The Great Meeting Place: Bradford’s City Park and Inclusive Urban Space

The Great Meeting Place: Bradford’s City Park and Inclusive Urban Space

Image:  Tim Green aka atouch.  Source 

Ala Sirriyeh (University of Keele), Anna Barker (University of Bradford) and Nathan Manning (University of York)

 

It is early morning on a cloudy, breezy, but warm, day in July 2013. Outside City Hall in Bradford young children in beachwear are standing around waiting and peering expectantly at the ground in front of them. We have arrived in City Park in the centre of Bradford to do some research interviews. We spot the park warden, have a chat, and follow him into the pavilion building in the park. A few minutes later we emerge to hear shrieks and squeals of delight. The fountains in the park’s Mirror Pool have just been turned on for that day. After six years of development, City Park opened in March 2012 drawing thousands of people to the heart of Bradford. This is now a familiar scene in the summer months as crowds of children gather to play in the water, earning the park the nickname of ‘Bradpool’.

A year after the park opened, in the summer of 2013, we set out to explore how members of the public use and share City Park. We were interested in their experiences of, and feelings for the site, and what it contributed to Bradford. We also explored the experiences of local businesses and workers who share the site, and the way the space is regulated and managed. We conducted 26 hours of observations in the park. We then interviewed 57 members of the public visiting the park; 12 professionals involved in the planning, management, maintenance, care-taking, security and events; and staff from six businesses surrounding the park. In this article we introduce some of our findings on inclusion in City Park looking at the ethos of inclusion in the objectives for the park, City Park as a public resource, and regulation in the park.

City Park was the signature project in the Bradford City Centre Masterplan produced in 2003 in the context of the city’s post-industrial decline and the stigma experienced since the riots of 2001. It is neither a traditional green space nor a traditional city square, but combines elements of these types of public open spaces. The centrepiece is the Mirror Pool Plaza designed to act as an interactive play resource and an events space. It is the UK’s largest man-made water feature with over 100 fountains, a central jet rising to 30 meters and a 4,000 square meter ‘Mirror Pool’.

Recent accounts of urban space frequently note pervasive trends that undermine public spaces: privatisation, commercialisation, securitisation and homogenisation. While we accept the broad sweep of these analyses, City Park, to some extent, runs counter to these prevailing tendencies turning commonly accepted principles of urban regeneration, who has the right to the city, and what activities are seen to be acceptable, on their heads. In particular, post-industrial city regeneration is often centred on appeals to commercial investment. City Park displays some elements of these models of recovery, but also deviates from renewal projects in other cities. The objectives for the development were framed through an ethos of social inclusivity and the park has drawn in marginalised groups often excluded from city centres. While there is also an objective to raise commercial investment, thus far this has not sidelined the social inclusion aims which give this development a distinctive feel in comparison to those in other nearby cities.

An ethos of inclusion

City Park was designed to be inclusive and welcoming to diverse social groups. During its development, it was nicknamed ‘the great meeting place’ by local authority staff involved with the delivery of the project. This nickname captures so much of what goes on in the space. The park is the nexus between the old centre of Bradford and newer educational and cultural institutions like the National Media Museum. The contemporary design of the park knits together several time periods including the Victorian City Hall and the mid-twentieth century magistrate’s court. Unlike many contemporary urban spaces it is pedestrianized, giving people space to meet and talk. Being in the city centre it belongs to the city rather than to a particular neighbourhood and is accessible by major transport routes. Like other large, central public spaces, City Park is often used as a place for individual or group meetings in a casual and informal context. Beyond these encounters, the park provides a place for locals and others to come together in a variety of ways, for example: as participants in an event; as sports fans celebrating Bradford City’s promotion to League One; as members of diverse cultures and ethnic backgrounds; or as children at play. The local authority has deliberately sought to hold events that would appeal to a broad audience and these have, so far, been free to access.

The diverse mix of people using the park was noted in interviews with both frontline workers and members of the public. The opportunity for interaction in and sharing of public space was thought to promote positive inter-cultural experiences and a coming together which might help change perceptions about Bradford and promote community feeling. Their remarks reflect the notion that interaction in particular circumstances has the ability to the undermine prejudices and stereotypes of loosely connected strangers. Despite top-down policy emphasis on integrated, cohesive communities, City Park is not a prescriptive space. Instead, it is open-ended and public; capable of facilitating inter-cultural interaction, but this is not forced or contrived.

In her work on urban spaces, Watson (2009) uses the term ‘rubbing along’ to refer to a form of limited encounter where people share spaces and slide past each other. She argues that these often limited and minimal forms of encounter experienced when sharing a public space have a role to play in challenging racism and prejudice about unknown others. Nonetheless, as Amin (2002 p.969) reminds us, ‘Habitual contact in itself, is no guarantor of cultural exchange. It can entrench group animosities and identities, through repetitions of gender, class, race and ethnic practices.’ City Park however, has thus far evaded being territorialised; it remains a very open and public space with the potential to ‘disrupt easy labelling of the stranger as enemy and invites new attachments’ (Amin 2002 p.970). This may in part relate to its open design which helps to create a kind of ‘easy sociality’. The whole park has a circular orientation and the round Mirror Pool provides a central focus. With the fountains or steam vents in action there is usually something to look at even on a cold day. On warm days the Mirror Pool is typically brimming with children, young people and parents splashing about amongst the fountains. The combination of children and water is a heady but mundane mix which provides a shared activity and accentuates commonalities (family/children/play) amidst cultural difference. The shape of the park and the activities at its centre facilitate lingering, people watching and limited encounters and therefore promotes ‘rubbing along’.

City Park as a public resource

The regeneration and re-branding of ‘place’ has become fundamental to the economic fortunes of cities and consumption has become the dominant logic informing the re-branding of many post-industrial northern English cities. However, we found that City Park enables the potential inclusion of those people who are without the economic means to engage successfully in such consumer practices. Indeed, City Park is imbued with ethical characteristics around shared equal access and the creation of a public amenity. This was noted by members of the public who commented on the free public toilets on the site, free access to space and the free events in contrast to some urban spaces that offer few amenities and are often fenced off for ticketed events with entry fees. As a number of recent studies have shown, public spaces and city centres are increasingly designed to squeeze out those without the means to engage in the consumption that dominates urban life. In contrast, local authority workers, aware of Bradford’s economic deprivation, have created a space which is mindful of these conditions.

The park has also given people somewhere to simply sit and be – somewhere to linger. This was something we noticed in particular among young people and children who were prominent users of City Park. Young people told us it was somewhere they felt welcome, somewhere they could hang out without being moved on, as they often would be in shopping centres.  In contrast, young people are frequently viewed as a spoiling presence in public space, a threat to public order. As such, they are often subject to surveillance and various restrictions and to regulatory regimes creating spaces hostile to young people.

Regulation in the park

The values and principles informing how City Park was designed and is managed borrow some ideas from Victorian public parks, particularly the presence of dedicated park keeping staff and the importance of ‘designing in’ natural surveillance to discourage unacceptable behaviour and foster self-regulation. However, it departs from these early models quite considerably in other ways. The park’s design was envisioned to make people an active part of the park’s setting. During our observations we saw people playing in and walking through the fountains, climbing and sitting on sculptures, cycling through the park, and relaxing and sunbathing on the grass areas. The code of conduct for the public is relaxed and the assessment of behaviours as problematic is context-dependent, combined with an approach to regulation informed by the principle of tolerance. This can be seen through the example of the responses to public drinking in the park.

Frontline workers and businesses sought to foster understanding of the dangers of using glass items in the Mirror Pool and encourage responsible ways of drinking. The strategies of providing plastic cups and advising people on their behaviour are examples of a tolerant response that fosters ‘ameliorative co-existence’ defined as attempts to moderate the expectations and behaviours of diverse users of public space so they ‘get along’ (Kearns and Bannister 2009 p.138). Those who came to the park on a regular basis to have a drink appeared to be familiar with the codes of conduct around drinking. On one occasion, a drinker was observed requesting plastic cups for himself and his friends from a park warden. The offering of plastic cups provides both the opportunity and means for adapting behaviours in the park.

The use of ameliorative strategies for managing behaviour, combined with an ethos of ‘relaxed toleration’, help diverse users of City Park coexist and get along better, and contribute to what we observed as a genuinely non oppressive, inclusive and playful space in the city. However, there are challenges in creating a space that tolerates a range of activities and behaviours, but also constitutes a civil and enjoyable place that people want to go to, and this makes means that park managers and guardians have the demanding job of maintaining a balance.

Conclusion

It could be claimed that the kind of public space that Bradford has created could only occur in a context where property prices are low and commercial motives for development are hampered. In a more prosperous city commercial pressures might press regeneration projects towards more privatised, business and consumption-oriented developments.

City Park is highly valued and provides a number of benefits and resources for residents and visitors. The park is still a young space, but offers some important lessons for public policy in terms of the management of diversity and inclusion. The capacity for ‘rubbing along’, sharing space amidst social difference, and a liberal approach to regulation seem to be working and have helped to create a safe, playful and welcoming space for people to enjoy. This has been achieved by tempering an emphasis on commercial interests with a commitment to the value of public space and amenities, and careful consideration of Bradford’s social conditions.  It remains to be seen how this will be managed in the long-term and whether, in seeking to attract further investment in the city, the influence of greater commercial pressures will impinge on the social objectives of the City Park project. We hope the popular success of the park ensures the project’s social objectives and tolerant approach to regulation continue and are applied in future developments.

 

Ala Sirriyeh is a Lecturer in Sociology at Keele University. Anna Barker is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Bradford. Nathan Manning is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York

1 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    August 07, 2014

    The Park seems to have become a point of Physical Therapy for the city. I think this is in no small part owing to the provision of a place for children to play and where commercial interests are not foremost. I wonder wether in time, certain areas might become “owned” by particular ethnic or racial groups and what could be done to arrest the trend if it was noticed. Overall it seems like “The Committee” got it right this time. Bonsai!

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