If you allow a space to look tatty and deprived that sense of neglect will ultimately manifest in the actions of those who see it each and every day
Hear the words ‘council estate’ and you’re likely to conjure up a standard set of images: homogenous grey buildings, forlorn patches of grass, and tersely worded signs like “No Ball Games” and “No Fouling.” But earlier this year, on a late summer walk around Clapton Park - a sprawling housing estate in the east London borough of Hackney - grounds and maintenance manager John Little had a very different story to tell.
With corn flowers and poppies bordering the sidewalks, native shrubs and fruit trees in place of drab low-maintenance varieties, and micro veg-patch allotments dotted in between flat buildings, Little has developed an alternative model of the kind of living environment council estates can provide.“Grounds maintenance is about much more than just looking after plants,” he says. “But what’s exciting about applying native plants to a very urban space is how you can adapt them to where people live - it’s a completely new dimension”.
With 1,200 properties and 120 ‘parcels’ of green space of varying sizes, Clapton Park is just part of a growing movement to improve the quality of life of social housing residents by increasing the accessibility of attractive and usable green spaces.
And whilst Little has implemented these changes through a maintenance contract with the estate’s Tenant Management Organisation, there are national efforts afoot as well. Neighbourhoods Green is a nationwide consortium of several partners - including National Housing Federation, Groundwork, and Keep Britain Tidy - which provides resources to social housing landlords and residents to help make quality green spaces more of a priority on their estates.
“Open green space is a major factor in building a community,” said Nicola Wheeler, project coordinator at Neighbourhoods Green. “But often when looking at new housing developments, the focus is really on making sure that you can get the best possible outcome in terms of numbers of units and that often impinges on the amount and quality of green space.”
The majority of the British population, nearly 80%, live in urban areas such as Clapton Park, but roughly two thirds of all green space visits take place within just two miles of people’s homes. Wheeler says that this last fact makes the need for localised open spaces - which can foster things like good neighbour relations, physical activity, and creative play for children - even more pressing for residents of social housing.
“[On many council estates] we have these spaces - which we call ‘green deserts’- that are pleasant to look out over but aren’t really performing much of a function,” Wheeler said. “These localised amenity green spaces should not be overlooked in terms of the benefits they can provide for people who maybe can't afford to visit a good quality park or live in a better area.”
In order to ascertain how to transform these so called green deserts, people such as Little and Neighbourhoods Green partners rely heavily on input from the residents. “On a lot of estates, the quality of maintenance is pretty low, simply because it’s been bad for so long that no one even complains about it,” Little said. “When we came here [to Clapton Park] no one was complaining, but when we improved it, they really noticed and became more engaged.”
Whilst Little’s actions are rooted in a concern for biodiversity, he tries not to use the word itself at all, choosing instead to tag his agro-ecological methods “on the back of aesthetics,” which are of greatest concern to residents. He says that the main guidance for doing his job well is ongoing dialogue with tenants, which comes both from casual encounters while working on the estate, as well as organised meetings that are purposely scheduled outside working hours.
His efforts seem to be working, at least according to resident Ilkay Ahmet, who has lived on the estate for 39 years. Immediately outside her flat, a space that was once a concrete wasteland has been transformed with the simple addition of low-maintenance beds. The beds’ communal herb garden conveniently mirrors the culinary tastes of the diverse residents: grape leaves for Turkish dolmas, mint and oregano for Kurdish dishes, and coriander and thyme for West Indian cuisine.
“If you could see for years what we had to look at across there,” Ahmet says with a grimace. “Gradually now though we’re getting more mums sitting under that side with their kids, sitting and eating their dinner - they never used to do that.”
Efforts to make spaces more appealing for communing have the effect of cutting down on one of the biggest problems found on estates: anti-social behaviour. Little believes this phenomenon can be explained in part by the ‘broken window theory’; if you allow a space to look tatty and deprived that sense of neglect will ultimately manifest in the actions of those who see it each and every day.
“I think you can really understand that attitude: ‘No one’s really caring about where I live, why am I caring about it?’” he said. “My argument has been to invest into maintenance because it gives you the contact with people who live here. It’s then that you can get these other things done that have nothing to do with plants.”
Rosie Spinks is a freelance journalist.