Green space in Waltham Forest, and the fundamental wrongs of engaging ‘hard to reach’ populations
By Jess Beagley, on 3 March 2021
Part of the HUD Urban Profiles blog series.
A Liveable City
Situated in the north-east of London, Waltham Forest is home to some 277,000 residents, of whom an unusually low proportion are over the age of 65. In fact, the median age of the local population is just 34, compared to a national average of 40. Many local residents are young families, drawn to Waltham Forest’s notable liveability, with green open spaces, a local food market, miles of cycle lanes, and comparatively spacious housing – all within manageable commuting distance of central London.
At first glance, the setting seems idyllic for many, but older people are decreasingly visible not only in terms of their number but arguably also in the extent to which their needs are reflected in local planning. One setting where this is evident is the popular Lloyd Park, which has long been appreciated by local residents, and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public Space and the Right to the City
While Lloyd Park offers an impressive variety of facilities and activities for a range of ages, with football pitches, a boules court, skate park, Tai Chi classes, tennis courts, and regularly spaced benches, some aspects nevertheless greatly limit the enjoyment of older visitors.
Signs at the park entrance indicate that “considerate cycling” is permitted, but many riders race down the main path which runs through the park, providing a convenient shortcut between two roads, with little care for pedestrians of any age. Other routes around the perimeter of the park have far less rapid traffic, but present a different hazard: poor or entirely absent surfacing of the paths leaves them perilously muddy, with severe risk of slipping after wet weather. A lack of lighting along even the main paths adds to the hostility of the environment once the afternoon light has faded.
For people over 65, falls represent a particular hazard to health, and the ability to get up and continue on is not one that can be taken for granted. Falls have an enduring impact, and are causes not only of injury and pain, but also of distress, loss of confidence and loss of independence. Over 65s are vulnerable in this context on account of their reduced capacity to resist and recover from the threat posed by the unsafe environment, to the extent that some older residents are unlikely to use the park. One visitor to the park commented “There are no ‘really old’ people – I mean, people in their 80s. They are conspicuous by their absence” and how “the park [should be] for everyone, but everyone needs to…respect the shared spaces.”
Subsidiarity and Truly Participatory Urban Governance
UN Habitat defines good urban governance as being underpinned by the interdependent and mutually reinforcing principles of “sustainability, subsidiarity, equity, efficiency, transparency and accountability, civic engagement and citizenship, and security”. The principle of subsidiarity refers to the allocation of responsibility for provision of services “at the closest appropriate level consistent with efficient and cost-effective delivery of services”. While the principle of subsidiarity is apparent in Waltham Forest, with the park being managed by the local council, this has not led to effective civic engagement in defining priorities for the maintenance and upgrading of the park. This has in turn contributed to inequities. In order to ensure that the park becomes a truly public space, active outreach and engagement with older people and the wider community is necessary. The question here is not so much of who uses the park, but of who does not. The duty of the service provider to understand the needs of those who the park visitor described as “conspicuous by their absence”, often referred to as “hard-to-reach” is one which is often overlooked. Workshops with regular park visitors to consult on plans for park developments are comparatively easy to organise, but these relatively passive efforts fall far short of what is needed to serve the local population.
The very term “hard-to-reach” encapsulates the reason for this collapse – many of those who do not use the park are distanced not by choice, but by exclusion. The abject failure to cater to the needs if the disenfranchised, whether for age or any other reason, is in stark juxtaposition to the very essence of “public” space. It must be questioned whether these communities are “seldom-heard” or rather seldom offered a platform to speak. In order to overcome these shortcomings, the local council must actively identify, reach out to, and seek to gain the trust of those who are least likely to use the park in order to understand their needs and views and how these can be catered for alongside those of other residents. Approaches to support these forms of active outreach have been proposed including by Cinderby and BEMIS and must be pursued for the sake of urban justice.
Images (author’s own) show one of Lloyd Park’s football fields, and the muddy perimeter path of the same area at dusk.
HUD Urban Profiles
As part of the module Urban Health: Reflections on Practice, students were given the opportunity to critically and creatively engage with their surroundings. Urban Profiles is a culmination of students’ reflective journals from the start of the course. Whether it was a walk around their town or a focus on specific communities within their home cities, students reflected on what ‘health in the city means’ to them as urban health practitioners, and strategised what could help tackle health concerns in consideration of the urban profiles of their cities.