Urban green space comes in a variety of forms – parks, allotments, gardens, ‘strays’ to mention just a few. One of the most iconic is the urban “common” – these are often extensive tracts of green space in or adjacent to large urban areas that provide publicly accountable, open, green, spaces vital for culture, health, wellbeing and biodiversity in the metropolitan context. Examples include Epping Forest and Wimbledon common in London, Town Moor in Newcastle, Mousehold Heath in Norwich, or Clifton Downs in Bristol.
The term “common” creates in the public consciousness notions of communal ownership, control and use. In fact, this is often a misconception. Most urban “commons” are not community-owned assets, and many have different legal identities, and differing degrees of legal protection and security. These are often the result of a history of different political, social and economic forces shaping land use in each metropolitan context. Epping Forest and Town Moor in Newcastle are, for example, protected by Acts of Parliament. Clifton Down in Bristol is a “traditional” common registered under the Commons Registration Act 1965, which guarantees its status as common land.
Other areas commonly regarded by the public as commons are in actual fact simply urban green space that is preserved by some lesser legal protection - for example, through the planning system, which may designate them as green space or as conservation areas within the local development plan. But plans can change, and much green space is lost to development annually.
Indeed, in the age of austerity, local authorities have been driven to sell much green space that they themselves own to raise funds to provide front line local services, like schools and social care. In this context, true urban commons – those that have the legal status of common land – are extremely precious community assets, in that they are protected from development and preserved for future generations.
But do we value them highly enough? Do we appreciate their importance in shaping our community’s consciousness of its own identity and history? Do we use them to the full as recreational open spaces and if not, how can we champion our urban commons and develop new ways to engage the urban public more fully in their use, management and stewardship?
A new interdisciplinary 3-year project (“Wastes and Strays”) involving academics from Newcastle University, Exeter University, Sheffield University and Brighton University will address many of these issues. The project will explore the complex social and political history of the urban common, as well as their legal and cultural status today, and in doing so devise tools and methods of negotiation, inclusivity and creativity to inform their future.
The project will make in-depth studies of four iconic urban commons: Town Moor, Newcastle; Valley Gardens, Brighton; Mousehold Heath, Norwich; and Clifton Down, Bristol. It will look at the multiple, negotiated historic uses and legal origins of the common in each case, and its contemporary meaning, popular perception, biodiversity and public use.
One strand of the research is closely focussed to encouraging the more extensive use of urban commons as vital green space for recreation and other community uses, important for mental and physical wellbeing. It will be looking to develop new strategies for community engagement with the urban commons as community assets and will work in partnership with local communities and relevant stakeholder groups to generate ideas for the future of urban commons, in the spirit of their negotiated pasts.
The big idea is to generate a multifaceted definition of the urban common to provide a robust base for education initiatives and future public policy guidance, informing their development and use as a diverse cultural and ecological space.
For hundreds of years, these unique, open spaces have played a varied, but important, role in the individual stories of our towns and cities. We need to develop new and imaginative ways to use them and foster a greater sense of community involvement if we are to preserve them for future generations.
Chris Rodgers is a professor of Law at Newcastle University.