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Sharing Umbrellas Part 2: An Interview with Landscape Architect Bridget E. Snaith

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In the second part of Sharing Umbrellas, her report on our West Yorkshire Walks in Harehills, Leeds, in July 2023, Vivien De Brito interviews landscape architect Bridget E. Snaith. Read part 1 here

At the end of the walk all the participants went for a meal together at a favourite cafe chosen by the people from Harehills. During our meal, I had a fascinating conversation with Bridget E. Snaith, from Sheffield University who was conducting research during the walk. I followed this up with a short interview via email about her experiences of the walk and more widely how politics links with the built environment. Her answers to my questions are shown below:

How did you find the walk?

The walk was the fourth of four walks I have been collaborating with Same Skies in arranging. I met Same Skies Think Tank through Tiffany, who was a delegate at the Runnymede Trust anti-racist summit "We Move" in Leeds in September 2022, where I co-presented a workshop with activist Carole Wright from Blak Outside looking at the basic social research question “What space does community need to grow?".

The question grew out of research by Friends of the Earth (FOE) and others over many years that identifies that in neighbourhoods where there are more people claiming ethnic minority backgrounds in the UK, there are fewer parks and green spaces, and there is also under-representation of people from ethnic minorities in UK parks where they do exist.

My research and activism is about racism in provision, design and management of parks and greenspaces, which has grown from my work of nearly 30 years as a designer of parks and greenspaces in areas that are economically or socially deprived.

What did you immediately take in?

I was in the same space as I had been in the previous day, a small neighbourhood park, not a very good one, and it was raining. The park has interesting topography with reasonably mature trees around a mown lawn which was pleasantly green, but it has a very frustrating circulation - it is pretty difficult to see a route that will take you from one entrance to another. This is associated with reduced use, because people are reluctant to enter spaces where there is no clear exit, which increases feelings of fear and insecurity.

There was a homeless person camping near the street with shops at the top of the hill. This also makes using the park feel a little stressful, both through a sense of intrusion on their privacy, and also fear that the homeless person in the park may possibly have substance abuse issues which might be difficult to encounter. Also, there were areas of hard standing in the park where items had been removed and not replaced, and there were no facilities for people to be sociable such as group seating or picnic tables. There were some play facilities, and some outdoor gym equipment but again, the layout of this was not sociable.

The previous day a resident told me they would not bring their children to the park because of broken glass in the play area. In my experience with similar spaces elsewhere, a few circulation changes, supported by engaging with local residents to identify their priorities for facilities would make this park much more welcoming, and useful to local people. Changing its 'vibe' would have a big impact on use, and probably on the neighbourhood.

What were the most memorable moments?

Conversations with participants, some stories about their lives, both sad, and happy stories, about challenges in the public realm - a woman who can't let her children play in the street because her neighbours don't seem to mind that their child is violent towards her much younger child; a woman who had never gone for a walk in the rain before, who was surprised because she felt so refreshed when she got inside, and felt she'd like to do it again. Lots of people saying what an enjoyable activity it was to walk in their neighbourhood, eat together and meet others from outside their usual social circle.

What were your thoughts on Harehills, its architecture, the sense of community?

It's not a wealthy area, but it's dense, which means there's a vibrancy that comes from so many people living in close proximity. The people on the walk represented a community that has internal strength, people who look out for each other, but people told me it is a little divided in that different cultural groups that have a strong representation locally - British Pakistani, British Bangladeshi, more recently arrived Romanian, White British, tend to have their own separate community groups and there is not the cohesive neighbourhood 'voice'. People I spoke with felt the area was neglected and looked down on by the Council. Some felt this could be changed through more collaboration between the different community groups. Architecturally it is mainly ‘typical former industrial housing' from late 19th and pre-war 20th century but the grid of streets was not too monotonous, and there were a good range of shops in walking distance, which I liked.

Did you think the format of the walk - walking, eating and talking - was beneficial?

It has a lot of strengths, and some weaknesses, but it appears to be an effective way of making connections, and sharing knowledge between participants that has potential to lead to positive action for change.

Walking collectively is a very viable social research method. It allows for in depth conversations which have characteristics of both focus group and interview. Participants can prompt and explore topics with each other, but there is opportunity for all participants to more privately share their views and stories freely without the potential for being dominated by a strong voice in the group (advantage of interview).

The space itself helps to stimulate / frame discussion, which does not happen in interview or focus group, and varies from observation.

Where community direct the walking route, curation passes power from the researcher to the community, and there is elevated recognition of community expertise in their area.

Challenges of timekeeping arise as the collective activity can be slow moving.

Social media networking about greenspace walks reaches diverse audiences along lines of income, education, gender, life stage, and ethnicity.

Inclusion of mobility impaired participants requires additional consideration. Options proposed by the community included planned meeting points along the route, that mobility impaired participants might drive/ be driven to.

Eating provides space for reflection with others and grows stronger social connectedness. It does provide opportunity for expertise sharing of varying kinds, however the layout of the eating space, acoustics and seating arrangements as well as participant background/interest impact on how conversations develop. Conversations are more easily focused during walking, for example on research topics, however the opportunity for collective idea generation/ knowledge sharing might potentially be further developed through thoughtful curation/ facilitation during eating activity.

Weather disrupts outdoor eating but does not dissuade engaged participants from walking/ talking.

I found community and the thoughts of local people to be a fundamental aspect of this walk - do you think this is the case? How important are the thoughts of the local people in the work and research you do?

The purpose of the event was to try to understand what the people of the area think. The thoughts of local people are everything. I'm a social researcher, but also as a designer, any spatial design work I do is for them, and they will live with what I produce, so it needs to reflect, and respect their knowledge and experience.

Finally, you said something really interesting about politics and the built environment, about architecture being the politics of the time made concrete. Could you expand on this? What aspects of your work and research are political?

There are lots of writers who talk about this but putting it simply we construct cities and landscapes that reflect the ways that the most powerful think life should be lived, and then once they are built, lives are constrained, the patterns of life are 'normalised' and certain behaviours become incredibly difficult to challenge or change, and efforts to make change can be really controversial.

Some building types are prioritised in the UK, and are located in the best places for scenery, for arts and culture or for accessibility. Think about office towers, or very expensive apartments, which might be along the River Thames in Central London, for example. Social housing tends to be in places with lower land values, where there is pollution (downwind of factories), or with no good view.

In Sweden, social housing is prioritised, cities are zoned so that public housing is in the best locations, that there are schools and shops nearby and offices are located in less desirable real estate locations. How government decides what should get built by whom and where is obviously political. Further, in Sweden, there is a law that says people have to be close to a window & have good daylight where they work, and as a result, office buildings tend to be wriggly fronted, and need fewer mechanical services for light or ventilation, where in the UK offices can have very deep floor plans and rely heavily on lighting and air conditioning/ mechanical ventilation.

In Denmark, they decided in the 1960s to reduce dominance of cars in town centres, which were making sociability of public space more challenging. They invested in public transport and cycling infrastructure is everywhere, and few people need cars for their daily lives. Kids cycle and walk everywhere, even on their own so they have more independence. So many people in the UK are dependent on cars, kids become dependent on parents for access to things, including getting taken to school, and yet we know that private transport is costly, and uses fossil fuels, not just for cars, but also for road surfacing, and that this is a major contribution to climate change. Further, inactivity and poor air quality from cars makes people unhealthy. But because there has been endless investment in the infrastructure including housing being located away from services like shops or schools, it is a hugely contentious issue to try to change it.

In the UK there is a whole infrastructure around food production, waste disposal etc that is 'invisible', and we create spaces all over the place in the cities that are generally decorative/ for leisure. While the UK celebrates how small amounts of biodiversity are created in parks, or that a rubbish tip is reclaimed for nature, what it fails to engage with is that less than half of the food on our plates is produced in the country, and the rest is created elsewhere, using systems that are incredibly damaging for biodiversity globally, and sustain global inequality. Huge amounts of UK waste is exported to other countries and similarly their environment is degraded.

Dr Bridget Snaith is a chartered landscape architect, social researcher and educator. Bridget has been a partner at Shape Landscape Architecture since 2005 and is Lecturer in Landscape Architecture Design Practice at the University of Sheffield.

Vivien De Brito is currently a year 12 student at Elliott Hudson College in South Leeds doing politics, geography, and English Literature A-levels. She has a passion for politics and hopes to study Politics and International Relations at university.

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