Written by: Steven Haywood, Active Design Manager at Yorkshire Sport Foundation
I’m sitting down to write this article as I reflect on six months in my role as the first ever Active Design Manager at Yorkshire Sport Foundation (YSF).
After 12 years as a University lecturer, the first few months took some getting used to. The few months that have followed have clearly challenged us all, and changed the world we live in for the immediate future, at the very least.
It was a role that was probably goes back to the YSF strategy of four years ago, which recognised the importance of place and the physical environment in enabling people to be active. The resources weren’t available to make a role like mine a reality. But with a Manager vacancy in the structure, the wheels were put in motion. There was a more positive response to the idea from planning departments than there were from sport and active lifestyle teams across South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire. Nigel, our CEO, had been mulling over the idea for a while – someone to both bridge the gap and influence between the sport and activity sector, and the world of town planning and design. But despite being so long in the planning, this isn’t a planning role.
Just before lockdown, I was interviewed by BBC Radio Leeds to discuss a report from the National Trust which focussed on the clear physical and mental health benefits associated with contact with nature. During the interview, I was asked: “So, what is an Active Design Manager?” In truth, I see it having many guises, and as with working life in previous roles as a landscape architect, active design is multi-disciplinary and covers many agendas. It was easy from the start to see the cross over from one sector to another, including:
- Engaging and collaborating with partners
- Sharing expertise
- Policy and leadership influence with a local place-based approach to design
- Critiquing all environmental design and participating in design reviews
- Discussing place-based approaches through the design process
- Creating Visions
- looking at community needs, opportunities and assets,
- Analysing impact, Impact investments and big society capital,
- Looking at how to bring back identity, civic pride, place appreciation and regeneration.
Bringing skills from my previous lives both as a landscape architect and lecturer, the projects I was getting involved with throughout the region picked up pace immediately. The response from partners was encouraging, for example some partners bringing me in as part of large-scale design reviews critiquing huge development plans, masterplans and residential planning applications.
As I mentioned, there were doubters. One member of a sport and active lifestyle team in a local authority we work with went from questioning what I could bring to the table, to suggesting they could do with someone full-time doing a similar role.
Life in lockdown
After a hectic but positive start in the job, the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. As with many of you, webinars have been my primary networking tool and I have taken part in some exciting and inspirational events all geared around improving things such as transforming streetscape, active centres and healthy space.
As lockdown eases and we start to emerge from this unpresented event and look to the ‘new norm’, a plan is starting to emerge for a life after Covid-19. We have all been working towards a long-term plan of recovery for our communities; researching, debating, designing and networking frantically to make sure that out of all this mess we are left with imaginative, creative, liveable environments for our communities to live and work in which allows them to be stay safe and stay healthy.
More than ever before, we must strike while the iron’s hot to encourage the changes needed from top-down, and from bottom- up. We know the government has instructed swift changes in the urban fabric framework - the barriers and boundaries for change that existed in the ‘old normal’ seem to have all of a sudden been removed,enabling a new sense of confidence to make positive changes. With the drive to get the economy, business and the highstreets back up and running, deadlines have been set and funds released, and we are charged with changing the perceptions of the city and rethinking public spaces. With change happening quickly we must also be mindful as we rush back to ‘normal’ ask ourselves just how sustainable that previous way of life actually was in reality?
Post-pandemic, we will need to revisit strategic plans, blueprints and masterplans that were already partway through planning processes in order to retro-fit to the world we will become to know. Design reviews will be more important than ever before as we have to get this right, with no room for errors for fear of being stuck with the mistakes for a long time to come. It’s not just about a ‘quick fix’ but a lasting legacy.
Creating this post-pandemic new landscape will involve long-term involvement, investment and a clear vision. We need to be able to gauge how we can achieve maximum impact within local communities, whilst hitting the important agendas we are now faced with.
All these agendas require careful consideration as to how we can address them together within every new development, masterplan proposal and public space initiative. None of them sit in the own courts anymore, our land now has to be multi-use; perform on many levels; and be part of a long-term solution.
Research and media inform us about the direct links between climate change, environmental degradation, depletion of biodiversity and the spread pathogens creating pandemics such as Covid-19. Sport England’s new strategy features both active environments and climate emergency as its agendas for ‘shaping a better future’ and reflects their commitment to this agenda, recognising the importance and the connection to active and healthy lives, and shows an important shift in focus. And so more than ever, the importance of expanding our urban parks has never been given such attention. Lockdown made it clear how city dwellers require more recreational opportunities post-quarantine and our renewed appreciation of the outdoors was given front page news, which can surely be a positive thing. But we must be mindful on putting band-aids on a gaping wound – it’s crucial we stay focussed on the bigger picture in all of this and until we stop disrupting ecosystems and thus reducing biodiversity, our efforts could be perceived as superficial.
The challenges are indeed overwhelming. All the agendas are important, and more than ever it’s easy to slip into the dangerous position of spreading oneself too thinly. And so I have found myself in a very unique and privileged position enabling me to play a vital role in the sharing and learning with partners, and in some cases compensating for loss of design professional skill set in some local
Creating long term impact
So, in just a few months I am finding that I am being asked to advise, support and offer expertise in a wide portfolio of projects all with long term benefits to health and wellbeing. Rome was not built in a day but the fact that we are being consulted on such a large number of projects all with huge benefits to community and seeing active design agendas going from strength to strength. Impact can be measured in many ways and much of my work involves conversations with a diverse number of departments throughout the local authorities; Health departments from local NHS Trusts are now keen more than ever to think about their external spaces as potential landscapes to speed up recovery, promote active lifestyles and wellbeing and I am able to share previous examples from my portfolio of community landscape design projects to help inspire and promote the possibilities.
On many levels thought provoking presentations and conversations are enabling partners to make the connection to the park as the potential catalyst for improving health and wellbeing throughout the community. I am seeing such a huge revival in the value of the park as the arena for the new creative vision of ‘The Healthscape’ I promote and the stage is being set for a surge in the ‘parks movement’ which has not been seen since the post Victorian industrial times and the vision for the ‘people’s park’. With projects underway throughout the region which will give our communities the ’space to breath’ so important for improved mental and physical wellbeing.
As professionals we are all in an important position and more than ever before to instigate the changes we need and to educate around our regions and throughout our collective partnerships. It more important than ever before that we use all available communication tools to enable the sharing of knowledge and expertise and by helping each other by all means. We have power in numbers and collectively I believe we can make those changes and break down all silos which pre-pandemic stood in our way.
I have been looking closely at how national and international towns and cities have responded to the challenges of the pandemic and how they are preparing for life after Corona. Most international neighbours are way ahead of us but there’s no surprise there. The Danish and Dutch models, of course, needed very little retro fitting and I am pleased to see that finally we are taking note of how our neighbours design their public spaces, rebrand centres, combat land ownership issues and how to transfer assets to communities. I for one am looking forward to experiencing the results of a new-found confidence to challenge poor policy and propose suitable change, in supporting partners in terms of active design mentoring and looking at new and hip designs to transform space, street furniture, and create parklets all in response to social distancing. And throughout the region masterplans and blueprints to take our district urban centres and communities forward are emerging from the design and consultation process including those for Halifax, Dewsbury, Bradford and Huddersfield and bids for ‘reshaping places’ for Rotherham, Doncaster and throughout all nine districts reigniting the drive for urban renewal not seen since the Renaissance Towns visions of the nineties but the difference now is the importance being focussed on active environments for healthy living
I believe we have an opportunity to embrace crazy new ideas for new city parks and it’s time to ask the question: what is the park? It’s time to promote a new vision for the ‘Healthscape’ and sit them within a new type of ‘BioPark’. Already there are performers in the wings, and the arena is being filled with the new designers each coming to the forefront with unique ideas and charged with changing perceptions of the city, the town and the village by rethinking its public spaces. We are now in a time to venture beyond pop-up parks and guerrilla gardening, once thought radical ideas. Equally radical was the idea of closing major streets to traffic. Once a dream, it is now a reality and being backed not only by local governments but by central government too.
If we want liveable cities and healthy communities we’ll have to work together to transform all public spaces and urban systems. Density is important, but so is liveability, new and emerging developers with eco credentials such as ‘Purehaus’ operating through the country with its Scandinavian design and German efficiency and engineering, are being promoted in some of my design reviews and can now take the centre stage more than ever before as we are empowered to demand better quality over density and profit in our design reviews.
Liveability has a different emphasis for each person, but for me it’s about green space, access to services, employment, transport and food, all hugely important issues to address s part of the long-term plan to create more healthy and active communities. For the latter we most certainly will have to double down on implementing innovative approaches to sourcing what we eat. Our current agricultural methods are unsustainable, damaging, and even negligent. The new vision for our liveable places must promote market gardens, rooftop farming, and give enough space to ‘grow your own’ – we know the benefits to health and wellbeing of that and in my opinion there’s no better way to get active nor to get the contact with nature and reap the rewards we know it gives.
There is a newfound realisation that we must respond to climate change, through actions that both reduce the rate of change and adapt to it, a new and exciting vision is emerging, people both in cities and outside them want explicit attention paid to how urban areas and their hinterlands interact and depend on one another. Economic regeneration and notions of a circular economy are seen as essential elements of a “transformed” city. We need to empower our communities to reclaim space, and embrace the concepts of Garden towns (the new Elysiums), this is what I expect of the Post Corona landscape.We have real scope now more than ever to Re-imagine urban spaces, are being given a free reign to revitalise our high streets and accepting that simply continuing as previous with a’ business as usual’ mentality is simply no longer an option.
And so, it’s vital that we work closer than ever before to make our communities healthier, more active and in addition to all of the above must we change the levels if inequality. By doing so our most vulnerable communities will be more equipped to act upon the issues the bigger picture presents. Whilst we continue to let the inequality stats rise leading to poorer health then the distance between humans and nature with continue to grow. If the lockdown taught us anything it was to notice nature, see what’s around us; the bird song, spring flowers in the hedgerows which provided us with a degree of connection; and hope in a dark time. That in itself was indeed a powerful medicine.
I want to finish by leaving a Chinese proverb to ponder upon; ‘Better to Light a Candle Than to Curse the Darkness’. It’s easy to say, what’s the point? What can I do? But there is so much worth saving, so much worth fighting for, and just imagine the power of the light if each and every one of us light a candle?
We must define a new trajectory. We have an opportunity to rewrite our manifesto and alter our course. Now is the moment to put the health of the planet before any human desires and to lead with our conviction that landscapes and ecology must drive the decision-making process, not for personal fame or fortune, but for the sake of our shared humanity and of our very existence. And a final note for those who still don’t know what landscape architects can do. I believe this is our time more than ever, the chance for us to shed the cloak, take our place at the table and at the front line of the decision-making process, even if it is under the guise of an ‘Active Design Manager’ and operating in the world of sport and physical activity!
Steven Heywood Ba.Hons.LA, Post.Grad Dip. LA, PGCHE
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