It might not be Highline, Manhattan but Swansea’s Vetch Veg has plenty to say about regeneration projects
writes Gordon Gibson
The second stretch of the Highline in New York’s Manhattan opened last year, following the fantastic success of the brave initial phase from Gansevoort Street, down in the West Village, nine blocks to West 20th Street. Within a year there had been over two million visitors, rivalling some of New York’s major attractions. Now, the final phase, looping round the old rail yards to the ‘terminus’ in 34th Street, is in hand, with tens of millions of dollars already raised by the Friends of the Highline, and the first in a further round of community consultations successfully completed in December.
Attracting tourists is not the only benefit of this iconic project. Over the edge of the former elevated rail line, can be seen new developments, an expanding up-market retail sector, apartments, offices, theatre and more and more of New York’s abundant eateries. The Highline is a catalyst for regeneration.
In the mid 1980s, just a few years after the closure of the rail service, local landowners lobbied for the high-line’s demolition, to boost their land values. The community resisted. Now, that market is buzzing again, thanks to a community led initiative and, it must be said, a city administration that has taken heed of the long view and not just of its city financiers, like Mayor Bloomberg himself. New York has an enviable Green Strategy embracing most everything from cycles to waterways. The centre of the world’s car culture is clearing many of its streets of private cars, and transforming even main street Broadway into a cycle and pedestrian friendly environment.
In comparison, Vetch Veg is a modest little affair. Was!
Eight years ago, with some vision, the community prepared for the imminent move of the city football team to its new home in the former industrial Swansea Valley, and now also, in the Premier League. With the support of the Assembly’s Communities First programme and a local housing association, local people prepared a plan for a new large central public space with greenery and play, affordable homes, homezones, a few shops and a community centre, to put new ‘heart’ into a community woefully short on many of these basic resources.
From the mid 1800s, the eponymous Sandfields, built on Swansea’s seafront burrows, was among the first of the town’s inner suburbs, housing the population growth that exploded to make urban Wales (and elsewhere) in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
The city council wasn’t satisfied with the community’s plan. They paid big money for their own consultants who tweaked plan and settled for less housing (similar land area), with the outcome that nothing happened. On these numbers, potential developers couldn’t assemble the package to include community resources. The Council also failed in their bid to raise money for the demolition of the old stadium. Then there was the matter of the world financial collapse.
Last year, six years on, success! Sort of. Money found; stadium demolished; demolition site, perhaps as a car-park, to be left, fenced and gated, until a resolution could be found.
Fat chance, thought the community. All that space, space like we have never had before, left to rot. Or a car-park! No way.
Vetch Veg was born. Their enthusiasm seeped into the council’s engineering department. The demolition contract, contrary to ‘what is possible’, was tweaked, consideration of the community embraced, meetings held and the minimal levelling, grassing and fencing off of a plot for a community garden emerged.
Supported by an arts project funding (don’t ask!), Vetch Veg has a full-time worker and a hugely enthusiastic community input. Over 100 raised beds and two polytunnels are up and running, with a chicken run on the way and beehive under discussion. Project worker, Owen Griffiths, is coordinating a program of events, talks, and satellite projects for 2012 which will see the building of a shed sculpture acting as a project resource space/library/centre for talks and performances, and stocked with gardening books, donated to the project by volunteers and Oxfam. A major public arts event is scheduled for June. The project has seen residents, schools, churches and businesses coming together to offer their green fingers to this unique environmental scheme.
But the big gains are much more than an expression of right-on ‘arty greenness’! Bursting out is the community itself, clambering, not just for the cups of tea and biscuits and sometimes even meals regularly laid on by local supporters, but clambering to be involved.
Even greater, is the revelation of the value of urban space. The glorious open space makes it a joy to look out along Sandfields’ otherwise rather dismal, car-dominated streets. It makes you raise your eyes to see the city climbing up the surrounding hills; to breathe, and think of the river and the sea. And maybe plant a few veg.
The Vetch, as the place will surely be called – it has been for the hundred years that the old stadium would have been celebrating this year, is far from perfect. All round, there are the backs of homes, certainly relieved of the over-bearing stadium but left exposed and vulnerable, ragged, a recipe for future bad-neighbourliness and mischief.
The space has to be opened to the community, to become the joyful walking route towards town, a place to sit and rest, for children and young people to play. That is where the community’s efforts of all those years ago can bear fruit. With the help of community urban designers, they set out the criteria for future development – active, affordable homes over-looking the public space, safe streets integrating the local street grid, a pedestrian environment that cars can share (if they are good!), community resources. It doesn’t sound like much but when you look around local developments, you rarely see these things, and when you looked around the Vetch you only saw urban decay.
What the community has brought is vigour, enthusiasm, willingness and demonstrable capability and capacity. Like the residents of Manhattan’s barren brownfield wastelands, they have said, hold on, slow down, listen to us. Do things a bit differently. Put community first, not developers, and we will welcome you all here.
With a significant input like that from the community, a controlled development programme could and should be nationally exhibited as green, community led, urban transformation. What a breath of fresh air that would be.
Vetch Veg is showing that there is enough belief around to do it.
Gordon Gibson is an Urban Designer, who was and is involved with the Sandfields community and the Vetch project. His blog can be found at http://www.4cities.wordpress.com