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Green Spaces Project of the Month

January 2005 - Mile End Park, London


Contact: Lorraine Hart, Environment Trust, tel. 020 7264 4660
email:
lorraine@envirotrust.org website: www.milendpart.co.uk

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Introduction

Criss-crossed by roads and intersected along race, class, gender and age lines, this urban park illustrates how people from diverse ethnic backgrounds negotiate `contested space'.

Established in 1944, the Abercrombie Plan for London intended Mile End Park to serve as a `green lung' allowing the impoverished, overcrowded East End to breath. By the 1960s a sports stadium had been built and some landscaping achieved but the park was fragmented. A long, thin strip of open space alongside the canal, either side of the Mile End Road, commuter traffic cuts the park in two, and several main roads criss-cross the site, causing massive noise and air pollution and, at one time, making it very hard to walk or cycle between one residential area and another. The original dream was to create a unified stretch of parkland forming a green corridor and pedestrian link between North and South.

It was not until 1995 that the vision began to materialise, when the Environment Trust together with the East London Partnership and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, bid to the Millennium Commission for funds to transform Mile End Park into the popular amenity it is today. Known as `The People's Park' and hailed as `a model for the Millennium' by Cllr Helal Uddin Abbas, Leader of the Council, the development of Mile End Park was based on very extensive, very inclusive consultations. According to `Mile End Park: A Celebration' published in summer 2001, “a massive number of meetings were held with local people and the plans were changed numerous times to accommodate what the community said they wanted in the park. People wanted all different sections of the community to be able to enjoy the park, but in harmony, not in conflict.”

The key feature in achieving this sense of unity and harmony is Piers Gough's remarkable Green Bridge – a tree lined walkway and cycle route arching high above the Mile End Road, allowing easy passage between Limehouse and Bow. Ongoing maintenance of Mile End Park is funded in part by asset-based income generation ie rental from shop and restaurant premises at the foot of the 25m wide green bridge.

Other features in the park include beautifully landscaped terraces with sensory planting and lakes, which have helped to significantly increase biodiversity, attracting nesting birds, dragonflies and other wild life; an Ecology Centre to assist visitors in appreciating the importance of wildlife in the park; and an `Arts Park' open air gallery and pavilion. A 1,000 seat natural amphitheatre, the Play Arena, is designed for all kinds of playa and performance.

Facilities for young people are many and varied, including a children's park for the under 8s, electric go-karts for bigger children, and sports facilities for all ages, including a climbing wall and an extreme sports centre. An adventure playground has been built for bigger children, the plans for the structures being based on a competition-winning design by young women.

Contested space

Lorraine Hart is now Director of the Environment Trust, and formerly organised a series of community consultations in her role as Community Liaison Officer between 1995 and 2002. She seems to know every inch of the park like the back of her hand and is on good terms with pretty much everyone in the area.

Lorraine explained the make-up of the local communities, and the way this affects their use of the park. Because the park is open to the public, with an unfenced perimeter, it is impossible to monitor who uses, but from casual observation it is clear that a range of ethnic communities freely use the park. However, some groups use certain parts of the park more that others, and there are sometimes tensions between different users.

The Eric Street Estate is mainly populated by Somalis and young people from the African community tend to use the top half of park and Bow Warf.

In Stepney, the Ocean Estate houses mainly Bengali / Bangladeshi families who use the part of the park near the estate for extended family picnics. Occasionally one sees courting couples seeking a little privacy on a park bench.

The Somali community say that they don't feel safe using the Ocean Street part of the park, which they see as a Bengali territory, because of drug problems associated with the “Massive” gang. A Rapid Response Team has been set up as part of the youth work team to address the problem and funds have been found for a Connexions centre based in the park.

Bow is home to the African Caribbean community, while the area to the North of the Mile End Road is predominantly White, middle class, and the Palm Tree pub in middle of park used mainly by white working class people. Black boys often congregate in the park and Stepney pensioners complain to the council, simply about the presence of the boys, as if they feel that they pose some kind of vague threat.

The parks plays host to an annual fairground visit and there was trouble one year when fighting broke out between and local youths the Traveller lads.

Form and Function

As well as tensions between the various ethnic community groups and different age groups using the park, there are tensions between the various functions the site serves. For example, there are tensions between the canal and the park with canal boat users one the one hand feeling vulnerable to vandalism, whilst themselves being seen by environmentalists as posing a threat to wild life inhabiting the banks and tow paths. Tensions exist between other sustainable transport users: cycle traffic has ballooned since the `opening up' of Mile End Park, but this can cause problems for other users such as walkers.

Friends group not very inclusive

Friends group runs lots of events with Bangladeshi women's groups but this doesn't lead to the women joining the Friends group. I asked Lorraine what stops people from ethnic communities becoming Friends of the park? She said, “It's like banging your head against a brick wall” unless you're part of a Trust and have a service level agreement.

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