Regeneration comes from community grassroots

Kids play on the 'Brothers Path' a vacant site transformed with wild flowers: picture Depot Arts

Most people barely noticed the rough section of woodland next to the Scout Hall in Clarkston. It was just another piece of waste ground, overgrown and scattered with rubbish. But Jacqui Frame noticed. She had identified this unattractive patch of ground as the ideal base for her project.

Jacqui runs Off Grid Kids, an outdoor after-school club which encourages children to put down their tablets and PlayStations and experience the natural world. Thanks to Stalled Spaces Scotland (SSS), a nationwide initiative organised by Architecture & Design Scotland (A&DS) for animating vacant spaces and stalled development land in towns, she was able to realise her dream.

A small grant from SSS, supported by Commonwealth Games Legacy funding and the Scottish Government’s Regeneration Programme, enabled her to clear the land of rubbish and buy basic equipment. Staff from East Renfrewshire Council helped her get in touch with the owner of the land and secure the necessary lease. Now, children of all ages are happily getting their hands (and everything else) dirty, under the supervision of staff and volunteers.

The woodland is just one of many derelict spaces transformed under the scheme into community gardens, pop-up markets, art exhibition spaces and outdoor gyms.

Bringing communities together

As the current phase of Stalled Spaces Scotland closes, there are plenty of benefits to evaluate: the acres of land transformed, number of volunteers involved, additional funding attracted. But there are also benefits which are less easy to quantify: friendships forged, vegetables grown and eaten; kids who’ve learned to make mud pies for the first time.

A&DS hopes that the idea will continue to spread. They have launched a Stalled Spaces Toolkit which gives practical information for any community group, anywhere in Scotland, who would like to transform a stalled space. David Cowan, head of the Scottish Government’s Regeneration Unit, hopes that the success of the project so far will encourage other groups and local authorities around the country to explore its potential.

He said: “A little plot of land can create a negative atmosphere and, if it can be turned around, it can make a massive difference. This is a fairly cost-effective way not only of

A group of young people discussing plans in a walled space, behind the skyline is dominated by high rise flats
The Bothy Project turned a vacant space by the canal in Glasgow into a wildflower garden with a shipping container bothy as an alternative outdoor performance and events space. Picture: Bobby Niven

tackling some of these gap sites but also in bringing the community together. I think what we have got now is the means to encourage local authorities and communities across Scotland to look at this and see how it might work for them.”

It’s also an important building block for town centre regeneration.

The Stalled Space becomes a focus for the community working together, people getting involved and engaged and finding a solution as opposed to waiting for someone else to do something about it. It’s also about developing the relationship between the community and the local authority, and starting to build confidence about community empowerment. It’s not going to fix a whole town or town centre, but what it can be is part of a bigger, more concentrated effort to revitalise town centres, a catalyst for communities and local authorities to work together to reinvent places.

Rooted in the community

One lesson learned is that the initiative must come from the community. Diarmaid Lawlor, Director of Place at A&DS, remembers an earlier project where planners tried to kick-start a stalled spaces initiative from the top down

The thinking was that this should be a good thing: development had stopped, there was land available, that would allow the community to do amazing things. But when we talked to the community, their concerns were different. Just because you think it’s a good idea doesn’t mean that people will do it. It’s an investment of time, and that needs to be framed really clearly in terms of the benefits to the person and the community.

Equally, there is no one-size-fits-all model. Some community groups are already well established, with projects underway. West End Growing Ground Association (WEGGA), based in Paisley’s West End, was already leasing two former tenement sites for raised bed allotments. The Stalled Spaces project enabled them to expand to two further sites, and encouraged them to foster ambitions to take on a much bigger site. New groups will need a different level of support, and might spend most of their time and energy on building relationships.

However, a key element in the success of a Stalled Space is the relationship with the local authority. Iain Cunningham, third sector development officer with Engage Renfrewshire, emphasised the need for all council departments to buy into the vision if community groups are to avoid delays and red-tape.

The Assets team, for example, are trying to sell major sites for housing development. If they’re suddenly required to find out who owns 300 square metres on the corner of a terrace, it’s not going to be high on their agenda. But if the scheme is supported by the right people and the right processes, you can achieve things in a short space of time.

A place to meet, grow cabbages and talk

A successful Stalled Space is an expression of goodwill, not only on the part of the community and local authority but also on the part of the landowner, in making their land available for short term community use. A written agreement giving both parties an agreed notice period is crucial in ensuring that there are no conflicts if the landowner requires the land back. Groups are encouraged to invest in equipment which is movable, so they can consider relocation to another site.

Raised flower beds of Greyfriars Garden. Picture Lenny Warren
Greyfriars Garden, created from vacant land in the centre of Glasgow. Picture Lenny Warren

What’s also true is that a successful stalled spaces project is more than the sum of its parts. Diarmaid Lawlor believes that a stalled space can be a valuable space for learning and communication, an informal place for a conversation about regeneration to begin.

The stalled space is a place where you meet, grow cabbages and begin to talk about what regeneration actually looks like in your area.

“Last year, I went to a workshop on changing a neighbourhood, and when I left, I walked right into what was a stalled space. It was a sunny day and people were drinking tea, planting things, people from the neighbourhood were teaching refugees English. We talk about getting increased participation in community involvement and civic action, but not everybody wants to participate in workshops, meetings and agendas. The stalled space is a place where you meet, grow cabbages and begin to talk about what regeneration actually looks like in your area.

“We’ve got ways of getting rid of bad buildings and replacing them with new ones, but we don’t actually have ways of building a community. The Stalled Space could be a prototype, a way of building a community of interest which then builds a kind of governance framework.

“It’s about citizen participation: programmes like Stalled Spaces Scotland are helpful for that but it’s not enough – you need to grow a lot of cabbages to create a system change. It’s about creating empowered communities, and situating that so it’s in conversation with strategic decisions.”

This article, along with From eyesore to empowerment, is republished with kind permission of Architecture and Design Scotland  The Stalled Spaces toolkit is available from Architecture and Design Scotland. For more information contact stalledspacesscotland@ads.org.uk

Featured image: Brothers Path, a vacant site transformed by Friends of Possilpark Greenspace: picture Depot Arts

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