By Sarah Boniface, PR Manager at Eden Project Communities. Sarah has lived in London for about twenty years, ten of which have been spent in her current area of Walthamstow.
St James Park, Walthamstow, is my nearest green space. Nestled in a socio-economically and ethnically diverse East London borough, Walthamstow offers residents a manageable pocket of London with a true sense of belonging.
London isn’t known for spontaneous friendly conversation, but in our neighbourhood we actually chat to each other at the bus stop, or in the market. Our local spaces and resources serve the interests of the whole community, and green spaces such as St James Park act as a host to a multitude of play activities all year round. For us, play simply means engaging in something for enjoyment. It isn’t something the kids have a monopoly on; a welcoming community space which inspires wellbeing more often than not also invites recreational play.
Now, our parks are hives of community activity and our streets are becoming conduits of artwork, with stunning murals depicting and expressing the passions of the people that live there. But it hasn’t always been like this. In 2011, Walthamstow was the setting for riots that left shops ransacked and residents temporarily cowering behind their locked doors. In the past safe access to St James Park was similarly limited by anti-social activities, preventing residents – and especially children - from enjoying the green space.
A combination of factors inspired local people to set up the Friends of St James Park group, but reclamation of a safe and positive space to play for all, including the creation of a community area to connect, were key objectives. We functioned as a working group (and subsequently transformed into a fully-fledged committee) but, in reality, we were just neighbours of the park who wanted to celebrate and enjoy our local space together. We started clearing the litter and debris, then installed safer surfaces and repaired fences. We began organising activities for children and families to come and enjoy the space together, and used ‘seed bombing’ to brighten up the area and entice other people in. Play equipment has been renewed over the years, specifically designed to encourage an imaginative and creative approach to play. The rest is history!
Alongside the committee we have various helpers and stewards for particular events or activities, and resident volunteers who share park news through leafletting and with their neighbours. The council is working with us, doing more to enable the use of disused buildings and funders (such as the National Lottery) support community facilities like The Mill, providing a space for homework, book and art clubs, coffee mornings, and much more.
Through the community pulling together, this green space has become a canvas for people to meet, relax, and play, in any way that their creativity and imagination allows. Regular activities like exercise classes, cycling training, and bulb planting take place amongst the more sporadic ones: innovative pop-up shops, community cafes, temporary art exhibits and cultural workshops. In addition our annual Big Lunch entices people in, builds new connections between people, and gives them the confidence to come back time and time again. Festivals like the E17 Arts Trial, the Jumble Trail and Walthamstow Garden Party draw people of all ages in from farther afield, all joining together in different celebrations of play across our parks.
Creating these new opportunities to interact and plays means the next generation grow up feeling more connected to the people they live alongside, fostering confidence, inquisitiveness and understanding. That’s why we, in Walthamstow, go the extra mile to connect our community and welcome people, and we don’t limit play to children: our community is a play space for all.