Written by Michaela Howell, Head of Communities, Groundwork Greater Manchester
Landscape design is all too often an afterthought when designing the urban environment, a ‘nice to have’ or the part of the project that falls through because of restricted budgets. In truth, landscape architects should be central to planning from the beginning, not least to ensure that we don’t rely on engineered man made solutions when natural solutions would have wider benefits.
At Groundwork, our team of landscape architects puts communities at the centre of the design process. That means making sure that it is a shared and creative process, with communities as equal partners throughout.
How we engage with communities
The conversation often starts with communities expressing dissatisfaction with a space that hinders rather than supports their activity and enjoyment. Groundwork’s engagement teams work with our landscape architects to tease out potential use of the space, involving all sections of the community and making sure that they hear from those who are sometimes reluctant to voice their thoughts or who don’t feel connected to their community as well as those who come forward to share their ideas and enthusiasm.
Our landscape architects take time to listen to everyone’s aspirations and use their design knowledge and skills to move the conversation forward towards creating a community-led vision. They help clarify what is feasible, technically possible and desirable for the space (eg native species, low maintenance planting, sustainable drainage) as well as providing inspiration from their previous work and that of their peers. They can even recommend some temporary measures that may help with local consultation, for example, pop up parklets can test which areas would work best for a more permanent parklet.
Is it worth it?
Of course, it would be much simpler and take less time for our landscape architects to present the design to the community and justify their choices for specific features. So why don’t they do this? Why is community involvement so important to Groundwork architects?
Local people understand the local context; how the space is used, what local people’s concerns and aspirations are – they are the experts in their place and we shouldn’t underestimate the value of this for example they know which green space or tree is used as a way-marker and where age-friendly design may add extra benefits for local people. They have a long-term stake in making places work for local people and we can have a role in helping them achieve that.
So whilst it may take longer for all voices to be heard and for people to feel engaged with the final design, it is really worth it from our perspective; Groundwork aspires to create successful and sustainable places and this is our route to that vision.
By bringing local people together as part of this design process, new connections are built and a greater sense of ownership and pride is felt for the space; communities often take great care of the space and help to maintain it – although enhancing biodiversity through wildflowers and seed bombing reduces the degree of looking after needed. This, combined with the environmental improvements, helps with the community’s resilience, sense of belonging and ultimately their wellbeing.
Examples of participatory design in practice
Harpurhey Meanwhile Site
Local people had complained to Council officers about a derelict piece of land on the edge of the district centre in Harpurhey being an eyesore, neglected and frequently littered.
Early discussions took place with local people who wanted to create a green space featuring planters and raised beds, which encouraged local ownership and provided positive messages about joint responsibility such as not dropping litter and recycling.
Groundwork’s landscape architect met with groups of young people at Manchester Youth Zone to create a design based on the original suggestions and the final design was displayed for wider public consultation.
The design was brought to life over a half term holiday to allow young people to join the corporate and local volunteers in building and planting.
The Centre Manager at the Harpurhey Shopping Centre has agreed to carry out the required regular maintenance work, including the watering of planters and the Youth Zone has agreed to lead on quarterly community litter-picks.
Jude’s Garden, Urmston
Jude’s Garden is a peaceful memorial garden, situated in the playground of English Martyrs’ RC Primary School in Urmston. The school’s Headteacher Carole approached Groundwork, looking to create a place of calm for remembering 12-year-old pupil Jude, who had sadly lost his life to bone cancer.
The school community had plenty of ideas for bringing Jude’s legacy to life, but needed advice around how to carry out their project, access funding and resources and make sure they could create a garden to last.
Having secured resources, funding and volunteers from local businesses, our landscape architects helped the school bring their vision to life and create a detailed plan for the garden. We held a collaborative design session with pupils, parents, staff and volunteers to share ideas and ensure the plan for the garden was both realistic and met the school community’s aspirations. Our landscape architects shared their expertise on specific considerations like the maintenance required for different plants, and where to place them to receive the right amount of sunlight.
They created a sketch design to demonstrate what the garden could look like, with a chance to feedback with any final comments and suggestions. Finally, three days of volunteer hard work brought the design to life.
Ferry Road, Irlam
Peel Holdings own a large green space at Ferry Road, Irlam which is a site of biological importance. And they hoped to revitalise it so it could be used for a range of social and recreational activities and appreciated and sustained by those who use it and live nearby. But the site attracted anti-social behaviour which deterred people from using it as they would like and paths were informal and not easily useable for pushchairs – the space had little to appeal to residents to enjoy it other than dog walking.
Groundwork worked with the local community to identify their ideas and priorities for improvements to the site and involved our landscape architects in several open consultation sessions. The landscape architects then produced a sketch of the area, which incorporated many of the priorities, and an estimate of the costs involved. Together with Peel and community representatives, this was refined and put out for final consultation with a short explanatory film.
Not only has the space been improved through the involvement of residents and corporate volunteering but the local anglers group welcomed new members and the space now has a ‘friends of’ group to support it in further improvements.