Below is an article I wrote for the Shelley Village Magazine about unused spaces and signage:
—————— “No Ball Games” —————–
I grew up on Westerley Way , number 21, the last semi-detached on the left as you’re driving down. Just after the house is a patch of grass on the left, with a sign saying ‘No Ball Games’. There hasn’t always been a sign there. People used to play on the grass. I grew up playing football with my mate Will Ryan on that inclined pitch and garden wall – SLAM! Will was Everton. I was Arsenal. Occasionally the ball would go over and we’d nip into my neighbour Edwina’s garden to covertly recover it, but I think Edwina didn’t really bother anyway. Just mind the window. We always played there. Dad would tell me to got to the football field, which was bigger, away from the road. But this always just seemed better. It was ours. Sometimes the ball went into the road, and you’d be tempted to chase after it, but this is how you learnt to be careful, that roads are dangerous – let the ball roll down to the bottom of the road then go get it safely. Game on again. S-L-A-M.
One neighbour didn’t like us playing football there though. He lived across the road, opposite the ‘pitch’. He’d open his blue front door and shout at us to stop playing and said he’d call the council. Said we weren’t allowed to play there. Said we’d break something. He was an old man and always seemed annoyed by kids. Maybe he was concerned for our safety, but to us he just seemed a grumpy old man. We just knew him as Wally. One day we broke Edwina’s window. I’m not sure who did it, but sure enough, the ball went over and “CRASH!”. I don’t know who got found out or grounded, or by whom, but the next week the sign appeared, right in the middle of the 6 yard line – “NO BALL GAMES”. We all thought Wally had got it put up. Maybe Edwina did. It was her window after all. But in our minds it was Wally. No one played there anymore.
It wasn’t like we were deprived of our only green space. We just played our games elsewhere: the footy pitch, the primary school pitch, the rec… Shelley is traditionally wealthy in great spaces for kids to play. We were, and still are, very lucky as a community. However, the effect of the “NO BALL GAMES” sign wasn’t just to stop us playing football there (and thus save Edwina’s windows); it deactivated the space. It was almost like someone put a sign up saying “NO PLAY” or “NO CHILDREN”, or even just “NO!”. People didn’t even cut across it like they used to, except to let the dog do business. Save for the occasional grass cutting to keep it looking tidy, it was largely unused, and became a kind of unoffensive wasteground. The council seemed to have ownership of it, but no-one else did. Our imaginations didn’t apply there anymore. We had no psychological ownership of the space. Often I would kick the sign, or try and wrestle it free. It was just too fixed. Since then both space and sign have remained in a kind of stasis – stuck.
Recently I’ve been working in Liverpool with communities along the Leeds – Liverpool Canal. Many grew up playing by the canal – even teaching each other to swim – but now they don’t go down there. “It’s not clean”, “it’s dangerous”. Some people don’t even know why they don’t go, they’ve just forgotten it was there. We’ve been trying to tease out people’s memories and experiences (good and bad) of the Canal. From this we try and encourage imaginative thinking about what could happen there, what they’d like to see, from the real to the surreal. Some people say “Fill it in”. Most people say initially “Clean it up”. We try and push them past their initial ideas, to new ideas, bigger ideas: “barge trips”, “a boat race” “a nature trail”, “a pirate ship!”, “an inflatable bridge!”. We do this to foster a sense of pschological ownership of what has become a ‘dead’ space, and to start thinking about what is possible rather than what isn’t.
Back to Shelley. Since the sign was put up as a kid, I’ve always tried to pull it out, put to no avail. This summer I kicked the sign and noticed it was really wobbly, but like an annoying tooth, it still wouldn’t come out. However, Last night I was walking by the patch of grass with my brother and his kids. It offended me to see the sign, so took I to it, not expecting much. But this time it gave easily, and I wrenched it free like Excalibur being pulled from the stone. My strength had grown! In fact it was just rusted and broke and the base. Still, I was amazed and delighted. I’d wanted to do that for nearly 20 years. Part of me still isn’t sure what I did was the right thing. Really what I did was vandalism. But the bigger part of me is sure and can live with that. That sign did nothing that useful in my opinion. I was smart enough to realise that when i was 9.
The great thing about kids is they have imagination. To other people it was just a piece of grass, but to me and Will it was Highbury Stadium or Goodison Park. Sure we broke a window, but the neighbour / village / council could have responded differently. A net could have been put up, for instance, to protect the window, and play could have continued. But instead a play area was closed down. No loss. We have enough though already don’t we? Do we? Architect Aldo Van Eyck (1918 – 1999) created 700 public playgrounds on old bombsites and demolition wastegrounds in Amsterdam. They were carefully but minimally designed, with bars, sand pits, benches, climbing frames etc. Playgrounds for kids, and old people too. A playground is a space of possibility, with no hierarchy or rules or restrictions. We have a really nice one at the top of Westerley (the rec’). But we could have about 10. Or 20. Or 50. Shelley could be the Yorkshire Capital of Play!
As I said earlier, in Shelley we are extremely lucky with the amount of spaces we have, and the community we have overall. We don’t need ‘playgrounds’ per se as we have such great natural environments to play in (the woods was always my favourite). I would also guess that most people are happy with what we have here. But still I believe we should think about how we define spaces, for all generations. We should be careful with our restrictions, rules and fences, and the messages we send (is that new fence around the primary school to protect the kids or us? Do we want them to feel like prisoners?). We can reactivate ‘forgotten spaces’ and open up new ones. Shelley is great in that it has an active community association that constantly aims to listen to peoples’ needs and improve public spaces. I would encourage people to think big, use their imaginations, not just about ‘dead’ spaces, but the whole of shelley in general. Be vocal. What would you like here?, What do you want to see?
The next time you walk or drive past that patch of grass on Westerley, I want you to think about memories you had when you were a kid. Then I want you to think about what could be there. Don;t just stop at, a garden, or a sandpit, or. In Liverpool this summer we saw a giant spider walking through the city. Push you’re imagination a bit. It might not be immediately possible, but what is the alternative? Do you really want to go in the other direction, and re-erect the sign saying ‘No Ball Games’?