Stevenage Borough Council planned to redevelop Stevenage Town Centre Gardens. Now over fifty years old this green centerpiece of Stevenage New Town was in need of significant creative input and financial investment from Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Parks for People’ programme to address a number of recognised issues including access, heritage, sense of place, drug use and perception of crime. A major requirement of the funding application was evidence of the community’s engagement in the Gardens, the heritage value of the site and local support for future plans. The project progressed in three phases.
Phase 1: Snap-Shot Consultation
To help shape the brief for the Masterplanners, the council wanted to
capture the community’s current perceptions of the Gardens and
identify key users and non-users and trends in usage.
The Perception AREA creative team determined that an interactive web based presentation incorporating photographs, film and comments would be the best format to advise and inform the masterplan brief. Artists Beverley Carpenter and Patricia Mackinnon-Day were commissioned to work with the team to develop a consultation method which would attract people within and around the Gardens. Their notion of an ‘Open House’ was realised as a full scale representation of a flat in one of the nearby tower blocks as a temporary installation in the Gardens. Within this familiar, domestic but public space people would be encouraged to contribute their views, meet their neighbours and share in the responsibility for the Garden’s future.
During their six week ‘Open House’ residency, Beverley and Patricia hosted a series of social gatherings - coffee mornings, bingo evenings and a garden party. Over 100 people who live, work or travel through Stevenage attended these events, including many who would be reluctant to engage in a traditional consultation exercise. Responses to the specific topics including heritage, safety, environment and use of the Gardens, along with anecdotes and aspirations were captured through transcripts, on film and photographs.
The results: An interactive website www.greenheartpartnership.org/snapshot provided valuable documentation for the council and the Masterplanners and an accessible, online legacy for the consultation participants. Contents included current use and non-use of the Gardens, a snapshot of the knowledge of the heritage of the site and evidence of positive public awareness of the Garden’s potential.
Phase 2: Place-Making Workshops
To ensure the community had a genuine, valued role in the design process, Perception AREA developed and managed Place-Making workshops to explore issues of spatial design and management. From the consultation participants, Beverley nominated representatives for four ‘Place-Making’ teams: young people, local residents, young mothers and the town centre workforce.
The key groups worked alongside Beverley and HTA Landscape Design, the appointed Masterplanners, through a series of workshops in local venues to generate new ideas about use of the Gardens to accommodate the diverse range of user groups. Together they identified practical issues relating to the current and potential use of the Gardens, incorporating its social heritage.
The results: HTA and the council received valuable information which contributed to producing one Masterplan incorporating the ideas and needs of the wider community. The Place-Making teams saw how their thoughts and opinions were able to shape the redevelopment of their Town Centre Gardens by informing the professional designers throughout the process. By sharing their experiences with family and friends, the process has laid the foundation for increased awareness of the planning process and involvement in community activities.
The published plan was a combination of detail landscape designs supported by comments from the consultations and workshops which demonstrated the community’s involvement and direct impact on design choices. The Masterplan was commended in the Landscape Institute Awards’ Communications & Presentations section.
The innovative Masterplanning approach was instrumental in Stevenage Borough Council securing a Stage 1 Pass for a £2million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Parks for People’.
Phase 3: Community Engagement
Following the award of the Heritage Lottery Fund Stage 1 pass, Stevenage Borough Council continued to look for the community’s input and particularly needed to gather information to inform their Audience Development, Volunteer and Training plans for the Gardens. Perception AREA devised a next stage engagement process to motivate the community and test their commitment to participate in voluntary activities and events in the Gardens.
Artist Simon Grennan was commissioned to spend a month in the Gardens, meeting and talking with a wide profile of visitors, about activities and events for the new Gardens. A report was produced and analysed by the team. From this information, Simon was directed to recruit a group of local volunteers to form a ‘Friends Group’, working with them to organise a trial community Fun Day which drew an audience of over 300 people.
The community’s input fed directly into the proposed activities plan for the new Gardens. The experience and feedback from the Fun Day event contributed to a robust Audience Development, Volunteer and Training plan. An opportunity for maintaining elements of the Gardens through a new local, social enterprise was identified and incorporated into the plans. As a result of the Perception AREA process a committed Friends Group has been established.