Mapping sustainable communities in Hackney, London
Justice in the Green is an action-learning platform aiming at contributing to the generation and sharing of action and reflection on the use and appropriation of Hackney Marsh and connected green spaces by the surrounding communities. This is understood in the context of the significant transformations currently taking place as a result of area masterplans and the Olympic Games developments and Legacy process.
The project started as an assignment for three consecutive years (2008, 2009 and 2010) for the students of the MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development at the Development Planning Unit (DPU), University College London (UCL). A variety of partners were involved, including two UCL departments, community groups, Hackney 2012 Legacy Team, Hackney Olympic and Paralympics Games Unit of Hackney Council, and the Hackney based NGO Social Action for Health (for more information go to partners).
The students’ engagement began by examining six distinct localities in the Hackney Wick/Clapton area, however in 2010-11 the research has taken a slightly different focus. This year the research has sought to better understand how the green spaces in and around Hackney Marshes, and broadly in the eastern part of the borough, have been appropriated through a number of different activities. These activities have been explored under a series of categories: Creative Arts Expression; Cultivating Spaces; Being with Nature; Moving through Nature; Collective Sports; and Unstructured Play.
While being a learning opportunity for the students to gain hands on experience on issues related to environmental justice in the city, this initiative also generated a series of audio-visual reports based on the different activities taking place in these green spaces. In addition short video testimonials were collected which have been fed into a newly created web-based interactive community map, devised in collaboration with the UCL Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatics Engineering. It is hoped that this map, when used as a social networking tool, can support local organisations and community groups, raise their profile, and strengthen their involvement in the planning process affecting these areas, particularly in these dynamic times of change.
The Justice in the Green website aims to disseminate the findings of the research, showcase the audio-visual outputs generated by the students, and to use the interactive online map to continue and develop the exchange of information among organizations and individuals. The initiative hopes to bring into focus a deeper understanding of local communities’ right to the city through the use of green spaces in Hackney.
In 2008 and 2009, when the Justice in the Green initiative was very much in its infancy, the research was concentrated specifically on pre-defined study areas within the King’s Park and Wick wards in the east of Hackney. Student groups examined the concept of environmental justice in relations to green open space in the following locations: Hackney Marsh, Wick Field, Lea Bridge and Millfields, Clapton Estate, Kingsmead Estate, and Hackney Wick Estate.
The preliminary stages of the research has established links with local residents and community groups, and provided a platform for dialogue between these groups. In 2008 the group of students produced reports on the access, use and appropriation of green spaces in their study area, while in 2009 the students generated ‘outputs’ for partner organisations within the community, which included brochures and leaflets in support of the groups, a scale model of the Marshes, and a play book, to name but a few.
The research and these reports and outputs were intended to aid the community in their engagement in decision-making processes surrounding the 2012 Olympic Developments, Olympic Legacy plans, and the area masterplans in Hackney.
- Cultivating Spaces
The Group’s fieldwork took place over November and December 2010 and was focused on cultivating spaces in and around Hackney Marshes. The group’s task was three-fold: a) to explore how cultivating spaces enhance the appropriation of Hackney Marshes and surrounding areas, b) to examine potentials and constraints to enhance environmental justice through cultivating, and c) to identify potentials for cross-fertilization with other activities taking place in the area. Environmental justice was used as the framework for the assignment and research activities that would form the baseline data for our analysis. Appropriation in the context of cultivating spaces was considered as a way in which communities transform their surrounding environment into meaningful places that allow people to follow their own aspirations and needs.
A combination of quantitative and qualitative techniques were applied during the fieldwork research. Key informants were interviewed using both semi-structured interviews and Fous Group Discussions. Questionnaires were disseminated to engage with a larger cross-section of the community. Additionally, participatory mapping techniques were used to engage the interviewees; to capture immediately from the interviewees’ uses of the Marsh and to initiate a visioning process of potential spaces for activities related to cultivating spaces.
In the light of the undergoing changes in and around Hackney Marshes, the intention of this study was to engage the communities in the process of considering uses and appropriations of Hackney Marshes and to provide findings from which the communities may build a response and greater understanding of cultivating activities in the area.
There is a wide variety of existing user groups in Hackney, involved in different growing activities such as food growing, restoration of natural areas, wildflower meadows, tree planting, and combined projects.
The motivations why people get involved in growing activities vary. However, the wish to meet people, to be close with nature and to learn and share experiences about growing food and plants are main reasons for people to participate in gardening activities in Hackney.
Community gardening can strengthen community bonds and people’s identification with place in the area. It can bring people in touch with their environment and with the source of their food, and ultimately improve urban spaces and the local environment in Hackney by attracting life and biodiversity.
Lack of information about existing groups and lack of encouragements regarding possibilities for involvement as well as actual and perceived time constraints and language barriers (in the case of migrant communities) seem to main barriers that hinder involvement in gardening in Hackney.
Groups currently involved in gardening activities are predominantly white middleclass. Some social groups such as migrants, unemployed and people with health issues are rarely involved in gardening activities in the area studied. Reasons might be a feeling of disconnectedness towards the community and/ or unawareness of activities and possibilities for involvement.
Interrelation between existing user groups is still rare. By strengthening the communication between user groups through a common platform experiences and knowledge could be shared more effectively and could build further relationships towards healthy and sustainable communities.
There is potential for overlaps and cooperation with group less specialised in growing. The tree-planting project “Palas por Pistolas” by a Mexican artist in 2009 links to the arts, while growing schemes exist in schools and businesses in Hackney. New links could be forged, and existing ones extended for future cooperation.
- Unstructured Play
The aim of our research was to assess the potential for children between the ages of 5 to 12 to enjoy Hackney Marshes and surrounding green areas for unstructured play, which could spark a process towards a more sustainable community. Unstructured play in green spaces provides children with a wide range of learning experiences, which are highly beneficial for their personal development and which extend towards the greater community.
In order to understand the potential of unstructured play in Hackney we looked at the opportunities and constraints for children to play outside. Hackney offers vast amounts of green spaces and especially the Marshes that allow for unstructured play. However, the perceptions of safety require the presence of an educator. This facilitation appeared to be the main constraint due to limited capacities of parents and play providers. The creation of a network of play agents, Marshes User Groups and community active parents could therefore enhance the facilitation of unstructured play in Hackney.
The Hackney Marshes and surrounding green areas provide a space for unstructured play: 47% of the Study area [East Hackney] is under Green Spaces, as opposed to 24% in the whole borough.
Children depend on facilitation, which limits the potential of the Marshes as a place for unstructured play, and as a means of enhancing environmental justice.
Therefore, play facilitators have a pivotal role in realising the potential of the Marshes, and increasing its use an appropriation for play activities – however many play agents are constrained by limited resources.
With increased collaboration amongst play agents and with the community, environmental justice and a wider use of the Marshes and surrounding green spaces can be more effectively promoted.
- Collective Sports
The Collective Sports group attempted to map local perspectives concerning the appropriation of green spaces for sporting activities in the Hackney Marshes, and how they can contribute to ‘Environmental Justice’.
The research focused on analysing the presence of collective sports on the Hackney Marshes, and assessing the contribution of these sporting activities to community inclusion and greater social cohesion. This is a pertinent topic when taken in the context of the 2012 Olympic Games, and understanding its impacts and potential contribution towards promoting and providing for the ‘needs’ of local sporting groups.
Using quantitative and qualitative participatory research methods, including interviews, focus groups and participatory mapping, the group interacted with local residents and users of the Hackney Marshes to better understand their needs and wants, and how they are being addressed. This included children’s and adult’s football teams, the Clapton Rangers management, and various other community stakeholders (not necessarily associated with sports). The results recognise the potential for collective sports as a means of strengthening community bonds, but ask questions of the potential of the Olympics to make meaningful contributions to local sports.
Following are the main findings from our research:
Collective sports in Hackney bridges gaps between people from different areas, and has the power to build greater social cohesion within communities
The presence of Football provides a feeling of safety which encourages other activities on the marshes, ensuring they are not limited to sports alone.
The 2012 Olympics does not seem to fully provide for the needs of local groups engaging in sporting activites.
- Moving through Nature
The Moving Through Nature group aimed at investigating whether users have the choice, opportunities and ability to move from, to, through, within and between Hackney Marshes, Millfields and surrounding areas, according to their needs and aspirations, and whether there are conflicts or limiting factors.
The main focus of activities was on people walking, cycling, running and walking with dogs but also considered other modes of movement such as rowing or boathouse residents.
Specifically, the Moving Through Nature group set out to determine whether users are satisfied with developments proposed in the Hackney and Millfields Master Plan, and whether there are factors limiting the choices, opportunities and abilities of users.
Key Findings The masterplans for the area are proposed in order to increase usage. However, the research shows that the rationale for change conflicts with users’ needs and aspirations in moving though nature, and may actually result in decreased usage.
Certain factors were found to greatly influence the capabilities of users in moving through the green spaces. These include:
- The perception of a ‘Sense of security’ in the spaces
- Infrastructure (footpaths, access points and facilities) – in particular their upkeep and maintenance.
- The different ways in which people appropriate the green spaces, depending on the activity, or way that they move through nature
- Being with Nature
The aim of our project was to understand and explain appropriation, how it can be enhanced through ‘being with nature’, and the possibilities for cross-fertilisation with other main activities identified by the DPU.
We interpreted ‘appropriation’ as a ‘sense of belonging’ displayed by the residents of Hackney. Using age and history as a starting point, we examined the preferences in the structure of green spaces across generations. A divergence was uncovered between generations regarding their preferences for structure within green spaces as well as differences in opinions in the way Hackney Marshes ought to be managed. The research highlighted the gap between Hackney Council’s aspirations for the Marshes with those of the community.
It was found that there is a different sense of belonging amongst different age groups – with older community members feeling a greater connection with the space
There was, as well, a difference in preferences for structure of green spaces among different age groups. This leads us to believe that structure may impact the individual and community development of ‘sense of belonging’ among other factors (eg, value, usage, social interaction, history, etc).
In hopes of increasing usage the Council drafted the Hackney Marshes Master Plan to define usage by introducing extensive infrastructure. This contrasted with the communities preference for wilderness and the flexible use that it allows.
- Creative Arts Expressions
Over the course of four months, the Creative Arts Expressions Working Group conducted research in the London Borough of Hackney, focusing on the relationships between artworks, art activities, artists, and residents in the context of enhancing environmental justice on the Hackney Marshes.
Among the aims was to record and analyse the perspectives and perceptions of local residents in regards to their opportunity, capability, and willingness to participate in the creative arts in the Hackney Marshes and surrounding areas. The Working Group was able to achieve this through the use of a variety of research techniques, including desktop research, video and telephone interviews, questionnaires, transect walks, direct observation (photo and video), and participatory mapping.
The research highlighted the power of public art to polarise opinions in the community and the different values and understandings of local residents and local artists related to the pieces in display in and around the Hackney Marshes.
Key findings There are a series of disconnects between artists and residents in the area, including:
A comparative lack of awareness of public artworks among local residents
A disparity between the artists’ intentions and the public’s perception of artworks
Artworks can add value to the green spaces, but the lack of formal communication, information, or signage contributes to the lack of knowledge of artworks in the area.
Artworks have the power to create a sense of common identity and ownership.
Greater interaction with Hackney Council and between arts communities can help raise the profile and public awareness of art projects in the area.
Unstructured play presentation 2010
Collective Sports presentation 2010
Moving through nature presentation 2010
Wickfield & surroundings presentation
Hackney Green Marsh: Presentation
Hackney Green Marsh: Final Report
Wickfield & surroundings: Presentation
Wickfield & surroundings: Final Report