Reviving Green Spaces Between Houses

Helen Woolley

A high percentage of urban green spaces in our UK cities is that within which social housing is set. Although the original intention was that these green space should be everybody’s in reality many of them have become nobody’s. They have become forgotten green spaces usually of a poor quality with respect to biodiversity and social value. The ‘Living with Nature’ project aimed to engage with people living in social housing in Sheffield to improve the quality of green spaces for play and biodiversity over a period of 3 years. In this post I will share the challenges we faced of reviving these forgotten housing green spaces.

Living with Nature

In the City of Sheffield about one fifth of the population live in housing provided by the City Council and much of the green space associated with this housing is of poor quality for biodiversity, children’s play and the community as a whole. The Living with Nature project addressed these issues by working with communities in 24 social housing areas owned and managed by Sheffield City Council. Project staff worked with individuals, groups and organisations within the communities to support a wide range of activities including:

  • Fun days
  • Bulb planting
  • Easter egg hunts
  • Sculpture trails
  • Lantern painting
  • and sports days.
  • Dogshows
  • ‘Play down memory lane’


Dog shows have become an annual activity on several of the sites and some of the older people enjoy Play Down Memory Lane where they share remembrances of childhood play in their neighbourhoods with tea and home-made cakes.

These events had multiple social benefits: people started using the forgotten green spaces; individuals and communities developed a sense of ownership of the spaces; people met others from the community and often perceptions of each other changed and people learnt new skills. Importantly these events gave the project team opportunities to talk about the future use, design and management of the green space.

Physical changes involved moving away from a Kit, Fence, Carpet approach to the provision of play spaces to the design of the spaces as playful landscapes. Additional planting was included on many of the sites to achieve the aim of increasing biodiversity. The original project budget only included a small amount for capital works on site and some of the project team have worked very closely with community members to support the development of written funding applications.


Main challenges when reviving the green spaces

Three main challenges of the project related to negative perceptions of the green spaces, perceptions of others in the community and fear and unfamiliarity with documentation. The negative perception of the green spaces was often developed as a result of historic negative behaviours and perceived behaviours over a period of years. On one site this related to a woodland area that people were afraid to use. Supported activities including Easter egg hunts and art trails changed this perception and has resulted in a range of unsupported activities being taken forward.

castlebeck,easter egg hunt 035

In some of the communities there were negative perceptions of other users and potential users of the green spaces. This related to dog walkers, not everyone has or likes dogs, children, not everyone has children, disabled young adults with complex impairments and homeless people living in a halfway house. The onsite events provided opportunities for people to meet each other, undertake activities together and understand each other, breaking down some of the social barriers.

Den building 2011_06150053

A third challenge was a fear and unfamiliarity with official documents such as funding application forms. Residents in the communities had little, if any experience, of such paperwork. Also they had no real experience of setting up constituted community groups, which was a requirement for such applications. The project staff provided support for these activities leaving a legacy of increased skills and capacity in some of the communities as well as newly constituted groups.


Legacy of Living with Nature

Ongoing physical changes to sites and increases in social capacity are underpinned on some of the project sites by the unexpected outcome of the development of Friends groups. These focus on the green spaces, moving tenants away from the traditional concern about buildings which Tenants and Residents Associations (TARAs) have. The Friends groups continue to organise events and one recent event attracted over 400 people, with some visiting from outside the immediate community. In addition Friends groups continue to apply for funding for ongoing physical changes within the site masterplans, where these are not yet complete, and management approaches.

Two members of the project team now run a social enterprise and are sometimes paid by the friends groups to support activities. The housing officer has continued to support these groups but ongoing cuts and structural changes to the local authority mean that she is unlikely to be continuing to do this in the future and this will result in a great loss of continuity, experience, relationships and trust that has been developed.


Origins of Living with Nature

As many partnership projects, Living with Nature had a long gestation period. The seeds were sown in the autumn of 2007 when Sheffield City Council Housing Services Officer, Kate Bradshaw, heard Helen Woolley talk about Kit, Fence, Carpet playgrounds and that there was a better way to design and provide for children’s play in outdoor environments. Kate was invited to some workshops Helen was hosting at The University of Sheffield about social housing and play and following that CABE Space supported the development of a Play Strategy for Sheffield City Council Housing Services (2009/2010). Undergraduate students studying with Helen were involved in a series of projects with Kate over a five year period (2010-2014) and Helen was awarded a six month Rapid Response Knowledge Transfer project by The University of Sheffield (2010). This allowed Alison Somerset-Ward, a graduate from the Department of Landscape, to work with Kate on what became the pilot project site. The Sheffield and Wildlife Trust became the next partner and wrote the successful funding application to the BIG Lottery Reaching Communities Fund and the trust hosted the Living with Nature project between 2011 and 2014. The Landscape Architect employed by the wildlife trust for the project was Simon Fagg and Ash Bailey was a year out student, both are graduates from the Department of Landscape. During the project other students worked as volunteers on the project while Camilla Allen helped with the production of Stories of LIVING WITH NATURE – ISBN – ONLINE 2014.



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