An interview with Tim, our Chairman

“We are a group that anybody - including any rough sleeper - can come to and say: ‘I want to do something about this park.’ We act as an umbrella group - an enabler - for all the pocket parks.”

Tim Wood, Chairman of Bankside Open Space Trust, in conversation with Chris Webb recalls how BOST came about and what we do and have been doing for the last 20 years. 

Around 1998 someone in Southwark Council had a flash of inspiration.  The Council had a number of small open spaces - 'pocket parks' they called them - that were too small for the Council’s contractors to deal with efficiently. Why not, someone said, get an outside organisation to work with local people to develop and manage these small open spaces?

As a result, the Bankside Open Spaces Trust - BOST for short - was born out of a Cross River funded programme.  Southwark Council allocated it around £30,000  in its first year and has continued to support us ever since.

At that time there were many unused small spaces wedged between the high rise buildings, railway tracks and industrial premises that make up Southwark, and local people were beginning to ask whether they could be used more effectively.

For example, Charles Dickens Primary School, which was built in Victorian times, had a square of concrete for a playground. A patch of grass for games would be nice, the newly- appointed headmistress thought, and a short walk away was a patch of derelict land in Mint Street.

With rough sleepers using one end, a burned out car at the other and a derelict children’s swing structure - without the swings - it didn’t look promising. It also had a reputation for crime and anti-social behaviour.

BOST held a public meeting, formed a steering group, developed a plan and approached the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, for funding to help build Mint Street Park.

 

The funding was granted and local people, including parents, young people and some from the nearby St Mungo’s Hostel for homeless people, worked together with a designer and contractors. Together they turned the park into an area good enough for Charles Dickens School and the rest of the Local Community  to use as a playing field. It has lots of grass, a stage, seating and a place you can take your dog for a walk.

Mint Street Park’s transformation was BOST’s first major project. Its success in involving local people in the improvement of their community earned a government award for best practice. It has been used as a model for similar schemes elsewhere.

Tim points out that much of the organisation’s success is because of its connections with the community. “We are a group that anybody - including any rough sleeper - can come to and say: ‘I want to do something about this park.’ We act as an umbrella group - an enabler - for all the pocket parks.”

It’s an arrangement that works for Southwark Council. “We can act as a conduit between the community and the local authority. It’s easy to bash a local authority and get nowhere. As an organisation of like-minded green-fingered people we are more approachable and can often help smooth things out when something goes wrong,” says Tim.

One advantage of BOST’s independence is its access to funds that local authorities cannot reach. A number of trusts in London - some dating from the 15th century - make funds available for charities working in deprived areas.

BOST also benefits from donations from businesses. For example in 2012 the developer of The Shard - the tallest building in western European and on the edge of Bankside - provided the materials and labour to turn the BOST-managed Marlborough Sports Garden in Union Street into a site for a mini-Olympics for local people. Among other things, contractors built staging and stands for spectators and imported 450 tons of sand for beach volleyball. That work alone would have cost around £200,000.

When it’s not hosting Southwark’s equivalent of the Olympic Games, Marlborough now provides a wide variety sports facilities – and qualified coaches - for a number of Southwark Primary schools that do not have any of their own. It also generates some income: when schools are not using it, BOST hires out its football, basketball and beach volleyball pitches. This income pays for the sports coaching.

BOST’s independence means it attracts volunteers who may not want to work directly for a space managed by a local authority. But if it is of benefit to their own area, it seems plenty of people will volunteer to help develop and maintain an open space.

But the ground-up approach isn’t always easy. Tim tells the story of a plan to create a community allotment on a patch of green outside a block of council flats. One resident was opposed because he wanted to park his car on the space, but eventually agreed and the plan went ahead.

“On the day work started, we had 20 tons of earth to shift. We had a small team of helpers from BOST and just one volunteer from the flats. But lots of people were watching from behind their curtains. The next day - a Saturday - some young children came out to help, and gradually their parents came along as well. Even the man who lost his parking space joined in – later he brought in some seeds his mum had sent him from Ghana and planted them in the community allotment we had built together.

“Our open spaces give local people something they may not be used to - ownership and control over some of their own space. People became engaged with the allotment. In the autumn they have a harvest party. It’s a great way for people to socialise and come together as a neighbourhood.”

Since it was formed, BOST has turned 45 open spaces – some of them derelict junkyards - into places people can use and enjoy. They range from sports venues and play spaces for toddlers to islands of peace and tranquillity in the middle of one of London’s most crowded and busy environments.

BOST has also had a positive social influence. It worked with the homeless people at St Mungo’s on a scheme called Putting Down Roots, where rough sleepers were encouraged to propagate plants in greenhouses for planting later in parks and open spaces.

“The scheme worked well and has been taken up by Bermondsey and Croydon. What’s more, two of our volunteers got jobs in the Royal Parks and are now working in Green Park and Regents Park.”

This initiative influenced BOST’s Future Gardeners scheme which gets currently unemployable people into employment in the horticultural industry.

One of the current projects is at Crossbones Graveyard, a small piece of empty space alongside a railway bridge in Union Street. Crossbones – so called because it is the last resting place of hundreds of prostitutes and paupers who were denied a burial in consecrated ground in the 16th and 17th centuries - belongs to Transport for London. TfL has given BOST a free lease on the plot and work is underway greening and remodelling the site.

 

Until BOST became involved, Crossbones was boarded up. For over 20 years a group who had named themselves The Friends of Crossbones, held a vigil every month outside the gate of the site. The gate is still decorated with tributes brought by the Friends. Now anyone can enter the space. Work is continuing on what Tim calls an organic plan to develop a space that can be used and enjoyed by everyone.

What about the future? Tim wants to develop the existing pocket parks BOST administers and set up new ones. And it looks like Bankside could use some more. “Did you know that Southwark has the worst child obesity rate for 10-12 year-olds in the UK?” says Tim. “We need to provide more sports facilities for them.”

This is very much why BOST has championed the Marlborough Sports Garden.

 

“There are seven or eight primary schools in the area with no sports facilities. We want to offer options for 20 different sports and get children into sport at an early age. The master plan is a £2 million upgrade of the facilities and to build a café with a healthy food offer. In the evenings we will rent out more pitches to office workers to help it pay for itself.”

There are plans for more open spaces and moves towards more BOST ownership of the spaces it manages. At the moment it leases four sites from Southwark Council, and would like to take ownership of more.

The ‘patron saint’ of BOST is Octavia Hill, a social reformer and co-founder of the National Trust, who in 1887 set up the Red Cross Garden in Redcross Way, Southwark, for public use and where BOST has its headquarters. “Octavia Hill acquired plots of land and built houses for the poor near the garden. I suppose that was the forerunner of affordable housing. She insisted each house had a front garden, so there was green space outside,” said Tim.

By developing Southwark’s pocket parks, BOST is aiming to continue her legacy.

Olivia Mudie