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'A sense of joy': Embracing community spaces in planning

Aberdeen now has two Cruyff Courts and is planning a third

'A sense of joy': Embracing community spaces in planning

Five years ago, an old, grey, infrequently-used concrete basketball court in the centre of Aberdeen was given a new lease of life. The area was transformed into Scotland’s first Cruyff Court – a new type of sports hub, open to all, 24 hours a day.

Its creation was the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of youth work by Streetsport, a charity set up with the support of local police to engage with the city’s young people and bring down antisocial behaviour.

It worked. Last year, thousands of young Aberdonians participated in Streetsport programmes and analysis has found it has contributed to a huge reduction in youth-related crime. It also provides an organic link into the lives of young people from some of the city’s most deprived areas.

Mark Williams, chief operating officer of the Denis Law Legacy Trust – which now runs Streetsport – says the Cruyff Court was a “natural progression” from this early work. By listening to these young people, it became clear that what they wanted was space to be themselves, away from home and school, and separate from any organised activity.

The Denis Law Cruyff Court was unveiled. Williams says: “On the face of it, it looks like a football pitch, but it’s not. It’s a park, a safe park for young people to go. It’s a state-of-the-art 4G Astro, it’s floodlit, it’s unbookable – so you just turn up with your friends and play, just like you would at a park or greenspace. That’s right in the heart of the city centre, which is quite unique.”

He says the court became “almost too successful” because it began attracting kids from all over Aberdeen. “It’s a central point in their community where young people can meet up together, and that doesn’t always mean running around playing football, basketball, rugby, whatever it may be. This could be just hanging out, listening to music. It’s their location, it’s where they feel comfortable and safe, and can meet in an area that they’re not going to be chased away or frowned upon.”

The project was supported by Aberdeen City Council, to the tune of £250,000. Williams accepts this was a bit of a risk, but it has paid off. “The city council have been very supportive, but I would say that’s mainly due to them having seen the success. That first court was maybe a gamble for them, I think, providing a free, state-of-the-art facility with free floodlights. Someone’s got to pay the bills, obviously, for maintenance and paying for the floodlights. But it’s good to see the city council being proactive and taking that on – and it’s reaped the rewards.”

At the end of 2019, a second court was opened in Torry, in the south of the city. A third is now planned for Tillydrone in the north. Despite this success, Cruyff Courts have yet to catch on elsewhere in Scotland. There is only one other, in Hamilton.

Williams believes there should be more. “The fact that we’ve been able to deliver two in one of Scotland’s major cities and proved that they both work means it should work in another city.”

Regardless of whether Cruyff Courts would be appropriate elsewhere, Aberdeen’s experience does demonstrate the many benefits of public spaces. Indeed, various campaigns to save local community spaces, ranging from parks to libraries to community hubs, proves the strength of feeling. It’s a point picked up on by the Scottish Government, too.

The most recent iteration of the National Planning Framework (NPF4) puts community at its centre, highlighting how health, wellbeing and even “a sense of joy” are vital for successful placemaking. Running concurrent to the NPF4 consultation, the government is also seeking views on open space strategies which are to be prepared by each planning authority.

There’s a lot of facilities, particularly skate parks and multi-use games areas, which are abandoned, which are not used, which probably weren’t ever really wanted by the community

Planning minister Tom Arthur wrote in a blog earlier this month: “It’s vital to think about the full range of multifunctional benefits green infrastructure and play opportunities can offer us as a society.

“The benefits include supporting early years development and education, improving health and wellbeing, creating safe and happy neighbourhoods, as well as contributing to the environment, biodiversity and climate resilience.

“Open space and play areas are a key part of placemaking and in ensuring our places are distinctive, beautiful, inclusive, greener, healthier and more resilient to climate change.”

But Arthur says it is important to ensure these strategies don’t become “check box exercises”. Imogen Clark, founder of campaign group Make Space for Girls – which is calling for more facilities for teenage girls – says this will require proper public consultation.

“When you talk to councils about consultation they say, ‘oh yes, consultation is great but it’s very expensive’, ‘data collection is great but it’s very expensive’. And therefore the aim is to get it done quickly and cheaply and then move on to the really important stuff that counts,” says Clark.

“Actually, if we could switch that round and say, look, if you actually spent a little bit more time really understanding what a community wanted and what would be useful to that community, we could perhaps avoid some of the white elephants that we’ve got.

“There’s a lot of facilities, particularly skate parks and multi-use games areas, which are abandoned, which are not used, which probably weren’t ever really wanted by the community, but which everybody thought would be a good idea. Those spaces aren’t loved, they’re not owned, there’s no sense of community ownership around them. And that’s much more expensive than consulting, because then you’ve actually spent your money on something that nobody is really keen on using.”

If you live in a deprived community, you’re less likely to have access to good quality greenspace

Girls and young women are frequently the most ignored groups when it comes to planning, Clark says. “There’s lots of signifiers there that say to different groups of people, you are welcome and you’re legitimate in this public realm. But there’s nothing really that says that to teenage girls,” she explains. That can come in various forms, from a lack of streetlights and other safety measures to there being few places for girls to just sit and spend time with friends.

“People say, ‘but girls are so self-conscious, they don’t want to go out, they don’t want to get sweaty, they don’t want to go somewhere that messes up their hair’ in a very dismissive, ‘it’s just girls being silly,’ sort of way. [They’re] not looking at the underlying root causes. When girls hit puberty, for a lot of them they are suddenly subject to an awful lot of attention which is telling them how they should look, how they should be and is criticising them whichever way they look. So I think this ‘we need to empower the girls’ [narrative] – we really need to change the society that they are growing up in.”

She continues: “For me, empowerment means girls having the ability to make meaningful choices about where they spend their leisure time from a range of acceptable options. I see empowerment very much as we are empowering groups of girls to make choices… I don’t mean basically telling girls to man up and put up with whatever is going on and use the facilities we’ve already given you.”

While teen girls are the focus of her campaign, Clark says changing the way planning is done will have wider benefits too. “If people did look for the data, they’d probably find that the current teenage provision is catering for a relatively small subset of teenagers, but we tend to sort of lump them all together… We fall into that trap of not actually asking young people and listening to what they would really want.”

Julie Procter, chief executive of Greenspace Scotland, agrees. “If [teenagers] get mentioned at all, it’s often in terms of antisocial behaviour and how do we stop young people hanging around, instead of realising that that hanging around is actually part of what growing up is all about, and that’s what socialising looks like.”

As well as there being a lack of community space specifically tailored to the needs of teens, Procter highlights that access is a broader equality issue. “There are some sectors of the community, some population groups, who don’t make as good use of greenspace or don’t have easy access to it. Whilst we know that two-thirds of Scots live within a five-minute walk of greenspace, if you live in a deprived community, you’re less likely to have access to good quality greenspace.”

This was exacerbated at the start of the pandemic when we were encouraged to stay at home, or close to home, as much as possible. But it’s a problem that has been steadily getting worse over the last decade, Procter explains. “What we saw from our surveys was up until about 2011, we saw increasing use of greenspace and increasing ratings in terms of quality. And then austerity hit, and then we’ve seen a nosedive in terms of people’s ratings of quality.”

The maintenance and management of greenspaces is delivered by local authorities, but since it is a non-statutory service when council budgets are cut, they are often first to go. Procter says: “In the last 10 years, the expenditure on parks and greenspace has reduced by about a third, and you start to see that as you look around.”

But she argues this is short-term thinking because it ignores the many benefits public and community spaces bring. She says: “The savings that come to society from keeping us happy, healthy, increasing our physical activity levels, improving our mental health and wellbeing are things that actually do deserve to be invested in.”

And this isn’t just about creating new projects but investing in existing spaces. There is also room for innovation and, with an eye to climate change targets, opportunities to use these places as part of Scotland’s green infrastructure.

Saughton Park in Edinburgh has, with the help of Greenspace Scotland, become the first green-powered park. It uses the nearby Water of Leith to produce electricity through a micro-hydro scheme and generates heat from a ground source heat pump below the park.

Procter says: “If we look again at the ambitions set out in NPF4 around sustainable, livable places and renewable energy, we need to be looking at those type of things because then you can start to see that community greenspace [is] really not just the green heart of the community in terms of providing space for recreation, but it could be generating energy through district heat networks that could be creating income for community groups.”

While Procter likes much of what she sees in NPF4 and related policies, she warns that strategy alone will not tackle barriers to creating more, better and inclusive community spaces.

“I think there’s a lot to be welcomed in NPF4 in terms of the ambition. What I would say, having been in this role for 20-odd years, is we’ve probably got a better policy landscape at a national level than we’ve ever had before in terms of supportive policies.

“What we’re not seeing, though, is the ambition of policy, the aspiration of communities, translating into action on the ground, and I think that is always the big barrier. The vision is great, the policy, the ambition is great, but what we’re really needing now is to make sure that we have investment that matches the ambition of policy.”   

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