A collaborative networked exhibition
Jessie Brennan, ‘Rug beater’, cyanotype, from Inside The Backyard (Opportunity Area), 2015–6.
After five years hard work by its volunteers and incredible public support, The Green Backyard, a community growing project in Peterborough run entirely by volunteers, is no longer threatened with redevelopment: the owners of the land, Peterborough City Council, have offered a rolling 12-year lease. Re: development – Inside The Green Backyard is a collaborative, networked exhibition, which celebrates the success of The Green Backyard’s campaign to safeguard land. The exhibition features cyanotypes (camera-less photographs of objects from the site) and voice recordings (oral testimonies by the volunteers) from Jessie Brennan’s work Inside The Green Backyard (Opportunity Area), 2015–16, an outcome of Jessie’s year-long residency with The Green Backyard and arts organisation Metal. More about Jessie’s residency project can be found here in an article she wrote for the Guardian.
Jessie Brennan, ‘Onion flower’, cyanotype, from Inside The Backyard (Opportunity Area), 2015–6.
Florence Warrington (and band), visitor (Deeds not words)
Links to other exhibits (in alphabetical order)
Digging for Our Lives: The Fight to Keep The Green Backyard
Sophie Antonelli, co-founder of The Green Backyard
This piece was written for Re:development, a book brought together by artist Jessie Brennan following her year-long residency at The Green Backyard. Published before the land was finally safeguarded, it traces the journey of transforming a former derelict allotment site into the thriving community growing project that is now The Green Backyard.
In early 2009 we first opened the gates to a site in Peterborough that had been closed and unused for 17 years. A 2.3-acre site in the city centre, next to two main roads and the East Coast main line to London should not be hard to miss, but after almost two decades of disuse many people had simply forgotten it existed. I’d like to say that we knew what we were doing at that time, but as is often the case in voluntary groups, the creation of what would become The Green Backyard was motivated by the seizing of an opportunity, in this case offered land, together with a tacit sense of need: to preserve years of learning created by my father on his allotments; to create a space for people to learn and change; and to challenge the momentum of the city, which in my life-time had seemed stagnant and apathetic.
At the time I could not have articulated these motivations, and I am now very aware that my own impetus is likely to have differed from others’ around me. I find this to be the case with many community spaces: everyone comes to them with their own very personal set of hopes and needs which are often complimentary, and occasionally divisive.
The lessons that grew out of those undefined early experiences of creating a shared space made visible the participatory qualities inherent to the project and fired up the desire for imperfect spaces – rather than meticulously planned ones, with defined budgets and personnel. The threat then imposed by the land owners, our City Council, in response to the slashing of local authority budgets following the 2008 financial crisis, actually served to crystallise this value and catalyse a movement of enthusiasm for radical change in a city long-complacent and passive.
The battle to stop the land being sold off for development, I think, surprised everyone. First came the obvious shock when council officers arrived just a few days before Christmas in 2011 and told us of their intention to sell the land… [continues here]
Re: development: Voices, Cyanotypes & Writings from The Green Backyard
This piece was written for Re:development, a book that brings together voices, cyanotypes and writings from The Green Backyard following my year-long residency there. Published before the land was finally safeguarded, it questions the capitalist logic of the site’s proposed development by the landowner, Peterborough City Council. The book shares the voices of The Green Backyard – of those defending their right to the city.
Among the borage plants there lies a toothbrush, its simple white length surrounded by vivid blue. It’s an object donated by a visitor to The Green Backyard (which is acting as a collection point) for refugees in Calais, and it is one of many hundreds of objects here that seem to invoke the voice of The Green Backyard: offering a conduit through which people close to the project can articulate its value. The objects that call forth the voice reveal, in turn, that those voices also tacitly object: through positive tactics of planting and communing, individuals speak of the necessity of The Green Backyard as public, open, urban green space, and why its proposed development must be resisted.
I first set foot inside The Green Backyard, a ‘community growing project’ in Peterborough, in May 2014, at a time when the threat of a proposed development by its owner, Peterborough City Council, was at its most heightened. What brought me to this site were questions of land ownership and value (framed by the long history of community land rights struggles) and the ‘right to the city’: whom the land belonged to.
Because, of course, feelings of belonging to a place in no way necessarily mean it belongs to you, as users – visitors, volunteers and trustees – of The Green Backyard are all too well aware. Despite the current social value that this urban green space clearly provides, debates around the proposed development of The Green Backyard (and many other volunteer-run green spaces) have been dominated by arguments for the financial value of the land – referring to the short-term cash injection that its sale would generate – rather than the long-term social benefit of the site… [continues here]
We’ve got two workshops coming up in Peterborough (18th March) and Norwich (19th March).
Join Three Acres And A Cow, Norwich Farmshare, Community Land Scotland, Landworker’s Alliance, Shared Assets and other guests to explore and raise our awareness of land as a common ground issue connecting housing, food and farming, energy, environment and public and community space.
We’ll increase our knowledge about land ownership and the history of land struggles; connect to share skills and experiences; and inspire participants to take learning and energy for change back to their communities.
Please sign up in advance so we have an idea of numbers (follow the links below). Look forward to seeing you there!
On the weekend of 12th-13th November 2016, hundreds of people with diverse backgrounds and interests gathered to talk about the issues surrounding land, and to look for spaces for solutions. This report summarises some of the sessions from the weekend. Thanks to everyone who submitted a session summary. We hope it can be useful for people who weren’t able to make it to the event, and will help inspire further discussions.
- 69% of land in the UK is owned by 0.6% of the population.
- UK housing is concentrated on 5% of the country’s land mass.
- Only 64% of people have a small stake in the 5% of land on which our housing is built.
- Home and land ownership is in decline.
- 1/3 of British land is still owned by aristocrats.
- The value of ‘dwellings’ (homes and the land underneath them) has increased by four times (or 400%) between 1995 and 2015, from £1.2 trillion to £5.5 trillion.
- The property wealth of the top 10% of households is nearly 5 times greater than the wealth of the bottom half of all households combined.
- Landlords own almost 40% of all former council houses with the government’s ‘right-to-buy’ scheme.
- The annual amount of overseas investment in the UK housing market has rise from around £6bn per year a decade ago to £32bn by 2014.
- 74% of house price increases between 1950 and 2012 in the UK can be explained by rising land prices with the remainder attributable to increases in construction costs.
- Land often increases in value due to public investment in infrastructure, such as roads, public transport, housing, etc. It has been estimated that the extension of the Jubilee Line of the London Underground which opened in 1999 increased local residential land values within 1000 yards of each of the stations by £13 billion (Riley, 2001). As a result, such publically funded infrastructure projects almost always involve a substantial transfer of wealth from a large number of taxpayers to a small number of land owners – a classic case of economic rent.
Who really owns Britain?, Country Life, November 2010.
Modern Land Reform, New Economics Foundation, publication forthcoming.
Who Owns Britain, Kevin Cahill, 2001.
As well as councils, private landowners also often sit on disused land that could be used for public good. Using the template below, you can put pressure on a local landowner to push them into putting their land to good use. Share it widely and do not hesitate in sending that email or letter!
Dear [insert name of landowner],
I am writing to you regarding [insert name of empty site] and its ongoing state of disuse.
As a local resident, I am keen that the site is brought back into use to the benefit of the local community. Our area is in need of [delete as appropriate: new housing, more green space, land to start a community food growing project] and the land that you own could be part of the solution. Bringing it back into use would be in your own interest as well as in the interest of the local area. I am not interested in purchasing or using the site myself – I am simply hoping to that it will be put to use in the near future.
I urge you to take the following actions:
- Contact the Empty Property Officer in the local authority to discuss what you can do to bring the land back into use.
- Make your intentions for the future use of the land known to local residents.
- Contact me or [name of active local group] if you would like to discuss how best to move forwards.
I look forward to hearing from you.
If you and a group of people around you have noticed disused land in your area and you think your council should be acting to do something about here’s how to let them know. Below is a template letter to send to your local councillor to let them know that local land should be used to the benefit of local people. Get emailing, reposting, sending letters and tweeting about it now!
Dear [insert name of councillor],
I am writing to you regarding disused land in the county/borough of [insert name of county or borough].
Our [borough/county] contains significant empty sites of empty land that could be used to build much needed housing, start new community food growing projects, launch new businesses, or create new wildlife corridors. The [insert example of disused land here] is just one example of this. As local residents we are keen to work with the local authority to ensure that this land is brought back into use to the benefit of local residents.
We would like to arrange a meeting with the relevant elected member and the empty properties officer to discuss the council’s strategy for bringing empty properties and derelict land back into use. To be clear, we have no interest in purchasing or profiting from any particular piece of land ourselves – we simply want to see the land in our borough/county used for the benefit of local communities rather than left empty.
Please let us know a convenient time for a meeting.
We look forward to hearing from you.
This simple step-by-step guide is designed to help you spot disused land in your area and raise it as an issue with your local council and local land owners – the people with the power to bring it back into use. Spotting disused land is easy to do and can be done be anyone. Currently, the UK has large amounts of disused land that could be put to use in all sorts of ways: from building community-led affordable housing, to growing community gardens, to increasing local biodiversity. Whatever your goal, this step-by-step guide will help you identify disused land in your area and bring it back into use, as well as potentially feeding into a crowdsourced map of disused land in the UK.
Who can spot land?
- Go solo! One person can achieve a lot. Decide on the geographical area that you want to spot empty land in. Decide how long a period you want to spend identifying sites – a week? a month? a year? Whatever time period you choose, the aim is to identify as many sites as you can within that time.
- Form a spotting group! This could be with your friends, family, colleagues, community group, or other people interested in land reform in your local area. The more people, the more disused land you will be able to identify. You could even meet up to share what you found out!
How to spot land?
You could spot land while:
- On your way to work
- Taking your kids to school
- On dedicated land spotting walks in your area
What to gather information on?
It is important that you gather information on:
- The location of the site. This is the most important piece of information. The best way to record the location of the site is to place a pin on Google Maps and save it. This data can then be used to create a map of disused land across the UK.
- How long the site has been disused. This might be something that you know yourself or it might be something you can find out by asking local people or through Google.
- Who you think might own it. Again, this might be something you know, or it might be something you can find out by asking the neighbours or through the Land Registry.
- What it used to be used for. Again, this might be something that you know yourself or it might be something you can find out by asking local people or through Google.
How to make it an issue?
Gathering information is important, but to bring disused land back into use it is essential to make it into a pressing issue: for the landowner (who has the power to do something with the land), the local authority (who has the power of compulsory purchase if the landowner refuses to take action), and local citizens (who have the power to put pressure on local landowners and the council). In order to make disused land in your area into an issue, you could start by:
- Taking a selfie in front of the disused land and tweeting it to #Land4What.
- Finding out who owns the land using the Land Registry.
- Telling your local councillors about all the empty land in your area and suggesting ideas for how it could be used (a community land trust housing development, a park, an allotment).
- Using the template letters to local councils and landowners on the Land for What? website: http://www.landforwhat.org.uk/category/resources/
For more information on mapping land, check out the following links:
Who Owns England? – a blog attempting map land ownership in England.
Empty Homes – advice on how to bring empty homes back into use from a charity that campaigns on this issue nationally.
Plotfinder – a website for buying and selling land.
If you have not had a chance to browse this official Scottish Parliament document about land reform, I highly recommend that you do – http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0045/00451087.pdf
Just the introduction spelling out their remit is a beautiful stand alone piece of prose in its own right! I have taken the liberty of copying it below to save you a click and a scroll…
The relationship between the land and the people of Scotland is fundamental to the well-being, economic success, environmental sustainability and social justice of the country. The structure of land ownership is a defining factor in that relationship: it can facilitate and promote development, but it can also hinder it. In recent years, various approaches to land reform, not least the expansion of community ownership, have contributed positively to a more successful Scotland by assisting in the reduction of barriers to sustainable development, by strengthening communities and by giving them a greater stake in their future. The various strands of land reform that exist in Scotland provide a firm foundation for further developments. The Government has therefore established a Land Reform Review Group.
The Land Reform Review Group has been appointed by Scottish Ministers to identify how land reform will:
- Enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership, governance, management and use of land, which will lead to a greater diversity of land ownership, and ownership types, in Scotland;
- Assist with the acquisition and management of land (and also land assets) by communities, to make stronger, more resilient, and independent communities which have an even greater stake in their development;
- Generate, support, promote, and deliver new relationships between land, people economy and environment in Scotland.