Tunbridge Wells and Middlesborough are as different as different can be. They have almost nothing in common; but last week they had me. In both places I was working with enthusiastic residents who wanted to share their local green spaces with the local community.
Tunbridge Wells lies in the affluent south surrounded by the green and rolling delights of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Middlesborough, in the heart of the industrial north has been, possibly unfairly, voted ‘the worst place in the UK to live’. Politically, Tunbridge looks firmly to the right, Middlesborough faces steadfastly the other way. They are very, very different.
So too, in many ways were the people I met in the two towns. At least they seemed that way, until we got down to the business of looking at the green spaces and talking about what an important resource they are for local people and wildlife. In both towns there are enthusiastic and committed groups of volunteers working to build support and recognition for these places.
As we talked, I found there were many things in common between these two. Here are eight of them:
1. A passionate conviction that having wild spaces in the town made it a better place for people to live. Greenspaces are part of a healthy community and a healthy future.
3. All sorts of people use these spaces in all sorts of ways. Usually this works fine (given a bit of flexibility and resilience) and different users rub along together. Sometimes cyclists and bikers annoy walkers. Illegal stuff happens sometimes, in both places, but usually at night and away from other people.
4. It is important to support and encourage less confident people in visiting these places. Some people find these places quite scary. Organised events can help introduce people to this site on their doorstep and give them the courage to explore. Careful management (especially it seems cutting back vegetation around paths and to open up lines of sight) can make it less threatening.
5. The people who care for these places want to share them with other local people, including people who are not like them. Listening to and working with different local groups to find out how they perceive the site and want to enjoy it is vitally important in building use and understanding. This includes schools, Sure Start groups, elderly people, people with disabilities, ethnic groups and others.
6. The site needs to look welcoming. Entrances, waymarking, and friendly signage are all part of building a positive relationship with local people and helping them explore.
7. But these installations they are not enough. People who visit regularly will rapidly stop seeing them. The sites need to have changing communication that may be on the web, in the local press, on the radio or on notice boards.
8. When a place is well used and appreciated by local people, litter tends to disappear. It appears too, but when it does, at least some of it disappears. Dog walking is really important on most of these wild(ish) spaces. Dog poo is often an issue. Making friends and advocates (i.e. not enemies) with dog walkers is the best way of combatting this.
I really enjoyed meeting these people, south and north. Their love of their local spaces warmed and inspired me. I am very pleased that over the next weeks and months, in different ways, we will be helping these groups to develop Interpretation Plans and Activity Plans. Hopefully these will lead to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help maintain and improve these green and wild places, their wildlife and the way local people enjoy them.