a very strong part of our mission to make sure that everything that we do is free. For people who might have five children, for example, paying one pound for face painting for each of those children is actually a big challenge. It might be a big barrier, stopping them from coming to events because suddenly you come to an event and you end up spending £20 because there are so many activities that are calling for you to spend money.
To show you a little bit more of the space when we started, I think these photos come probably from 2012 roughly. A lot of what Anna [Jorgensen] was saying I could really relate to and I could see ourselves there at the beginning but it’s also still kind of changing and adapting too.
[The space was] flats that were demolished. It was quite a big space for drug dealing, and anti social behaviour, lots of fly tipping. There were ideas of making it into a car park but a group of people decided to ask the council and the local housing association if it could temporarily become a community garden instead. That’s how it started.
Initially for probably the first four years, we didn’t have toilets, we didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have running water. All of those things we had to get from our neighbours. Literallyl from terraced houses next door or from a small community centre next door who let us use their facilities, connect our garden hose to their place, run a cable over the fence. It’s a good example of good community spirit but it was also quite a big challenge, especially when organising events.
The first [garden] before I became involved… It’s quite a difficult part of the story to tell, I suppose.Because, again, I completely agree with what Anna was saying, the community garden reflects the people who are involved in it, and they come with their own ideas, their own skills, social capital and parts of traditions and so on. It’s them who will shape it and keep on shaping it over the years. That certainly has been the case with us. When I got involved, I had a community background and also academic background in cultural and community arts. I think that’s changed the way we engaged with the local community to a large extent. At the beginning, we would be very much about nature and also maybe allotment orientated space, maybe more traditional in terms of community gardens, even though I’m not sure you can actually use that category with community gardens because they’re just so different. I mean there’s such a huge diversity of approaches, but definitely we were much more about growing, a little bit about wild life, a little bit about nature education. We would be open one day a week on Thursdays. We would be inviting the local community to come on the day and do a little bit of gardening and some landscaping jobs. Once a month we would have an event which we call a ticket day.
When we would invite people from the local community to come, we would obviously work with local schools or other groups to come and use the space. We would encourage them to use the space, but really we very much had the same group of people coming to the events. Maybe the same group of four volunteers coming in on Thursdays. It wasn’t exactly having the kind of impact that we were hoping to have as a group, which is when we came up with an idea of ‘actually maybe let’s try a different approach.’ Let’s be more about fun, families, let’s try doing community Sundays. Let’s try to make the garden much more of a venue. A space for the community to get together to have fun for free. There would be a big range of activities but really maybe what we should be about is about bringing communities together and be a social space.
I think that was the shift. Obviously we are still a garden but the garden isn’t our focus. Our focus is the community. Let me just stress, this is the model or approach we have chosen and we have been using over the years. That’s by no means the only model or even the best model but seems to be working for us.
So, this is what the garden looks like now, or rather, probably a couple of years ago.
So it has changed [since then]. I’m already looking at it and thinking ‘oh this is different.’
We’ve got this amazing new playground now. That means that every day after school (we are right next to the school) we get probably 120 children just running into the garden, and spend the hour after school here with the parents. Which is absolutely amazing and this is something that we have always wanted in a way, but it also comes with its own challenges. Now one person needs to be out there and supervise at all times because parents just don’t do it. If we don’t want the space to be wrecked, then we have to have resources put into this type of use.
As I said, we do a lot of community events. We do monthly open days at the garden and they very often have a cultural focus. We’ll link in with what I would call ‘standard’ celebrations, so an Easter egg hunt, a Christmas event, a Diwali event, Halloween, Bonfire Night, you know, all of those celebrations that are kind of standard in a way.
We have done a lot of events that are focused on a specific culture so we would have a Polish open day, a Bengali open day or a Slovak open day and so on. Very often, we would either invite a group or an organisation to help us organise it and present the culture to the wider community. Or we would work with local families that we know and try to put up stalls, activities and food. That has worked really well as a model of engaging people from specific ethnic backgrounds because they could really see that we care about them. This is a space that’s their space that we want to engage with them specifically, and sees them in the community. That has been maybe one of the biggest game changers in the way in terms of getting different communities sustainably engaged in the garden.
On working with different traditions and working with local groups. If you have a group that you know, I can’t stress enough the importance of doing a good community mapping. Thinking ‘okay so what have we got there’ in terms of who we could work with.These are the schools we have in the area. These are the nurseries. There is a Job Centre. There is an Afghan Community Association, there’s a women’s centre, there are mosques of different traditions, there’s churches and so on. You pretty much do the mapping exercise and then you start building a relationship with those people. In the first instance, you let them use their space for free, you invite them to use it for barbecues and picnics. You do activities specifically for them. Obviously, if it’s ethnic group that might require gender segregation then you do separate events, so activities for women and for men, and so on. In a way it’s almost thinking,’ Okay, so how can we engage with all of these diverse communities?’ And then the next question would be ‘are we engaging with people of all ages?’, ‘these people are missing, how do we engage with them?’ What can we ask for to help in engaging with them?
For us, I would say we engage very successfully with families, but for quite a while we have had difficulty engaging with young people of teenage age, partially also because of our opening hours. At the moment we open Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm, which is when they’re at school. We open up on the weekend when they might potentially be using the garden. We found that for us the best way of doing it has been linking with secondary schools and offering work experience. Also becoming a volunteering opportunity for them in terms of working with specific projects. For example, with a Play scheme we run every school holiday, or Garden Saturdays which are family activities that we put on every Saturday. Families have to book for them, and teenagers help us organise them and put on the activities. With young adults, the best way of engaging with them for us has been through working with work experience agencies and colleges as well. For young parents, we started putting on a toddlers group once a week. At the moment it’s one of our most active groups. We started it right after lockdown and it was incredibly successful.
To summarise, I would say:
- Look at your community, try to learn how it works and then find your friends in the community and partners.
- Be open as much as possible. That’s the biggest challenge I would say because if you run by volunteers it’s very difficult to have regular commitment. And if you only were open for two hours on Thursdays, you would be excluding loads and loads of people from getting involved.
- Have regular activities (e.g. creative projects, women’s group, men’s group, family activities etc) at the same slot every week.
Do mapping of ages, community groups, and definitely groups and so on and everybody that could be involved in your project.
Project lead, Bradford Urban Discovery, Yorkshire Wildlife trust
Journeys into Urban Nature
Transcript (edited for readability)
Journeys into Urban Nature
My name is Sarah Goldsmith, I work for Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. I’ve been working in Bradford for the last five years now. I’ve been working in nature with children and young people for about 17 years, doing a mixture of teaching, play and also forest schools.
It’s been really exciting working in Bradford and I’ve really enjoyed it. Actually the communities are very much like the community that Anna [Webster] described, with slight differences, so it’s been fascinating listening to that.
My project is called the BUD project. We are funded by the National Lottery Community Fund and we partner with Bradford Council. The project is about some amazing urban natural spaces, so they’re not parks. Our partner in Bradford Council is the Countryside and Rights of Way team, and somehow which is quite rare I think in cities, the council have managed to hold on to some wild natural spaces. Obviously they manage all sorts of natural spaces throughout Bradford. They are trying to hold on to some of these more urban spaces, but there’s just quite a lot of problems in terms of perception of them, which is where we came in to try and help shift people’s perspective and engage the community in these spaces. That’s really what the project is about, as well as improving the spaces for people and for nature.
We’ve actually got seven spaces which is too much and they’re all quite big. It’s really nice listening to Anna [Webster] with a really focused community project because I feel like I’m really thinly spread. But my favourite area to work in is a really diverse area. It’s not far from the city centre, like a 10-15 minute walk out. There’s not much green space at all. A lot of the green spaces, you can see [on the map], are actually school grounds, there’s a couple of parks. We’ve got a green space towards the top where you can sort of see Tesco there. And then right in the middle of the map is another one of our green spaces. They’re surrounded by residential areas, where lots of people don’t really have gardens and so they’re like little pockets of amazing wildlife. Nature, trees, meadows, streams and ponds, just kind of stuck there.
As you can imagine, not only are they full of nature, they are also full of litter.
So the reason I called this [talk] ‘Journeys into Urban Nature’ is because I like to think of things in terms of narratives and journeys. Where people start from and where they going to. I look at my own life like that and I like to look at other people’s like that. I try to see where you can start with people, and where you can take them by looking at my own journey and what’s helped me on the way. How can any of those things also be helpful for other people? Nature has been my total saviour in my journey on so many levels. Especially for children and young people who I work with a lot, my thought is if I can, at all, inspire any young people to feel that sense of belonging to the earth that I do and how it can get you through so much.
This is where we started with our green spaces [full of litter]. Think about where people are starting from. Apart from a very small minority, most people living in this area, (which is largely a Great Horton area in Bradford) are very disconnected from nature. When I work with children and young people, being so connected myself, sometimes it’s very difficult for me to remember where people are. I encounter lots of children who’ve never walked on long grass at all. Maybe they’ve been to the park and they’ve gotten some shortcut grass but never to their knees. I have children who’ve never touched a tree before. Lots of people have never sat on the earth. And surprisingly, or not surprisingly, lots of adults who have never done that either. I had a teacher the other day who couldn’t name a native tree. I have children who don’t know what a snail is or can’t name a snail. Sometimes this is a cultural or a language thing as well but not always.
There’s an interesting thing about this sort of cultural difference with people who have come from other countries or have different ancestry. Stories are passed down from other countries, often in in those other countries and nature can be quite dangerous. It’s not so much the case in Britain but this kind of desire to create a sterile environment to shield them from nature, does kind of make sense.
But then there’s also a similar story for people whose ancestors are in Britain. I work with people from all cultures and there are a lot of white British people whose family have always lived in Bradford, or in the north. And so there’s this similar story in Britain, where traditionally, people who were poor would live closer to the land, and had more knowledge of plants and wildlife. However, they aspire to a more affluent lifestyle, one that strove to move away from this closeness. I think it’s sort of fascinating that this has really moved around full cycle now. If you look at the more affluent part of the population, they’ve got more free time, better access to nature, better transport opportunities, and the income to buy clothes and footwear to make them comfortable in nature. Also to buy nature experiences. The majority of children who access forest schools pay, they pay for that privilege of being connected to nature.
I think that whole cycle of belonging and disconnection and belonging again is quite interesting as a journey. Okay, let’s move on to something prettier.
Sometimes I’m quite daunted by the distance that we’ve travelled away from nature but I am consoled by the fact that the disconnection is quite a recent phenomenon. In so many ways the journey back is towards something deep in our makeup, our genetic memories, so that possibility of homecoming is real, and maybe, dare I say, actually quite an easy journey.
I spend a lot of time working with children and young people. I find that a bit more straightforward, although I do really love it when adults join in. Most of my examples are about working with children and young people, and I’m going to kind of go through that a little bit – just to show you some just the contrast between that litter and actually, what amazing things you can find on the sites.
One thing I want to talk about in terms of disconnection and deprivation is how it took me quite a long while to realise that nature disconnection is just sort of symptomatic of something a lot larger in areas of deprivation. People suffer from a deprivation of experience in general, it’s not just nature. For example, I took a bunch of young people out to Dewsbury Town hall to do a presentation to local councillors. I walked in the building, turned around and I just couldn’t see them. I was like ‘Where have they gone??’ They had stopped at the entrance way just gazing up at the ceiling of this beautiful building, which to me was just a building. I realised that they had never really been anywhere like that at all. And when I thought about it, they had sort of been to the supermarket, to my playground, a couple of shops maybe, and actually they’ve never really seen anything else. So the fact that they don’t have much experience of nature is just part of a wider thing.
About journeys. II think it’s just so important to find out where people are starting from. It’s really important to underestimate how comfortable people might be rather than overestimate it, because if you get this wrong and you rush people, then you just jeopardise the whole journey. You’ve set everything back so much, and it’s really hard to pick that up again. I once did this very wrong. I was working with the local library, and then there was like a new family group. We had sort of decided to go on a walk and write some poetry, but I really hadn’t thought it through very well. I hadn’t met a lot of people in this group, they were like new families who went to the library but didn’t know me. We went down this sort of entrance to the side, where you have to go in single file, just for like about a minute or two. When we came up the other side, I turned around and I’d lost most of the people. Someone had got stung by nettles right at the beginning, and then everyone had gone home. I was just left with a few people that I already knew and we didn’t get very far. That taught me a lot, that I really need to go at people’s pace.
Getting people to lead the journey. I think that’s so important. One thing that I really like to do with children and young people is play, and also do a lot of nature art. Art is something that children do from such a young age, every child who goes to school gets an opportunity to do something like this, it’s something very comfortable for them. All you have to do is just swap your resources. Instead of using paper, use leaves and stones. You can collect colours from nature, and use them for collages. While you’re outdoors, collecting and looking and observing, that’s a perfect opportunity for people to start having nature encounters. It leads you naturally into more immersive nature activities like hiding in bushes, watching for birds, turning over rocks and looking for animals.
I do a lot of just holding creatures, finding creatures and trying to encourage children to let them crawl on them. I have a spider day Halloween where the challenge of the day to see how many people can be brave enough to let a spider crawl over them. But I mean if you started with that, then that could just really put people off. I really love it when children push me to do more than I expected of them and I try follow them, rather than lead.
Though one important way to lead is to lead by example. Just demonstrating how comfortable it’s possible to be in nature is so important. Getting muddy, kneeling down, lying on the floor, touching things. Exploring fearlessly is a great way to show people what’s possible
Although I’m not a big plant and animal namer (I don’t think it’s an essential requisite for being connected to nature and you don’t want to make it inaccessible for people), it is quite good if you can do a bit yourself. [It can] inspire confidence and set aspirations for children about where their journey can take them, and they’ll have a bit more confidence in you if they know you’re knowledgeable about something that they’re not so comfortable with.
One thing I absolutely love doing is hide and seek. I’ve sort of talked about nature and about exploring, and something that every child loves is playing hide and seek. What I absolutely love about it is that it’s very difficult to encourage children to be still in nature but Hide and Seek offers that opportunity of staying quiet. The leaves are fluttering, you are just slowing down and having a little bit of time in that peace and quiet, letting your senses take over. So I love playing hide and seek for that, and I’m often I will call it Hide and See, because it’s more about the seeing.
I’ve got this little boy here [pictured]. I used to demonstrate to children and young people how to hide really well. I always used to win Hide and Seek because I was really good at it and they were never quite as brave as me , like putting my hood up and burying myself in a thicket of brambles. So I got into the habit of getting into teams and hiding people. I put a leader on each team and then we would hide someone who was quite brave. This would really demonstrate children how well you could hide. We’ve hidden this boy and he pretty well, and it was ages, maybe 15 minutes, before he was found. He nearly fell asleep because he didn’t get much sleep overnight, stayed up late on screens. This is the series of photos. We found him and I said ‘You want to come out, I’ll give you a hand since there’s quite a lot of brambles.’ And he just was like, ‘No, I’ve never been so comfortable in my life,’ and just curled back up again and stayed there for ages longer which was lovely.
Finally, I do try to be really low resource but having fires is super important. You can just see by these beautiful pictures. If anyone wants to talk to me about how to have fires out in green spaces, then please do get in touch!
Co-director, Shared Assets CIC
Accessing Land as a Group
Transcript (edited for readability)
Accessing land as a group
I think in a way this was good that my stuff is coming at the end because we’ve had some really good like examples and illustrations of the real tangible importance of this stuff, and it says I’m going to talk about some of the more invisible things that you might need to have in place, particularly around working as a group. Often these kinds of projects are led by groups of people, rather than one person who employs a bunch of people for example, which can have its own challenges and benefits. Also around how you access land, so some of the more invisible types of infrastructure that you might need to think about.
So, I’m from an organisation called shared assets, we are all about reimagining what we can do with them together. That takes lots and lots of different forms. We believe that at its heart, land is a common good, and we should treat it as such, and that land is something that’s deeply fundamental to both social and environmental and economic justice. We do lots of different things: we do consultancy work with landowners and also work with community groups and organisations who are managing lands. We do quite a lot of research, and we’re increasingly involved in trying to build a movement for justice and the land system. In fact half my team is off today in Dorset hosting a retreat for coordinators of land justice movements. We work across the whole piece, but everything we’re really trying to do is about supporting what we call common good land use. I won’t run through all of these things but I think community nature projects, and the types of things that people have been talking about today if it really squarely within this. For me, at its heart, it all comes back to supporting different ways of helping people create replenishing relationships between themselves and the environment, and that can come in lots of different forms.
What I’m going to talk about today is to briefly touch on some of the things around working as a group. What that looks like as opposed to working as a sort of a sole trader or solo entrepreneur. A little bit about the types of models and the associated kind of tenure, or agreements, you might need over a piece of land in order to achieve those models. I’m going to very briefly touch on things you might want to consider around incorporating your group and setting yourself up as a legal entity. Finally a little bit about the dynamics that might arise as you’re working in a group, so this will be a very surface levelf skim over each of these issues but hopefully will give people enough tips to have a sense of what questions they might need to be asking themselves.
I always like to start with asking the question why. We’ve stolen this why, how, what framework from a guy called Simon Sinek, who has a TED talk and is quite a slick kind of business consultant. His whole thing is every business needs to start with why. I think that’s doubly true for community projects. Being really clear with you and the people that you’re working with why you are doing something can help to sidestep a whole heap of conflict later on down the line. I find this framework of why are we doing it, how are we doing it and then what are we doing, actually much much easier to work with than thinking ‘what’s our vision, what’s our mission’, which can all get a little bit hazy. Often you get people saying well ‘Our vision is to produce sustainable food,’ for example. But that’s an activity. That’s what you do. And actually round the table with your group, you could have some people for whom producing sustainable food is hugely important because they love gardening, they love that connection with nature, and some people for whom producing sustainable food is important because they want to repudiate the existing capitalist system, and this is the easiest way of doing it. Both of those people can work really well together on producing sustainable food. But if they haven’t had a conversation about their own motivations and the kind of collective motivation of the group, when, for example, an opportunity comes up to partner with Tesco or something, you might suddenly find that there’s some quite deep and passionate disagreement that you weren’t expecting. I don’t think everybody needs to be coming from the same motivational purpose but you do need to understand where everyone in your group is coming from. Also if you can have some kind of collective shared purpose, that makes everything much easier when you’re starting to have decisions to make. As you go down the route of trying to get access to land and make something happen, you will have some key decisions to make. So that’s why my first thing that I say to everybody is really think about your why.
The next thing, obviously, is in the what. There’s a huge spectrum of possibility models around how community organisations can be involved with land, and be involved with land in a way that supports nature. On this spectrum, there’s a huge amount of different kinds of activities and things you could do. And again, there’s no right answer, all of these things along the spectrum from oversight to acting as a fairly traditional friends group might (right down to taking on a lease on a piece of land), all of those are completely legitimate. But they require potentially different legal structures, they might need different skills. And again, if in your group, one person’s motivation might be to have something they do a day a week to help liven up their retirement and somebody else’s motivation is actually to create a livelihood for themselves. Those things aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but if you haven’t kind of talks about where everybody would like to take these things, that’s where you can get some conflict. So I find these kind of different categories quite helpful in terms of where you might want to be on the spectrum. Also where you are now and whether that really is where you want to be. Often when you’re negotiating with the local authority for access to their land or another type of landowner, they might want to put you in one place, and that you might want to be in a different one. There’s no right answer, but having a kind of a framework for that conversation can be helpful.
Another way of looking at that same thing really, or looking at it from a slightly different angle, is what level of involvement in a site would you like to have. I’m the Undersecretary of my local friends of the park group and what we really want to be doing is litter pick and a bit of weeding. Maybe do a bulb planting session every year. There’s probably not that much capacity, desire or time to really be thinking about getting involved in strategically working with the Park Service around the future of this park. It’s a fairly small park. It just needs a little bit of lightening up and a bit of love. But actually if what you’re wanting to do is take on a piece of derelict land and transform it into a community garden, then you probably need to be thinking about governance and thinking about setting strategy.
I find also this framework is quite useful when you’re working within your group, especially when it’s a small group, recognizing it can often be really easy to mix up these different layers when you’re having conversations or in meetings. I find often you need a different sort of mindset when you’re thinking about operational matters than when you’re thinking about big strategic governance decision making matters. It can be helpful, even just as you’re working in a group to be like, ‘Oh, is this a governance conversation or is this an operations conversation?’
Something that might be useful if you’re negotiating with a landowner, if you’re thinking at one of these levels [transferring framework – see slide 8], what does that mean in terms of the type of arrangement or agreement that you might want to have. Often when you’re negotiating with a landowner you might be talking at different levels on this diagram, and that is again a place where conflict and wasted time community can really ensue.
Thinking about tenure, which is the fancy name for the bundle of rights that are attached to a piece of land. There’s lots of different ways that you can have a legal relationship with a piece of land in this country, and all of them are suitable for various different things. But again, it comes back to being clear about what it is you want to do, what your aspirations are for the long term, and who the landowner is that you’re negotiating with. If you’re wanting to create a community garden, that does need some kind of infrastructure – you’re going to need some kind of medium to long term security. If you’re actually wanting to recreate a forest, that’s definitely going to need some long term security because trees take a long time to grow. However if what you’re trying to do is more along the lines of Incredible Edible – like brightening things up, planting things all over the place – maybe you don’t need any kind of agreement at all.
I think particularly when you’re negotiating with local authorities, they can be trying to put you into a box. Often a 25 year lease, for some reason, which might actually not suit your needs at all. So, again being clear about what you need, and then starting to think about what your options might be from there is important.
Getting access to land is one of the key things. Sometimes there is a site that just comes up on your doorstep and that’s great, and sometimes it’s the site that drives the project. So people are interested in a piece of land because of what it is and that is what creates a sort of a motivation and a kind of momentum around a particular project. But often you will have a group of people who want to do something, but don’t necessarily have a site on which to do it. There’s just a few tips here. Getting access to land in the UK is a really tricky thing. 70% of the land is owned by less than 1% of the population. We have a hugely centralised system, where land is the proxy for power and wealth, and so it doesn’t come on the market very often and when it does, it can be very very expensive. This is why people look to work with local councils to try and get public land of some kind. If you’re trying to do that, it’s important to understand what you need, what would make a site suitable for you, and if there are local policies you’re supporting. Whether it’s because your council has declared a climate emergency or whether you’re going to be doing healthy activities with kids that will help them meet some of their other outcomes – be really clear about that. Be patient, and also try to understand the needs of the landowner. There’s various different community rights frameworks that you can use to force conversations with local authorities but often if you’re able to go with solutions to their problems, you end up with a better relationship.
Very briefly, legal structures. If you’re a group of people sitting around the kitchen table with an idea, what you are is just a group of people sitting around the kitchen table, and under the law you are a group of individual people. You can create a group, you can even register as a charity, and you can create a constitution and open a bank account, but in legal terms you are each individual people and you are legally responsible as individuals. For many projects that’s absolutely fine, because what you’re doing doesn’t incur much risk.
However, if you start to enter into contracts, whether that’s to employ people or to run larger events or to acquire a piece of land like signing a lease, it can be incredibly useful to incorporate. This literally means to create a legal person in the form of a company, a charitable incorporated organisation, community interest company or a cooperative that essentially is another body sitting around that table with you. What that legal vehicle or that legal body should be really depends on what it is you’re trying to do. Form should follow function. There’s quite a lot of guidance on the internet about the pros and cons of various different structures. I’m aware of time so I won’t run through these questions but those are the questions you should be asking yourself, because they will help you define what kind of legal structure you need.
Whether you have a legal structure or not, you’re going to need people. You’re going to need people with various different skills, and various different attributes. Everyone’s familiar with this idea of that a group needs a chair, a secretary and treasurer, and to be honest yeah, you need someone to keep hold of your meetings, you need somebody to add up and do your money, but I’m not sure you really need to worry so much about these as opposed to be thinking about the kind of more informal roles, skills and attributes that you need. Recognizing and celebrating the fact that there will be people with different personalities who are bringing different sets of attributes and aspects to your group. Some of those things are here [in the presentation]. The questioner or challenger role is really important. One thing that group dynamic theory tells us that is that almost every group has a naysayer, has somebody whose role it is to say ‘it’s not going to work.’ Often if they leave, somebody else takes on that role. And it’s a really important one, and something that should be celebrated. You need these other types of skills and attributes as well.
Finally, just think big. It’s important to be ambitious. Sometimes this stuff can be daunting but it’s all very possible!
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