The People's Progress
Getting past received wisdom and public perception turns out to be harder than we thought
So here we are: Heeley, an ex-steel community a mile or so from the centre of the fourth city, famous (round here at least) for its parks, for being the greenest of places, with more parks, woodlands and street trees than any equivalent sized city and the only city with a third of its boundary inside a National Park – it is the Outdoor City.
In a place with such fantastic green resources, with higher than average uptake of that offer and a rich history of friends groups, philanthropy and a strong, paternal public sector, how do you get the message across that your local park is different? That the traditional view of parks as paid for by your taxes and “run by t’local authority” does not apply here?
Following housing clearance and rebuilding in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Heeley was left with an empty core of underused green deserts, wasteland and scrub rapidly filling with litter and knotweed. After years of neglect local people, businesses and organisations including tenants groups and the school came together to claim that land back and to give it a positive future. They formed a community development trust, negotiated a 125-year lease for the land and consulted, planned, designed and built Sheffield’s first community-owned Park - Heeley Millennium Park.
Today that park is a regional flagship for community ownership of green space, it hosts our community’s three big festivals and celebrations, and is our playground, refuge and wildlife haven, extending views from city centre to peak district and the moors.
So our park is very different, no Victorian philanthropy or bequeathments here, no taxes or statutory budgets, no Business Improvement Districts or space for solar or turbines – just 125 years of cutting the grass! Every year we local people start from scratch to raise the funds we need to keep our park safe, happy and beautiful.
Rethinking Parks since 1996
HDT have been developing, testing, succeeding and failing to fund our park since we set off in December 1996 our overarching understanding; we need a diverse income stream (e.g. assets, rents, event income and grants), we need that income to be regular, planned for, steady, and we need our community to love their park, to care for it – and whatever happens, we’re not quitting!
The Rethinking Parks programme has given us the opportunity to try out the oldest new idea in the book – a subscription society; put simply, to invite every household in our community to join in and to pay an annual subscription of £10 to support the running costs and development of the park.
Heeley People’s Park
Working with one of Sheffield’s cooler design and branding companies Peter and Paul to explore this challenge was our first breakthrough – they weren’t us, weren’t vested over years in the park and were genuinely fresh eyes. Their solution: to step away from the past and rebrand – a really strong current message and identity and a new name that says it all – Heeley Millennium Park is the Heeley People’s Park.
We launched confidently, with a festival, coverage in the Sheffield press and our own local Newspaper, and a mention in Sheffield United’s Cup Tie Programme, and followed up with two further festivals to reach out to the audience and explain what we were asking. But after four months since launch and with summer out of the way, it’s clear that the message hasn’t got through nearly as quickly or as far as we expected.
Feedback so far shows a number of factors; people are mistrusting of digital giving and social media campaigns, they want a form to fill in, messages about charities nationally over the summer hasn’t helped. We need to work much harder at getting the message out, and word of mouth is still by far the most powerful way to do it. We’re going to look again at signage in the park and we’re already planning next year’s (re)launch and events programme.
What has been really surprising to us is how people cling to those received wisdoms - Who runs parks? The council! Who pays for Parks? They’re free – or I’ve paid for that with my council tax!
Changing those perceptions is a national priority if we are really going to find new ways to support the value and future of our Parks. In Heeley, where we’ve got the message across, people have bought in strongly – not giving annually, but monthly and following up with offers of time volunteering – people care so much about parks!
For us and our park the answer is simple – the real value of community ownership of any asset; park or building: it’s ours, it’s where we live – and whatever happens we’re not quitting!