Towards environmental justice: The 'Stalled Spaces' Effect

What is it like to live next to a parcel of land vacant for years, often when many promises for development are not seen through to completion? Ask close to 300,000 Glaswegians, or 69% of the total population in what is called "high deprivation areas", who live within 500m of such land. Not only do these vacant plots pose safety risks, but it also acts as a daily visual reminder of living in a neighbourhood not seeing the same benefits as others, have psychological impacts too. 

Vacant and derelict land is a symptom of changes post-industrial cities are undergoing, and is a serious concern to policy makers. The reason why these sites remain vacant and are not developed include poor ground conditions, multiple and unclear ownership, and lack of basic infrastructure. In Scotland, vacant and derelict land (VDL) is an indicator in the government’s ‘multiple deprivation index’, a checklist of conditions faced by people living in poverty. An annual survey is carried out and in 2014 it was found that there are 1,176 vacant plots in Scotland, tallying 1,790 hectares. 

Breakdown of deprived neighborhoods proximity (<500m) to vacant and derelict land. Source: Scottish Government

Breakdown of deprived neighborhoods proximity (<500m) to vacant and derelict land. Source: Scottish Government

Glasgow is like a mini version of New York in a lot of ways. Both have a history of slum tenements and are post-industrial cities, which have been struggling to some degree after the industry has left. The environmental burdens here are distributed unequally. Very often the levels of vacant and derelict land coincide with the worst health.
— Professor Juliana Maantay, Visiting Professor at the Mackintosh School of Architecture, Herald Scotland

Take Glasgow for example, the largest city in Scotland. There is an average of 2.4 hectares vacant land per 100,000 people, but this is unevenly distributed. 69% of Glaswegians live within 500m of vacant land and these parcels of land are found in areas of high deprivation, or deep poverty, while only 8% is located in areas of low deprivation.

These environmental burdens are unequally distributed, as Professor Juliana Maantay explains. Government-led land reform initiatives since 2003, revisited more recently with the view of taking more decisive action, has made progress, such as allocating £4 million ($5.8 million) to remove restrictions for development. These efforts will take time to adequately respond. So what can be done about this situation?

Last week, students from Urban Studies at University of Glasgow organised a panel discussion with organisations working with communities to transform these vacant sites. We were interested to learn about the inner workings of these groups and the way they build community interest, obtain planning permissions, negotiate with landowners and potential developers, and in some cases, have to uproot and start again. 

Stalled Spaces event poster. Source: Making of Cities

Stalled Spaces event poster. Source: Making of Cities

The speakers ranged from small volunteer initiatives with zero public funding, to national organisations. This diversity of views created an interesting texture of debate. 

The event was hosted at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow. Source: Walter Fieuw

The event was hosted at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow. Source: Walter Fieuw

Elodie Mignard of Grove Community Gardens talked about how volunteers organised a gardening team and set up gardens on such vacant land. Having successfully negotiated the lease terms with the landowner and adjacent site development, the garden has to be relocated, and they have learned to keep gardening portable and easily transportable. “One part of the garden is dedicated to pallet bed units giving local people the chance to growing their own veggies, fruit and herbs in an inclusive and supportive surrounding” reads their website. “The rest of the garden is a shared communal space, with the garden being ideally placed to accommodate social, cultural and environmental activities.”

Other speakers included Gemma Wild of Scottish Waterways Trust, Claire Bennett of Grow Wild and Lisa Peebles of South Seeds. Claire (Grow Wild) recounted the experience of partnering with East Renfrewshire Council in what has become a national flagship project in called Water Works in Barrhead, the transformation of an abandoned sewerage works into a wild flower park with pedestrian links to neighborhoods. One of the features is that the project was included in the Council’s statutory local development plan, which released funding for among others a training college was set up to deliver training through “vocational and modern apprenticeship programmes and aims to address gaps in training provision to help young people into sustainable employment”. See the project website for an interactive timeline since 2013. 

Gemma of Scottish Waterways spoke about an initiative called Canal College by which training is offered in the restoration of critical water infrastructure across Scotland. Although the programme had to scale down in 2015, due to funding constraints, 165 people have taken part in skills development workshops linked to canal improvement, such as stone masonry, construction and management. 

Bob Hamilton of North Kelvin Meadow shared a similar experience, but adopted a more activist stance toward the plans of the City Council to build 90 residences on the Meadow. Taking their inspiration from the “Commons”, a term that denotes collective ownership and gain from land, often denoting the social rather than economic function of land, the organisers of NKM are insisting on Scottish Government’s Planning Advice Note 65: Planning and Open Space, which states “The future growth of settlements […] should not lead to a loss of amenity and will place greater emphasis on the need for a well-distributed, well-connected and accessible supply of quality open space.”

The Croft, one of South Seeds’ projects in the south side of Glasgow. Source: South Seeds

The Croft, one of South Seeds’ projects in the south side of Glasgow. Source: South Seeds

South Seeds work more locally in the neighborhoods in the south side of Glasgow such as Govanhill, Crosshill, Queen’s Park, Strathbungo and Pollokshields East. An interesting feature is the comprehensiveness of the community mobilization, or as Lisa said, “we start with gardening first, and then take on social justice issues”. In this way, gardening on vacant land is seen as a critical first step in building community solidarity to take on wider development issues at the neighborhoods and street level. 

The event was well attended and stimulating questions were posed from the attendants. Stalled spaces is a wider initiative, and the opportunity to have five organisations speak about their experiences were insightful and valuable. It shows that while government adjusts laws and responds to problems, people often have low cost and scalable solutions to complex problems like vacant and derelict land.