Wastes and Strays: The Past, Present and Future of English Urban Commons

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Newcastle Law School

Abstract

Wastes and Strays is an interdisciplinary 3-year project that will study distinctively 'urban' commons in England, and identify and promote their value as publicly accountable, green, open spaces vital for culture, health, wellbeing and biodiversity in metropolitan contexts. In doing so, it will develop a multifaceted yet rigorous definition of the urban common, fit for the twenty-first century. The project is contextualised against the unique history of urban commons as economically and politically negotiated spaces within the complex context of English land ownership. Navigating contemporary issues of public and private, austerity and health, and competing ideologies (from commercial development, to controlled leisure and health activities, to 'rewilding') for the future of common land, the research will combine new historical, literary, legal and creative scholarship to activate and harness greater public identification and engagement with urban commons as valuable community green space.
The project specifically identifies and researches four surviving urban commons across England: Town Moor, Newcastle upon Tyne; Valley Gardens, Brighton; Mousehold Heath, Norwich; and Clifton Down, Bristol. These case studies vary from awkward underused strips to sizeable pieces of pasture land and have been selected to represent a full range of contemporary urban contexts, cultures, legal origins, geographies, sizes, and historical and current uses and values. Each is legally defined as common land or, in the case of Brighton, has been so in the past, and each continues to be at the centre of contemporary heritage and development debates. The urban common has a long and complex history of contestation and negotiation between social right, legal ownership, and political and cultural value that warrants deep analysis. Building on this, we aim to not only provide a meticulous history, but suggest that contemporary analysis and plans for the future should be made through, and mediated by, this body of historical knowledge.
The project is interdisciplinary: a spectrum of scholars (from law, geography, planning, creative practice, history, architecture and literature), and from a variety of academic and civic institutions across England (including Newcastle University, University of Brighton, University of Exeter, National Trust, Natural England, and local government bodies) will come together to research the legal, archaeological, geographical and political history, as well as draw out previously under-researched aspects of urban commons, including literary, creative, architectural, health, and poetic representations. In this context, new methods of engaging civic and public partners will be trialled, for example 'spatial' oral histories research, sports events and games, reconstructive performances, food fetes, poetry/performance residencies, and health and biodiversity walks. The aim is to design and facilitate a rich exchange on the urban common that negotiates positions between past, present and future, preservation, restoration and development, nature, health and culture, urban and 'wild', in order to stimulate both wider and deeper scholarship and to engage and promote shifts in public perception and involvement. Through this method of 'co-production' between different stakeholders the project itself will be based on the principles of 'commoning' (i.e. the pooling of resources to ensure benefits across the whole community) and will act as a cooperative 'commons', accessible to all.
The project will deliver a wide range of academic and publicly facing outcomes including: online resources; lively and accessible engagement and public activities; and high quality academic and creative outputs.
This is an exciting project which aims to restore political and cultural confidence in, and provide public agency for, the future of these beautiful and valuable pieces of land.

Planned Impact

The users and beneficiaries of the research include:
1.Local communities of all ages and backgrounds, as well as casual visitors, to each of the urban common case studies selected.
2.Local government policy-makers and councillors, at regional and city level, in each commons area.
3.Charitable local health organisations, and NHS bodies.
4.Local schools and education bodies.
5.Public conservation bodies, charities and NGOs that promote the use of commons as open access resources for recreational public access to land. These include Natural England, the National Trust, Foundation for Common Land, Historic England, and the Open Spaces Society.
6.Present 'guardians' of the urban commons case studies, for example, for the Town Moor this includes the Freemen of the City who have the absolute right to herbage and in practical terms act as custodians and safe keepers of the common; and The Mousehold Heath Conservators in Norwich.
7.The commercial/private sector: engaging with commercial and private interests is integral to the project. By involving local businesses, institutions and companies we will engage their support for the maintenance and use of commons as important health giving green spaces. These include, for example, around Brighton's Valley Gardens: Royal Pavilion and Museums; Phoenix Brighton Artists' Studios; Brighton Fringe Festival; numerous pubs, cafes and restaurants; North Laine Community Association, Queens Park Community Association; Brighton and Hove Allotment Federation; Brighton Housing Trust; Safehaven Night Shelter (since rough sleeping occurs in Valley Gardens); St Peters Church and the YMCA Brighton.
8.Local landscape designers, local developers and architects to whom the health, cultural and ensuing commercial benefits of adjacency to (rather than reduction of) a thriving and well-used public space can be demonstrated.

Publications

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