I drive up steep suburban Sheffield streets in the south of the city to Ash Tree Yard, the slightly dishevelled but friendly-looking home to Heeley Development Trust. For more than 20 years, Heeley Development Trust has been creating spaces (indoors and out) that enable people to play and create. For me, its a simple beautiful ethos that embraces everyday creativity and heritage. The Trust was established “in response to state failure” and is rooted in the simple belief that small, locally owned and led organisations and projects achieve the greatest impact.
So we wander – from Ash Tree Yard, its recycling bike workshops and space for work with young people through a series of pocket parks (including small community orchard) towards the largest green space, Heeley Park, and finally to SUM studios (part of a large site of what was one of the finest Victorian schools in Sheffield, by pioneering architect E R Robson).
My guide is Andy Jackson, who has devoted much of his life to this work since the early 2000s. He tells me that originally, as in Turner’s painting, Heeley was a series of small semi-rural villages. With industrialisation came significant change, a huge influx of people and infrastructure (the boom years) until eventually industrial decline left this suburb with pockets of derelict land, unloved and without a plan. “The heart of the community was ripped out”. The housing and population is mixed and over half local residents are over 55. It’s not one of the priority areas for the city and Andy is candid about the challenges of sustaining community development and securing investment for an area that is noone’s priority (other than those that live and work there).
When he started at the Trust, it was 100% grant dependent. Today, it earns 98% of its income (though he is keen to point out a large portion of this is still through publicly funded contracts and commissioning). Still, that is some turnaround. In large part, this is because of the Trust’s holistic, neighbourhood-wide approach which encompasses public spaces like parks, heritage buildings and businesses.
There is power in land, bricks and ownership and its vital we own and care for these spaces. They’re the heart of our community.
This mixed-model is what makes running the park, with 125 year lease but no dedicated income or negotiated maintenance agreement or dowry, even feasible. It is the largest community run park in the country. And it’s a great park.
We asked ‘how do we build a landscape like the Peak District (some 20 minutes away by car) here, for our kids?’ 80 tons of stone was locally sourced for walls, footpaths and rockeries. Local species and native trees abound. Wildflower banks and woodland areas are left wild to explore. Training-scale mountain bike single-track weaves through the trees. Two large climbing boulders sit ready and waiting. The park has drawn upon local talent, expertise and suppliers.
Andy talks about the desire and commitment to encourage risk taking at the heart of play. I agree, this is just what we and our children need in our cities; “To run. Climb. Fall. Repeat”
Sheffield brands itself as the Outdoor city and whilst I love the idea, I’ve struggled to see it as much more than a branding exercise. Until now. By sensitively responding to local landscapes and creativity (whether climbers, gardeners, makers or local kids), Heeley Park shows how the Outdoor City might encourage distinctive, playful and only-in-Sheffield spaces and opportunities. Show, don’t tell.
It strikes me that Heeley Development Trust brilliantly brings together the “outdoor city” and “maker city” (Sheffield’s other big brand) as we head over to SUM Studios, part of the former Victorian Anns Grove School, next to the park.
Great care has been taken to retain the character of the historic building; windows, roofs and walls have been carefully repaired rather than replaced. Original brick and stone has been revealed, new interiors are open and light, with glimpses into each of the units. It feels contemporary and friendly and I’m not at all surprised theres a waiting list for future spaces. Originally conceived as a ‘castle of learning’, the ambition is to convert all three listed school buildings into the modern-day castle equivalent for Sheffield’s creative sector; a hub for business, arts and community use.
In the cultural sector, we’re increasingly (and rightly) encouraged to be more entrepreneurial with our assets but hearing Andy’s story of funding shortfalls, ownership issues, lack of political leadership and planning delays is a sobering reminder of the patience and tenacity you need to realise big and new ideas (and anyone who has worked on a capital project knows the blood, sweat and tears that underpin the process). What really interests me about Heeley Development Trust though is how interconnected everything is. Andy describes it as a mixed economy; people-land-buildings (in that order). Income from SUMstudios helps pay for park maintenance (including two park keepers). Bike repair contracts across the North support investment in Ash Tree Yard and allow them to commercialise their existing services. On paper, it might look messy. But it works. Everything starts small and local. Employ local. Live here. Work here. Think in 15-20 year cycles – generational, not electoral or funding cycles.
So, how does a funder like HLF, keen to identify outcomes and timescales for investment, deal with an asset-based, localised, iterative development process like that in Heeley? Reflecting on the much-needed and welcomed Lottery funding for the park in recent years, Andy summarises how difficult this was, “We want to build community, not break it and the processes of the bigger funders nearly broke us”. When I ask Andy how funders might support communities more, he points to simplifying processes and learning from those who support community businesses like Locality and BIG Lottery funded Power to Change.
He admits too, that perhaps if they had been given too many large grants along the way, they wouldn’t be as imaginative, locally rooted and sustainable as they are now. But its come at a cost. They’ve had to fight for recognition and new opportunities each step of the way. Perhaps now is a time for change (for all). They’ve proved they can make it work, often in spite of (not because of) political support. Their ambitions have grown. They understand their value (to their community and city) and are now seeking greater investment than ever before. After two decades, they are ready to seriously consider the future of a neighbourhood park and associated hall (Meersbrook Hall), with the aim of bringing it into community management. It’s within walking distance (part of their criteria for what constitutes local), on the other side of Heeley. It’s an enticing and many would say foolhardy prospect. They are just the start of a long journey that’s going to take time and yet more energy. But I, for one, really hope they make it happen. They could create something extraordinary.