Born out of the Neighbourhoods Green initiative, Natural Estates is a 3 year partnership project lead by London Wildlife Trust involving 8 Social Landlords and Groundwork London. Based on 9 very different estates – large, small, different mixes of tenures, inner city/suburban, different kinds of green space, fragmented/unitary, some with acres of woodland and canals, others with window boxes, tarmac and front gardens; competing uses for space, different Landlords, different styles – different grounds maintenance approaches – in house/contracted, unique decision making processes for changing things in green space. This mix was intentional to create different kinds of case study; something for every estate or social landlord to learn from. Principally in areas of high deprivation and limited access to quality green space – The project outcomes are: A resident engagement programme that increases the number of residents actively involved in and benefiting from their green spaces To increase the capacity and skills of social landlord staff to manage their green spaces for the benefit of people and wildlife A set of activity-based interventions that increase the wildlife and biodiversity of 9 housing estates And finally to promote learning from the project across both social housing and conservation sectors
In 2 years, our project officers have delivered about 700 activities, directly involving over 5,000 residents. 300 of these have taken on regular volunteering roles caring for their green spaces. 6 wildlife gardening groups have been set up with ‘wildlife gardens’ being created on 5 estates. We estimate that over 15,000 residents have improved opportunities to access the natural environment through these interventions. These activities share a common theme of bringing residents into their green spaces and of changing perceptions of these spaces. On a physical level – these activities and interventions have mainly been simple, cheap and low key, reflecting the project’s aim of getting wider resident participation, rather than making large and costly capital intensive transformations. Their sum effect has been to create a spectrum of new or improved habitats with growing resident support for continued enhancements. As part of Natural Estate’s legacy, we’ve created accessible management plans to try and integrate these improvements into the on-going management of the spaces. Careful collaboration with estate green space teams has been essential – as we have found an over-zealous contractor can very quickly mow your wildflower meadow back to amenity grassland if they’re not on board!
Surveys of the estate green spaces have revealed what for many is a surprisingly diverse roll-call of wildlife. Bats on Lillington and Longmore Estate in Westminster, Badgers and Stag Beetles in Affinity Sutton’s Kempsing Close, Hedgehogs on the Meadows, Green Woodpeckers and Jays in Sycamore Gardens, 25 metres from Tottenham High Road. Many species not only tolerate but positively thrive in even our most intensely built urban environments – the question is “can this recognition contribute towards improving residents own appreciation of where they live?” As a wildlife organisation, the focus on biodiversity has been one angle but one of many who share the common theme of engaging residents in the space and enabling enjoyable, community building activities to happen – others including food growing, health walks, Tai Chi classes, arts and crafts for children and adults. The key is changing the perception of the green spaces and how they’re used. There are real advantages for social landlords in partnership with organisations such as ourselves – enables a very positive engagement with residents that is “neutral” or separate from the other day-to-day concerns that residents have.
Surveys of the estate green spaces have revealed what for many is a surprisingly diverse roll-call of wildlife. Bats on Lillington and Longmore Estate in Westminster, Badgers and Stag Beetles in Affinity Sutton’s Kempsing Close, Hedgehogs on the Meadows, Green Woodpeckers and Jays in Sycamore Gardens, 25 metres from Tottenham High Road. Many species not only tolerate but positively thrive in even our most intensely built urban environments – the question is “can this recognition contribute towards improving residents own appreciation of where they live?” As a conservation organisation, the focus on wildlife and biodiversity has been one angle but one of many who share the common theme of engaging residents in the space and enabling enjoyable, community building activities to happen – others including food growing, health walks, Tai Chi classes, arts and crafts for children and adults. The key is changing the perception of the green spaces and how they’re used. There are real advantages for social landlords in partnership with organisations such as ourselves – enables a very positive engagement with residents that is “neutral” or separate from the other day-to-day concerns that residents have.
On some estates, residents were ready to play a bigger role in their green spaces and seized the chance when it came along – this photo shows the start of an inspiring community garden in a Gallions Estate in Thamesmead. In others, the interest just wasn’t there, or only existed in small pockets. Why are some residents more willing than others to get involved in their community spaces? Of course there are many reasons, but one thing we observed was that in the more marginalised and deprived estates, residents felt that no-one else was going to come in and improve their neighbourhood – if they wanted something doing, they had to do it themselves. In some better connected and more affluent areas the attitude that prevailed was ‘what are you going to do for us?’ It was interesting to observe on Cleverly Estate that participation dropped with the opening of the new Westfield Shopping Centre; a new place to hang out…. SO there are different kinds of involvement; the activism of a core group of volunteers can be harnessed and build something with a lasting legacy, but what of the majority who don’t want to get hands dirty? Photography competition, walks, talks, arts & crafts – actually the possibilities are endless, once the rubicon has been crossed A resident engagement programme like this doesn’t launch into a vacuum – each estate has its unique matrix of relationships amongst residents, its own culture of participation and its own set of opportunities . Our team are skilled at discovering these dynamics and adapting their programmes to respond to their residents’ interests. There is no standard programme to apply.
Here at Sycamore Gardens, food growing was the activity that first brought residents into their green space, so we worked with the growers to ensure this was done for maximum wildlife benefit. Once people started using the communal areas, the whole perception of their green space began to change. Pioneering children were ever present, parents started joining in planting days, families started organising their own barbecues, pressure was put on dog walkers to keep the space clean and anti-social behaviour started to fall as more people spent time in their gardens. One factor that really helped the growth of community cohesion here was a sense of shared ownership over the one large green space that most flats overlooked – there is something fundamentally equal in people’s relationship with the land that can doesn’t come through in other forums, such as the TRA meetings… so this space was a common resource and benefit that excluded no-one and welcomed all to share…
Where more fragmented, less sense of ownership, right to be there… Adapted approach – focus on individualised areas, front gardens, balcony planters, hanging baskets – in this case at Beckton, no communal green space – so plant up base of street trees Other strategy is to take people off the estate to nearby reserves or other green spaces – here are residents enjoying bush craft activities at LWT site ERCG in Hackney Local environment important in how you feel about where you live; trips like these connect people to their natural world on their doorstep
Estates can be difficult places to meet and connect with your neighbours. Initially, residents often expressed a concern that implied a limited sense of citizenship, particularly on their green spaces: “ People don’t really care here. They throw their rubbish all over the place – not just the children but the adults too.” Adults - it won’t work – this will be vandalised etc… Sometimes there was vandalism. 7 fruit trees at Sycamore Gardens, 3 were killed, 4 survived. That’s still 4 fruit trees, great. But mostly there just wasn’t. If you give up before you started, you’ll never change anything. We also encountered divisions amongst different groups of residents – in some cases deep underlying tensions came to the surface between the long-time leaseholders and newer residents who were keen to make changes and be more involved in the decisions around their green spaces. It took a sustained effort to keep the project on track here, balancing these different perspectives. But we found that once activities were up and running, people started to come together and build relationships with each other. What were the other benefits of participation? What effect on well-being?
Well, the impact on residents’ physical and emotional health was tangible: “ Just give me something to do out here – anything! You wouldn’t believe how much weight I have lost being outside and doing the weeding!” “ People need reasons to get out of their houses. Food growing is a way for them to do that. And I’ve noticed that when kids are involved in growing or harvesting food it has an impact on their eating” “ People here, we need a place to grow things. Living here in the city sometimes it can feel like I can’t breathe. I like plants and animals, they’re very important for our equilibrium. It releases our stress.”
For some it triggered remembrance and a sense of connection “ I haven’t seen flowers like these since I was a girl.” “ I’ve started noticing the wildlife again, like when I was a kid!” Even those not participating directly felt the benefit : “ I pass the garden everyday and it makes a massive difference to the feel of the estate. It is a natural tranquil space.” “ Looking down from my balcony, seeing people active in the garden, helps my mind.” Perception of how a space is used is important here – we are all familiar with how negative awareness can build where anti-social behavior takes place or is perceived to take place in a space – but how much attention, how much energy goes into creating positive activities? We like to be bold in our activities – planting our flags in the lawn, setting up a marquee, drawing people’s attention, having people busy in the space
Residents describe their changed perception and personal connection with their estate’s natural spaces: “ This is first time in my life when I planted something. I can’t wait to see how the flowers will grow.” “ I t is the only wild place around the whole neighbourhood. I really like to come here. In spring, it will be beautiful here, when the snowdrops appear.” “ Half an hour ago my daughter was scared of a hoverfly. Now she is running through the meadow with her friends and they all look so happy. It looks like the countryside”
And what difference has Natural Estates made to the Social Landlords? The training program lead by Groundwork London has included a series of workshops that addressed different issues around green space management. A wide range of staff in different roles took part in these, reflecting the many different teams that this issue touches – green space teams, asset management, community engagement, resident liaison teams, procurement….. This diversity of interests is sometimes a challenge, where the responsibility for falls between departments – and highlights the need to build working groups and consensus across the different teams. Recent changes: the bedroom tax, benefit capping, have big implications – but should this define the agenda and overshadow the less urgent but still important work on other prioirites? One partner argues that to do this would be giving up before without a fight – ‘anticipatory surrender’’ One issue we may be able to explore shortly - how to really measure the impact of this kind of project on individuals’ well-being Our partners tell us that higher resident satisfaction is directly related to lower turnover, reduced voids, reduced antis-social behaviour. We know this kind of work does change perceptions, plenty of qualitative evidence and case studies, but often not enough to convince the senior decision makers – how much can surveys unpick the range of factors that constitute a residents’ satisfaction with their home and the landlords service? How high does green space feature – particularly for those who do not directly participate in the space, but perhaps perceive a change in how others are using it or indeed just feel differently walking through it every day? Hard to measure – e.g. customer response to survey skewed by a recent crime on estate, or weighted against other more immediate issues around building improvements…. Are the surveys able to unpick these subtleties?
Sometimes need to think creatively about what comes under a role - E.g. one partner describes their resident liaison colleague’s approach of essentially dealing with the complaints – if there are no complaints then there is no need to do anything there – a missed opportunity? Only responding to the residents who make the noise, not those who just want to quietly improve things? Often where a staff member has really supported the project its because of their personal interest and direct relationship with the space and the residents – and often going beyond their job description. E.g. Beckton caretaker (rather than green space) but when he left…. So needs to be sustainable, integrated, people on the ground - perhaps as said external orgs can provide this, but sustained, time to really build relationships and begin to change culture of participation – takes time…..
Kirsten – variable response of the landlord to approaches from residents - We witnessed contrasting attitudes towards resident-lead activity in green spaces – some with a willingness to facilitate, recognising its value (though never a saving!) others with a reluctance – or fear – to empower residents to take on spaces, make changes… often with understandable historical and cultural reasons. But if they face too many barriers, they’ll stop asking, nothing will change. The champions within Social Landlords for the kind of approach we are taking through Natural Estates are having to fight hard within their organisations to make their case heard. They may come from any part of the organisation - but slowly, through their advocacy and the evidence of projects like Natural Estates; perception and culture of management on estate green spaces is also starting to change for the landlords.
The main message I want you to carry away about Natural Estates is that social housing green spaces: have incredible potential for bringing people closer to nature they can be improved for the benefit of people and wildlife through small-scale low-cost interventions and despite the likelihood of very real barriers to change in these spaces, these can be overcome with pragmatic partnership working and an innovative approach to resident involvement. London Wildlife Trust is working on a documentary that will illustrate the learning of this project in more detail that will be available on our website at the end of the summer. We will also be sharing more of what we have learned through Neighbourhoods Green, which as Mathew highlighted is driving forward the agenda on renewing our perspective on social housing green space. In the meantime, feel free to get in touch if you have any questions about Natural Estates. Thank you.
“Just give me something to do out here – anything! You wouldn’tbelieve how much weight I have lost being outside and doingthe weeding!”“People need reasons to get out of their houses. Food growing isa way for them to do that. And I’ve noticed that when kids areinvolved in growing or harvesting food it has an impact on theireating”“People here, we need a place to grow things. Living here inthe city sometimes it can feel like I can’t breathe. I like plantsand animals, they’re very important for our equilibrium. Itreleases our stress.”
“This is first time in my life when I planted something. Ican’t wait to see how the flowers will grow.”“It is the only wild place around the whole neighbourhood. Ireally like to come here. In spring it will be beautiful here,when the snowdrops appear.”“Half an hour ago my daughter was scared of a hoverfly.Now she is running through the meadow with her friendsand they all look so happy. It looks like the countryside”