Here is Penny’s original document regarding this site, and outlining her first vision for it. 

Sheffield Square.

The Estate character.

The M—— Estate is a mixture of middle and high-rise high density dwellings. Each block forms a surrounding side of an open square courtyard style space. Each of these spaces has a different character. There is one with high seated park benches and a rose garden for use by the folks living in the sheltered accommodation over looking the space. Others are ornamental- basic municipal style- gardens. The spaces in Helwyn, Trellis, Sheffield, Creswick and Ambrose have clearly been designed as communal playgrounds. They have tarmaced surfaces and low, hoop toppped fencing with gates at diagonally opposite corners of each space. They have the scars of removed swings, roundabouts and see-saws. ( Like the space identified in Hewlett Road –one can guess that the architects were the same for both areas.) The playgrounds, which were integral to the success of the community in the vision of the designer, have been removed and children are left without playable space.  Most recently, Rainer and I attended a consultation session held on the estate at Caxton Hall and had the opportunity to talk with representatives from Tower Hamlets Homes, Green Dreams and local residents.  Discussions felt positive and Green Dreams in particular are highly play-literate and enthusiastic about the creative and natural play offers that could be made there.

When talking to residents a number of anecdotes were shared that seemed to pinpoint exactly the complex and dynamic relationships fostered through play, and through public spaces. 

  • There was the story of some teenagers breaking into a disused garaged and ‘making a home in it’, recently getting into some trouble when they broke into a neighboring garage to forage for tools and supplies.
  • One parent asked for a water feature to be included in the redesign, to prevent destruction of the fire hydrant which ‘gets bust open by kids every sunny day’.
  • Another resident, a local teacher and older sister, asked specifically for rolling hills.  She currently takes her younger siblings to Greenwich so they might roll down grassy slopes and chase butterflies but feel strongly that this experience ought to be available closer to home.

Children in these stories were variously framed as troublemakers or vandals, as needy but unprovided for, and as curious individuals eager to explore their world.  How we talk about children – whether with children or with adults – is vitally important in creating a discourse of support in which the rights and needs of children who live on the estate are given equal weight to those of adults.

Talking about play, and sharing our own play memories, is one way to break down the linguistic barriers that people erect of anxiety, defensiveness and aggression, and help us start to relate to one another on a more personal and productive level.  From these conversations new priorities arise – for water play, den-making and landscaping that curves in all 3 dimensions – and we suddenly find ourselves capable of doing more than just consulting.  We find ourselves working collaboratively, sharing our own unique knowledge to inform the creation of urban spaces which foster community networks through play.

See quote from the Hewlett Road document below.

The suggested site had been in use as a playground in the original estate design. But like almost every other play ground space in the area, despite the intelligent location, (many of these small to medium sized playgrounds overlooked by kitchen windows on all sides), the play equipment was removed ‘for Health and Safety reasons’. The ‘Health and Safety’ implications of a child’s life spent in a high-rise block with no identified space for play seem not to have been considered.

Here on the M—— Estate we can hear the evidence of the damaging and divisive effects of the amputation of play from the heart of the community. The residents perpetually complain about the noise and nuisance of play. The children who have grown up on the estate feel rootless and without a place and as a result are inconsiderate in their use of communal areas and territorial with each other. I was told stories of Asian youth claiming ownership of ball courts. Or mixed race children being told they didn’t belong here, of the local community hall monopolized for a limited use and a small cross section of the community, when before it had been used for local weddings and ‘Do’s’. Prejudice seems to be building in every sector of the community. It seems that every one is insecure about the sharing of the spaces.

Personally speaking.

I have to confess to having lived on this estate, in Sheffield Square. I remember it as a pleasant but frustrating place. With two small children I knew that even though we had a garden, they should be playing out in the bigger space beyond our fence. But to do that I had to leave them unattended while I did a needle, condom and glass check of the playground. We ended up not bothering to even try to play on this space. I have a sense of it untrodden for months of end, with cartoon tumbleweed scuttering across it. No children played there.

Recent visit.

Revisiting the site with the Estates officer I was delighted to realize that this was perhaps the prime site for development as a playspace on the whole estate. As my colleague pointed out it is surrounded by a particularly high number of dwellings. It has no direct outlet onto the road. There is a ball cage within feet of the space that is well used by the young people, there is a dog walking area fenced in nearby, it has a pavement-walkway between the playspace and the back gardens of the overlooking dwellings, it has a low and subtle fence surround with two gates, and immediately adjacent to the playground is another fenced space, a grassy rise with a tree. Suggestions for the site.

I would suggest the removal of the fencing between the grassy rise and the playground to provide contours and a rolling hill for the children. This could be enhanced with secured tree sections for scrambling up and, if the budget permits, a few boulders banked against the slope.

I would explore the possibilities of breaking the tarmac in places to create planting opportunities. If this proves possible I would be planting living willow shade and shelter on the rise and in the playground, which is very exposed.

Living willow could be woven into the hoped top fencing, along with edible plants to nurture the foraging elements of the playing child and reduce the harsh linear municipal feel of the square

I would plant a stand or two of trees some of which would produce fruit or nuts, a fig tree would be particularly pleasant. It would be ideal to have a central tree , willow again from choice because of the possibility of using cuttings to create new fences and withies and for the ultimate ‘den tree’ quality a mature willow brings. The tree could be furnished with soft ‘fairy’ lighting on a timer (solar Ideally), so that children can play in the winter afternoons.

I would recommend the creation of planting boxes for annuals and for digging.

To make an obvious play offer I would explore piece of equipment which offer the possibilities for shared play, interlinked timber, jointed seating, platform or nest swings.

As well as obvious play equipment I would include felled trees with slide and scramble nets and a sand pit.

Although this last may be controversial I would refer to the success of the Wyvis Street play area which contains an open sandpit and has exhibited no problems at all from animal mess or other pollutants. This is in part due to co-operative work with the local dog wardens.

I would be looking to create islands on top of the tarmac (which is a great surface for small wheeled play and skipping,) from sleepers used to wall areas containing, tree sections, wild flowers or woodchip, ( a free resource,) as a play ‘equipment’.

At some stage in the development of the project It would be interesting to explore ways to use water run–off from the roofs around and use them to feed a ‘village pump’ which could be used in conjunction with soft contouring on the surface of the space to create streams and shallow pools. This would allow for water play, damming and re-directing water, making and sailing boats, the water need be allowed to be more than and inch deep in any one place .

I would expect that planting and development of the site would be done with the community.

Additional support.

To assist in the creation and use of this space PATH can offer series of story sharing sessions to residents staff and maintenance staff on the estate in other local residents and stakeholders. The sharing of play memories leads to an understanding of the importance and variety of play and its role in childhood and community. These reflections can then be used to look at the lack of ‘playing out’ that is seen now and inform ways that the community can once again introduce play to their children. We begin to see children playing as both a cause and a symptom of a healthy thriving community. The estate officer for M—— was very keen to start these sessions and we are ready to walk the estate together and ‘do some door knocking’. She shared her experiences of play in the east end with me as we walked around. These play memory sessions may be featured in exhibitions planned over the next three years. Adults wishing to learn more about supporting children into play can also take up the offer of free ‘Playwork Basics Plus’ training from PATH trainers. We would offer ongoing support with some playwork supported sessions, membership of the local scrap store to replenish loose parts and a constant support and advice service as well as year round information about play and playwork events and courses.

Geurin Experience.

On my initial walks around this site, on a hot sunny afternoon, ripe for play. I found only one of these communal spaces in use. This one, Geurin, had been landscaped by a community project. It was grassed and had seating and a planted central section. The extended family group I spoke to has grown up together on the estate but half of them lived in another square and came to this one to play after school and for parties and barbeques at weekends. They reported that many residents of this square used the central area. This was reported not to be the case on other squares on the estate. When asked why it was different here, the group gestured with open palms to the planting of the area.

Then, in November, Penny had a profitable gate-crash when she rolled up to an estate planning session, as documented here.

As of the end of January 2009, however, work on this area is placed on hold due to construction programmes on the estate.  Penny’s post about it is here.



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