Developing Open Spaces: Using a Community Development Approach

Paper presented at the EOE Conference at Derwent Water, Cumbria

October, 2012

“When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’ ”
(Lao Tzu)

The role of the outdoor educator is multifaceted. As a freelance consultant and researcher, with experience in play and youth work as well as community development, I was asked to take on a short term and part-time piece of work, acting as a catalyst to ‘jump start’ local involvement and action. I was to work with residents, and in particular young people and children, on an estate of social housing. The estate is situated on the outskirts of one of England’s South Coast holiday resorts. In the middle of the housing was a large barren and under-used open space, the equivalent of approximately five football pitches. Scattered around the estate were other smaller areas, some grassed and some tarmacked. Across a main road was a wild area, with some boardwalks across marshy land. This had become the domain of the dog-walking fraternity.

The long-term purposes of the project were to support the community in becoming more sustainable. The estate would become a better place to live. There would be a reduction in youth crime. There would be a sense of pride and belonging. This would be achieved partly by:

  • encouraging a greater involvement in the outdoor environment;
  • encouraging young people to use their local outdoor spaces and eventually the wild area;


  • encouraging young people to develop a sense of pride, belonging and ownership of their local open spaces, by developing these spaces aesthetically and in terms of the variety of possible options for activities.

The intention was that I would work with the children and young people, to draw up plans:

  • to make a barren tract of land in the middle of the housing estate more attractive and accessible;
  • to encourage the development of a ‘corridor’ linking this open space with the wild area; and
  • to promote greater use of the wild area by local people, and in particular children and young people.

These plans were to be used in submissions to various funding bodies, including the National Lottery.


Nationally, there is a concern about issues related to exercise and the health of children and young people. There are also concerns about maintaining and increasing an understanding of environmental issues. Related to these are considerations about accessing the outdoors for leisure, relaxation, environmental, physical and other activities, by some under-represented sectors of the population, such as people with disabilities, people from minority ethnic groups and poorer people.

The UNICEF report on well-being ranked United Kingdom (UK) children at the bottom of the world’s 21 richest countries (UN, 2007). Nairn and IPSOS MORI conducted follow-up research. They used subjective indicators and found that fundamental to well-being was time spent doing things with friends and family. However, children in the UK had fewer opportunities for fun outdoor activities, than those in Spain and Sweden. In addition, girls tended to play nearer home than boys. This indicated that there was a need to develop opportunities for outdoor activities close to children’s homes, as well as further afield. They highlighted the need to protect open spaces from development (Nairn and IPSOS MORI, 2011). Currently, playing fields in parts of the UK are under threat. There is a pressure on local authorities to infill spaces between houses, as the demand for housing continues to increase.

A brief overview of some of research highlights the values of children and young people accessing their local public open spaces. Valentine (2004) and Irwin et al (2007) endorse the need to protect public open spaces close to housing. They argue that these spaces are vital for young people to escape adult supervision and define their identities. This is integral to developing a sense of social well-being and a sense of self. Worpole and Knox (2007) identify that access to open spaces is important for developing ties to communities and a sense of belonging and sense of place. Pretty et al (2009) maintain that a continuing enjoyment of nature is linked to being able to access natural environments. Beunderman (2010) writes that by engaging with others in the local environment, children and young people develop life skills and a more positive view of their neighbourhood.

However, even where open spaces are adjacent to housing, research suggests that these spaces tend to be underused. Research conducted in England during the 2007 Playday found that only 21% of children and young people play out daily. This can be compared with 71% of the adults surveyed, who said that they, as children, had played out every day (Playday Research, 2007). Worryingly, 22% of adults surveyed by Living Streets (2009) thought that children should not be allowed out unsupervised until they were 16. The threat of violence, a fear of abduction, and the linking of groups of young people with anti-social behaviour were given as reasons for this reluctance to engage in outdoor play (Crawford, 2009; Playday, 2007). Some adults also valued structured outdoor activities more highly than free, spontaneous, self-initiated, ‘loose parts’ activities (Hofferth and Sandberg, 2000; Nicholson, 1971). Research conducted with 1000 parents during this year’s Playday, revealed that traffic and a fear of strangers were the two main barriers to children playing outside. 49% of parents identified fear of strangers as a barrier, 46% said traffic and 31% highlighted fear of accident and injury (Playday 2012). How will children and young people develop the knowledge and skills to manage risks (DCSF, 2007)?

Gill (2007:14) argues that these beliefs are the side effects of social and cultural change. Society has become risk averse. In addition, there has been a growth in road traffic. People have car-dependent life styles. Parents have longer working hours. There has been a decline in the quantity and quality of public open spaces. Children and young people’s lives have become media rich. The availability of indoor leisure activities has grown and competes with many opportunities offered outdoors. These factors have reinforced ‘the logic of containment” (ibid). Thus, nationally and locally, there is a need to change attitudes so that children and young people can have the freedom to enjoy their local outdoor spaces. This project sought to find ways of counteracting these beliefs and attitudes.

Community Development and Youth Work Models

Two models, drawn from community development and youth work practice in the UK underpinned my work. After wide experience and consultation in the field, Barr and Hashagen (2000) developed a model that highlighted key elements in the development of effective communities. They define the overarching intention of community development as the support of a healthy community, which is ‘liveable’, sustainable and equitable. The community has quality of life. This is dependent on the community being caring, safe, creative, sharing its wealth and being owned by its citizens. Community members develop these aspects of quality of life through personal empowerment (working with individuals), taking positive action (working with people to define issues), taking responsibility for organizing (supporting and developing community organisations) and participating and being involved (linking community organisations with others, making decisions and planning).

My work was very much at this foundation level. I worked with individuals in the community, so that they might have the skills, knowledge and confidence to develop and implement ideas. The individuals I worked with included residents, young people, children, community leaders, youth workers, managers on a local industrial estate, the police, housing officers, leisure services officers and many others. Initially this was to hear about their issues. As the project developed it focused more on dispelling some of the myths about young people and children and exploring the possibilities for change. I found that some of the adults had to be prompted to remember what they had enjoyed about engaging with the outdoors when they were younger, so that they could recognize the experiences that the children and young people were missing. I worked with organisations, affirming their skills to contribute to the overall project and offering informal learning opportunities so that some gaps in knowledge and skills might be filled. A key principle was ensuring that important decisions would be made by community members, the children, young people and residents, rather than by professionals on behalf of the people they represented. This was to be critical if the initiative was to continue after my withdrawal.

My work with the children and young people was guided by Hart’s (1992) ladder of participation. Hart’s ladder has eight rungs. He states that the three lowest rungs on the ladder are ‘non-participation’. These are rungs one to three. These are where young people are manipulated to say or do certain things, where they are merely visible as decoration, or where they are tokenized. Rungs four and five are where young people are assigned and informed or consulted and informed. At rungs six and seven, the young people begin to have more power.

Rung six is where action is adult initiated and young people make the decisions. At rung seven young people lead and initiate action. Hart suggests the top rung of the ladder, rung eight, is the sharing of decision-making by young people and adults. Here, I suggest that there should be a rung nine. Ultimately, young people should make the decisions and inform the adults.

I endeavoured to work with children and young people initially at rungs four and five, coaching and delegating as they became more familiar with the possibilities available. I had to be sure that I was working on young people’s agendas and with their ideas and that they were not the mouth-pieces of local adults. As the project progressed, we all became more confident and we understood the remit for the project, children and young people took more responsibility. My role was often to curb the enthusiasm of the adults, who were keen to have their voices heard. I also had to take into account the fact that young people are often transient within communities. Part of their maturation process may be to move on and away from the community. An over-reliance on a few key young people would not be conducive to the long-term development of opportunities and facilities in the area.

Using a Community Development Process

Generally, when developing a project with children and young people, I work through a number of phases. I start with my familiarization I spend time getting to know the area, the people who live and work there, the facilities in the area, and the range of understandings of the issues in the area. Then I move on to an awareness raising and education phrase, exploring and challenging the attitudes of local authority officers, professionals, key residents and children and young people. Next I work at a political phase, again challenging the ideas and power-bases of professionals, local authorities, community leaders and councilors, with the intention of identifying openings for action, ‘windows of opportunity’. In the next phase, the youth work phase, I work more intensively with the children and young people to build skills in consultation, influencing, planning, organising and to develop their confidence. I also find ways to help them to ‘look over the fence’ at the possibilities, to ‘dream for real’ (Judy Ling Wong, 2002). Without this the children and young people would be limited by their current experiences, whether actual or seen through the media. I can then move into a consultation phase in which the children and young people are conducting interviews, distributing questionnaires, visiting other locations to gather and refine ideas, mapping, planning and making decisions. The final phase is writing the funding bid. This I do in conjunction with the children and young people, explaining what is required and supporting them in writing parts and collating these with illustrations and photographs. Here, I would hope to be working at Hart’s eighth rung. However, because my time in the project was limited and there were prescribed dates for the submission of funding bids, I worked with the phases concurrently.

The key issues I faced were the scepticism of some adults, the strong views of other adults about what might be developed, and the limited experience of many of the children and young people. To generate ideas, the children and young people visited other places, armed with cameras, so that they could share their findings. They looked through catalogues of play and open space equipment. They looked on websites of organisations that have developed  open spaces, such as the Forestry Commission (, Playlink (, the Free Play Network ( /playlink/placesforplay/bs.htm), and Play England ( resources/design-for-play.aspx ). Their ideas included more seating; a structure that could be used for climbing, sitting on and sheltering under; a row of rocks and boulders leading towards the wild area that could be sat on, scrambled on and climbed on; more planting; a performance area, for impromptu productions, and planned performances; more planting; fitness trails; a nature trail leading from the estate into the wild area; and camping and barbeque facilities in the wild area.


Unfortunately, the funding bid in which I was involved, was unsuccessful. However, my intention was that once action had started I would withdraw from the project, confident that the project to develop the open spaces would continue and evolve, and that the children and young people, with the support of the residents, would have ownership of these developments. Since my involvement, funding has been found for play rangers to work on the estate, supporting children to develop their play ideas. There have been litter-picking sessions and abandoned cars have been removed. Children and young people have held tree and bulb planting sessions. An outdoor gym has been constructed. Relationships between residents and the local authority are reported to have improved. It is impossible to assess the extent to which I was a catalyst. The important thing is that the community is gradually moving towards being a healthy community, in which quality of life for community members, the residents, is central, and that at least some young people have a sense of pride in and belonging to their estate.


Barr, A. and Hashagen, S. (2000) Achieving Better Community Development: A framework for evaluating community development. London: CDF publications.

Beunderman, J. (2010) People Make Play: The impact of staffed play provision on children, families and communities. London: Play England.

Crawford, A. (2009) Criminalizing Sociability through Anti-Social Behaviour Legislation: Dispersal powers, young people and the police. Youth Justice: An International Journal. 9,1, 5-26.

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Pretty, J., Angus, C., Bain, M., Barton, J., Gladwell, V., Hine, R., Pilgrim, S., Sandercock, G. and Sellens, M. (2009) Nature,: Childhood, health and life pathways. Colchester: University of Essex.

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Worpole, K. and Knox, K. (2007) The Social Value of Public Spaces. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Valentine, D. (2004) Public Space and the Culture of Childhood. Aldershot: Ashgate.

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