With the start of a new academic year approaching I am starting a new theme in my blogposts. Over the next few months I will provide overviews of some of the projects I am working on at the moment. First up is the AHRC-funded project on urban commons on which I am a Co-I. We began work in January and held our first workshop in July. Here is an account of that event.
On Tuesday 9 July the AHRC-funded project 'Wastes and Strays: The Past, Present and Future of Urban Commons' held its first workshop. The location was highly appropriate in that we were in the Grand Parade Building of The University of Brighton which faces onto Valley Gardens, one of our four case studies. The fact that the whole area is currently a building site was disappointing for those of us who had travelled from afar and wanted to get a good picture, but is indicative of the dynamism and constantly changing nature of urban common land. Moreover, the improvements the work will bring certainly sound promising.
The workshop was led by members of the project team: Chris Rodgers (PI) of the Newcastle Law School, Alex Zambelli (Co-I) an Architect from Brighton University - who has posted his own engaging account of the event here: https://scandalousartefacts.com/2019/08/04/the-memory-playfulness-and-imaginary-of-english-urban-commons/, John Wedgwood Clarke (Co-I) a poet based at Exeter University, Rachel Hammersley (Co-I) from the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Newcastle, Sarah Collins the RA working on the past strand of the project, and Livi Dee the newly appointed RA working on the present strand. Emma Cheatle of the University of Sheffield is also a Co-I and key member of the team, but was unable to attend this event. Also participating in the workshop were representatives from each of our four case studies: Newcastle's Town Moor, Mousehold Heath in Norwich, Clifton Down Bristol, and Brighton's Valley Gardens, together with Nicola Hodgson from the Open Spaces Society, Duncan MacKay from Natural England, and Nick Gant from Community 21.
The day involved discussion of various issues relating to the project and prompted a number of insights. In the first place, we explored issues of definition. This involved thinking about what the difference is between an urban common and a public park, and noting the seemingly curious fact that only one of our four case studies - Bristol - is actually an official registered common. Moreover, in that case grazing - the main historical reason for the establishment of common lands - now plays only a very minor role in the life of Clifton Down.
In listening to our workshop participants I was also struck by how different our four case studies are. They differ not just in how they are organised and funded, but also in how they look. The Town Moor has retained its wild open character, whereas the topography of some of the others is more diverse. Mousehold, for example, includes a mixture of woods and heathland. Moreover, grazing cattle, which are such a key feature of Newcastle's urban common do not feature on Mousehold at all and rarely on Clifton Down. While all of our case studies have roads cutting across them (some of which have been the subject of fierce battles in the past) in Valley Gardens cars seem to outnumber pedestrians and the voices of car users, bus companies, and taxi drivers have long been central to debates over that common.
There are also sharp contrasts with regard to how the four commons are used today. The participants from Bristol conveyed a sense of extensive use by the community - with overuse a real and present danger, particularly at a time when limited funds necessitate commercial exploitation. Town Moor by contrast seems to be less regularly used by the people of Newcastle, which brings certain advantages, but also different kinds of difficulties. Yet in all four cases it was clear that our workshop participants felt a strong sense of attachment to, and ownership over, their particular common and that this feeling was shared with the wider communities they represent.
While undoubtedly positive, those strong feelings do generate problems, not least the contestation between different user groups that seems to have marked the history of all four commons. At Mousehold contestations can be traced back at least as far as Kett's Rebellion in 1549. Robert Kett's supporters camped on Mousehold Heath and many of their demands were concerned with securing the use of common land for the ordinary people against exploitation by the local gentry. Later, in the nineteenth century, conflicts arose between the residents of Pockthorpe - a community bordering Mousehold Heath whose residents used the land for quarrying, brickmaking, and other activities - and the city authorities who wanted to turn the area into a 'People's Park' (N. MacMaster, 'The Battle for Mousehold Heath 1857-1884: "Popular Politics" and the Victorian Public Park', Past and Present, 127 (1990), 117-54). More recently conflicts have arisen between the city authorities and an action group calling itself the 'defenders of Mousehold Heath'. Thankfully relations are much more positive today, but the potential for conflict between different groups remains.
The history of Newcastle's Town Moor is also fraught with contest. In the past this often pitched the Freemen against the Mayor and city magistrates who were felt to be exploiting the Moor for their own gain rather than in the interests of the Freemen and their families. In the mid-1770s these tensions boiled over into national politics leading the Freemen to put up a radical Wilkite candidates for the 1774 election and resulting in the Town Moor Act which laid down rules as to how the Moor was to be managed and the uses to which it could be put. All this makes clear that balancing the different interests and needs of various user groups (and local residents who do not currently use their urban common) is crucial to the future management of these areas.
Moreover, alongside the specific examples of conflict in the past and continuing tensions today in each particular common, our discussions brought to the fore several more deep rooted tensions that are inherent in the very idea of an urban common. All commons, but especially urban commons, have at their heart the tension between nature (whether that is the grazing cattle, the heathland, or a wildflower meadow) and human users. Managing the two is central to the work of wardens like Will Stewart at Mousehold Heath. Another inherent tension we discussed is that between on the one hand the wildness that is often a defining feature of urban commons distinguishing them from parks (and the edginess associated with it) and on the other hand the need for these places to be safe and accessible for a wide variety of users. As these examples suggest, there is no easy answer to the problem of managing and balancing these tensions. As the same time it is crucial that we find ways of doing so, not just to secure the future of our urban commons, but also our democracy and our planet.