You might wonder what an all weather football pitch has to do with a community green space project. But it’s one of the most popular features at Bristol’s Windmill Hill City Farm.
Eric Booth, a volunteer committee member at this community-led farm, displays an obvious pride as he points out this particular bit of open space that is anything but green. It brings in visitors who wouldn’t come to see the animals or grow vegetables - and the four and a half acre farm in one of south Bristol’s poorer suburbs now attracts more than a quarter of a million visits a year.
It isn’t just the football pitch. There’s an adventure playground, handy for the families who come to see the animals. There’s a nursery, offering affordable childcare for local parents. There’s a volunteer centre, used by groups who work on the farm’s allotments and gardens.
If you thought city farms were all about chickens and rare breed sheep, think again.
‘Projects like this are like icebergs,’ Eric explains. ‘People look at it and think, oh, that’s a city farm and they know what that is and what it does. But actually that’s only a fraction of what goes on.
‘Less than a fifth of it is the animals and the green space. It’s the kids’ groups and so on that are built on this platform that are the real value to the community. It was never just going to be a petting zoo. It was about childcare, it was about the nursery, it was about credible food growing.
‘The people who took it on were very clear that they had community and environmental aspirations beyond the basic unit. If you look around the area here there’s a great depth of links that people have had over the years with the city farm. Other projects have often been inspired by things we helped set up.’
Windmill Hill City Farm may be a community project - and it has 35 years of voluntary activity to prove its credentials - but this is far from the popular stereotype of bearded back-to-the-landers. It turns over £850,000 a year, runs £170,000 of contracts on behalf of the city council, and has a full time chief executive.
But neither is it just a small business. It is a membership organisation with more than 300 signed-up supporters, giving it a reach into a community of several thousand people. As a (mostly) green space it fulfils the functions of growing, giving people a space to play and chat, providing wildlife habitats and much more.
The value of the green space and the plants and animals at Windmill Hill is not just in creating a pleasant and attractive environment. It is the setting they provide, and what can be done in that setting that is much harder to do in an environment that is less accessible.
‘It’s not just a matter of going and sitting in the park and that will make you feel better,’ says chief executive Steve Sayers. ‘It’s about coming to the farm where you’re actively engaged in gardening or looking after animals as a therapeutic activity, whether you’ve been referred here as someone recovering from an addiction, someone with mental health issues or someone with leaning difficulties. We have groups that deal with all those groups of people and issues. The farm and gardens here are very much about providing a means to an end.
‘There’s a very low barrier to coming in. There isn’t any sense of it being official, formal, threatening – the people you’re trying to access who might have children excluded from school or families with multiple issues can come here without feeling it’s part of the system. That comes from the type of place it is physically.’
As Eric puts it: ‘This isn’t just a place where you go if you need help – it’s a place where everybody goes.’
That sense, and reality, that it belongs to the community is key to what makes Windmill Hill City Farm work. The site was originally derelict, held vacant by Bristol City Council for a road scheme that never happened. While the council still owns the site, the farm has it on a 40 year lease with 25 years remaining, and there would be an outcry if it was ever told to move.
Over 35 years, bit by bit, members and local people have invested in the site and as they have done so the farm’s role at the heart of the community has both widened and deepened.
That sense that it is there for everyone, whether you’re a recovering drug user or aspirational middle class parent, is something public bodies and special interest groups struggle to create because there is always a ‘them and us’ - the service providers and the service users, or those who belong to a group and those on the fringe or the outside.
As Steve explains: ‘It is partly a visitor attraction, it’s got a café and that’s fantastic. If you look at the turnover of the place half the turnover is from the nursery. Half the staff employed here work at the nursery. But it’s not a childcare centre.
‘Most of the programmes we run are for people with mental health issues or learning difficulties. But it’s not a therapy centre – it’s not a place that people in need or in crisis come to. We do it, but it’s not why we’re here.
‘More than three quarters of an acre is dedicated to an adventure playground for 8-14 year olds. It’s not what we’re about but it’s an important part of what we do, and it’s having that mixture of all of it that makes it work so well. When you come here you’re not labelled as being in one group or another.’
That sense of belonging and of not being an official service has enabled the city farm to extend its reach far beyond its four and a half acres. Other community gardens and food growing schemes in the city look to Windmill Hill for advice and leadership. Local residents use the city farm to inspire their own gardening and food growing at home.
These impacts are hard to measure, but they happen because of the networks of relationships and connections and trust that have grown up over many years. Sometimes things don’t work. For a while the city farm owned a working farm in Somerset, but it was too far away for most people. Sometimes relationships are strained. A community project is no recipe for universal harmony.
But the difference is that people are able to develop activities relevant to their needs and interests and do so to a large extent on their own terms. And over time that becomes not just something that some members of a community do together, but an expression of that community’s identity.
‘Green spaces are very good at mobilising communities,’ Eric comments. ‘There aren’t many things that will get significant numbers of people out doing things.’ It might be Bonfire Night or Halloween: the green space provides a place for interaction and conversation, and those conversations may spark ideas and projects - or just allow local families to support each other.
In hard times those connections are more important than ever. ‘Interesting times are coming and they’re going to stress communities in different ways and what you need is flexible resilient resourceful capacity within communities to enable them to cope,’ Eric says. ‘The analogy I have for the farm is a beating heart. It’s the centre of the community but it also pumps – it’s keeping things moving and stirring and all of that is about resilience.’
• This case study is taken from Grey Places Need Green Spaces, my report for Groundwork UK on the future of our green spaces. You can read the report online here, download it here [28mb PDF], and see Groundwork’s press release here.