Kate Swade and I were recently treated to an ‘urban green space’ visit at the invitation of colleagues from the Landscape Architecture Depart at the University of Sheffield and the public health and parks and open spaces teams in the city council. We’ve captured some of the highlights here, and are keen to hear your responses to any of the questions we pose below.
The inspiration for our visit to Sheffield was the Putting the 5 Ways to Wellbeing in Place event we hosted, along with Dan Raven-Ellison, earlier this year – the aim of which was to explore what features of place enable us to connect, be active, learn, give and take notice. One of our guest panellists Jo Birch had shared insights from the Improving Wellbeing Through Urban Nature (IWUN) research project, emphasising the value we put on our social and relational experiences of nature in the city. IWUN also found that urban dwellers benefit from exposure to a diversity of urban nature experiences, including views, glimpses of sky, hearing birdsong and other casual encounters as well as those more consciously designed such as parks, play spaces and managed woodlands.
As London National Park City supporters, it was a treat to spend time on the edge of the Peak District, the country’s first ‘traditional’ national park, and to learn a little about the council’s approach to promoting health and wellbeing as an outcome of the city’s Green and Open Space Strategy 2010-20130.
Thoughts and conversations are ongoing, and we are hoping to host a return visit to London along similar lines. In the meantime, and in the spirit of #5WaysPlace, here are some observations from our trip, including Catherine’s recce the day before, as well as some questions we are grappling with:
Most importantly, of course, we got to catch up with old friends and meet some twitter friends in real life as well as facilitate connections between Sheffielders with shared interests.
One thing we were keen to see was the Grey to Green infrastructure which is combining new linear public spaces with planting, street furniture, public art and SUDS. It’s a great scheme, but we noticed that, paradoxically, there were more people sitting in the park-like areas than moving along them. The National Park City vision conceptualises a city connected by nature rather than roads, and we think Grey to Green has potential to take things further by extending and improving the integral walking and cycling routes to increase combined green and social connectivity.
We ask: Should green connectivity be the starting point for designing all new street infrastructure, rather than the exception to the rule, and what is needed to make this happen?
We visited Hillsborough Park, in the north west of Sheffield, a large park which already hosts professional and community sports and recreation activities as well as the Tramlines Festival, and attracts people from across Sheffield and beyond. It also has a wonderful walled garden and is the location of the local library, housed in the old Hillsborough Hall. There are plans for an even more comprehensive offer, including better provision for inclusive cycling, and an intergenerational café to be run by Age UK.
We ask: What are the best ways to raise the park’s profile, promote physical activity and increase footfall, while sustaining its equally valuable local offer and more tranquil features at the same time?
2019 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Ruskin, artist, critic, social thinker and philanthropist. His Sheffield connection is celebrated in the Millennium Gallery’s Art and Wonder exhibition which shows the centrality of natural history and the appreciation of beauty to everything he did. He advised his pupils to slow down, observe well and think intently … to take notice, in other words. As the current Master of The Guild of St George (founded by Ruskin in 1871) explains, Ruskin’s name has a powerful resonance across Sheffield even though he rarely visited in person. The Guild and city partners are behind an annual programme of events to celebrate this connection.
We ask: What more can be done, beyond this anniversary year, to share Ruskin’s legacy and embed his principles in the design of the city as well as through dedicated activities?
At our #5WaysPlace event in London, adventurer Sally Kettle spoke about the need to value the time and energy people give to their local places, but also about how, sometimes, people really don’t want to or can’t give any more of themselves. There is a limit to giving. We saw some real-life generosity and energy at Heeley City Farm, a longstanding community hub with wonderful animals and some substantial food production. The farm offers a number of opportunities for people with learning difficulties and additional needs to get involved. We also heard from Saskia Peet, part-time worker and longstanding volunteer, how challenging it can be to manage the different income streams.
We ask: What is the role of the health, public health and social care sectors in ensuring the sustainability of organisations like HCF that are providing holistic services but not managing to recoup the full costs of those?
Sheffield has some fine street furniture, plenty of benches (including a talking bench in the Winter Garden, for people who want to connect) and some elegant bollards, appropriately made from steel. The cathedral font, designed by Brian Fell, is also steel and rather lovely. And while Park Hill may be the Sheffield concrete structure that first comes to mind, the city centre has a number of striking 1960s and 70s buildings, such as William Mitchell’s Barkers Pool House with its impressive abstract relief.
We ask: What can other cities learn from the way that Sheffield has capitalised on its industrial and material heritage to provide continuity from its historical identity by investing in contemporary design and infrastructure?
We welcome responses to these questions, thoughts about the features of place which promote the 5 ways to wellbeing and suggestions for actions we can take.
With thanks for generous hospitality to Nicola Dempsey and Jo Birch (University of Sheffield), Greg Fell, Jon Dallow and Stuart Turner (Sheffield City Council) and Saskia Peet (Heeley City Farm).