I’ve been a green spaces activist since 2012 when the Olympic juggernaut rolled into East London. 'It'll only be temporary,' many said, when the Olympic Delivery Authority wanted to build a basketball training facility on Leyton Marsh, a well-used, well-loved public green open space. And, it's true, the juggernaut did move on and it did take its basketball training facility with it. But the legacy it left behind has been harsh. Developers know where we are now and they want to build flats on our green spaces or fence us out of them for days or weeks at a time for paid-for events.
And so we fight. Sometimes we lose: a huge ice centre, double the size of the existing building, will be built on Metropolitan Open Land (land that has the same protection in law as green belt). But sometimes we win: we stopped the Waterworks Festival, which wanted to 'deliver the volume and sound pressure proper dance music deserves' right next to a nature reserve. And we'll never know how many times our actions in the past stopped something terrible happening before we even heard about it. The power of a 'No!' campaign is strong and it can bring a community together.
Yet, for all our 'No!' campaigns we've been unable to affect permanent change because the public bodies that own the land on our behalf think it belongs to them. They are stuck in a rut, perpetuating old ways of doing things that damage the ecosystems on which we all rely not just to live but to thrive. Enter the 'Yes!' campaign…
The East London Waterworks Park is an idea conceived by local people. At its heart is a community group that wants to acquire and transform a depot, 5.68 hectares of concrete, into a "brownfield rainforest", offering people the opportunity to immerse themselves in nature. Activities include wild swimming in Victorian filter beds and conservation volunteering, which will improve physical and mental health and increase biodiversity. Most importantly for me personally, it will also showcase an environment-first community-led approach to land ownership that has the power to transform the way we think about public green spaces.
It's a beautiful bold vision. But we’ve got a long road ahead of us, filled with twists and turns, dead ends and fresh ideas. At the moment we're focusing on making a success of a crowdfunder to help us take the first steps in making the vision a reality. But I'm also spending a lot of time thinking about how our group grows to meet the challenges ahead of us in a natural, healthy way.
The traditional way of doing things, let's call it the command and control approach to management, doesn't seem appropriate; isn't appropriate. We need some sort of structure and some sort of decision-making process but we need to retain our founding ethos of a community group coming together to make something amazing happen. Our culture needs to allow us each to flourish, share our unique skills and be our authentic whole selves. After all, in our differences lie our strength and our creativity.
I don't have any answers yet, but I am hugely excited about the journey. Currently I'm playing with the idea of our project as a garden, with us tending our idea plants, nurturing them but giving them time and space to do their thing and grow. I'd love to hear your ideas…
Contact Abigail Woodman at the East London Waterworks Park abigail.woodman(at)elwp.org.uk