I meet the communities taking ownership of green spaces and creating “pockets of green’ for local people and wildlife in the urban landscape
Three times a week, 74-year-old Judith Gaukrodger pays a visit to her ”jungle”. Skirting around a tiny wildflower meadow and down to what Judith calls the “swamp”, she’ll watch a territorial heron keep a beady eye on the fish, spot a grass snake among the mounds, or a haze of butterflies flit-flutter over the cuckoo flowers.
But this isn’t some palatial country park or designated AONB; it’s a small ribbon of verdant vegetation little wider than your average hedgerow.
Marking the boundary line between Northampton and Wellingborough in a brushstroke of green, this tiny oasis – described with such passion and fondness by Judith – is Rectory Farm Pocket Park, which Judith, her neighbour and park coordinator Anne Ward and a handful of volunteers, have saved from the vandals and developers to give a glimpse of green in the urban sprawl.
“It’s a tranquil escape,” says Judith. “A really soothing place to be.”
Fourteen years ago – before the Mayor of London added these pockets of urban green to his 2012 manifesto – Rectory Farm Pocket Park was something of a pioneer. Indeed, Alan Teulon MBE, the former head of Countryside Services at Northamptonshire County Council, came up with the idea after he saw a need to protect and provide greater access to green spaces. His scheme was so innovative it became a model of best practice, winning awards and incorporating many sustainability and biodiversity principles long before they became mainstream policies.
Characterized by their small size – and free access – they aim to help local communities take ownership, manage and care for local spaces.
With an estimated 80 in Northampton alone, created along disused railways, in hospital gardens and even cemeteries, these pint-sized parks are spreading, with temporary pop-up parks in Coventry, a children’s park in Birmingham and ones in Manchester and Sheffield.
In London, as part of the Mayor’s ‘London’s Great Outdoors’ programme of regeneration, £2million was allocated to build 100 tiny parks across 26 boroughs.
Encapsulating much of Teulon’s original blueprint – small pockets of green in otherwise grey, built up – and often deprived – areas – they include a rambling rockery and a bog against the backdrop of boats at Cody Docks Pocket Park, a blooming bus stop at Springbank Road, Lewisham, and in Canning Town, mobile pocket parks (see panel) that get to hard to reach communities.
“Many of the parks challenge people’s idea of what a park is,” says Nicola Murphy-Evans, senior policy officer in the Environment Delivery team at the GLA. “They go beyond simply planting a tree or erecting a park bench, they start a conversation and engage people.”
Living in each other’s Pockets
Large or small, urban or rural, the cultural, social and environmental benefits of pocket parks are manifold.
“Creating a beautiful bus stop might seem like a small thing, but it can have a profound effect on local people, making residents feel better about their area,” says Nicola.
Rectory Farm, like many, grew out of a need to turf out (quite literally) the vandalism that was blighting the area. “The space had become neglected and suffered from fly tipping,” recalls Anne Ward. “And the creation of a pocket park in 2003 seemed a more positive step to encourage residents to take pride in their area.”
“You’re essentially designing out crime,” adds Nicola Murphy-Evans. “Clipping hedges that obscure views, adding gates, seats and lighting – it all make it safer.”
At Boughton Pocket Park, Northampton, mum-of-three Charlotte Mackaness helped head up a community committee that turned a 4.8-acre wasteland, wrecked by fly tipping, vandalism and drunken youths, into a new play area. “Our greatest achievement was putting the Park right at the centre of village life again,” says Charlotte. “Now we run rounders tournaments, village fetes and family dog shows, and an annual bonfire that attracts 1,500 visitors.”
Giving children access to green spaces in this way is central to the pocket park philosophy.
At Woodview Pocket Park in Edgbaston, Birmingham, there’s a zip wire and adventure-climbing frame to lure children away from their Xboxes. “We noticed local children weren’t getting the sorts of play experiences their parents or grandparents had,” says Georgette Wright, from WM Housing, who developed the park in partnership with Birmingham City Council. “While older residents grew up going on outings to the Lickey Hills or Moseley Bog, children living on the same estate today don’t go there, and don’t have the option of building a den or getting dirty. The pocket park was purposefully designed bring a natural feel into the inner city.”
Part of the appeal of pocket parks is their size, says Brett Nuttall, estate manager at Green Estate, a not for profit regeneration company in Sheffield, which created three pocket parks in the city’s Manor Estate – in the top 1% most deprived areas in the UK.
“In urban areas, it’s so important families have somewhere secure outdoors to relax and play,” he says. “Many of the bigger parks were underused and underinvested – green deserts with shrub belts and swathes of mown grass but nothing to motivate or inspire.”
Now the Manor Estate’s Windy House Lane, The Wedge and Fretson Green Pocket Parks have toddler play areas not unlike the Telly Tubby landscape and impactful planting and landscaping.
But it’s not only people that are drawn to the parks; a huge number are teaming with wildlife too. In Hackney, East London, local schools take some of their lessons outdoors in the EcoActive Pocket Park, and Rectory Farm acts as a valuable habitat corridor, home to southern marsh orchids, song thrushes and woodpeckers.
This summer there’ll be holding their annual Bat Walk with the Wildlife Trust, while wildlife charity Froglife has volunteered to dredge the ‘swamp’ and make it more habitable for the growing number of reptiles and amphibians.
Despite their obvious benefits, however, once the grants dry up, it’s easy for pocket parks to fall by the wayside (quite literally), with volunteers tasked to dig deep for ‘pocket money’ and keep the momentum going.
“Pocket parks provide little breathing-spaces in the towns and cities but we need the political will and the funds to make them happen and, in these days of austerity, we can’t be sure that they will,” says Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society.
Brett Nuttall agrees. “Pocket parks prove it doesn’t need to be a big space to have massive benefits. They help with job creation, housing investement, improving health and crime and education, and yet often when there are budget cuts, green spaces are the first things to go. They are not as valued as they should be.”
While the impact of pocket parks might be hard to quantify or plot on a spreadsheet, it’s clear that, to people like Judith, they’re a gem more valuable than any emerald.
“If the pocket park wasn’t here, I’d have to take two buses to get to an open green space,” says Judith. “It’s my little bit of therapy.”
Originally published in Vegetarian Living 2015