Arriving at Bench Road Park in Fairfield on the hottest day of the year, it was wonderful to see the area alive with the sounds of children playing and parents chatting.
This once neglected and derelict park was now a hive of activity following its recent refurbishment. Gone was the rundown play area, replaced with smart new equipment. The empty, unused green space next to it had been transformed into a multipurpose area for all generations to use. Whilst the existing skate park now felt like it was being used alongside everything else rather than in isolation.
But it’s been about more than just sprucing up the park. The process has created a catalyst for change in Fairfield. People have come together with a strong vision of what they want this space to be and are taking ownership of building opportunities for the whole community.
Today, people were eating healthy picnic lunches provided by FairShare. Children and parents were completing scavenger hunts through Family Mile and exploring how to use new play equipment. People were sat chatting with their neighbours.
Here’s how it all happened….
A new vision
Sally Curly is a Project Officer for High Peak Borough Council, managing the development of parks and open spaces. When Bench Road Park was earmarked for development it led to a new way of working.
Sally said: “In the past, when we’ve identified sites which need upgrading we’ve consulted with people but it’s been very much about doing things like questionnaires and getting feedback on designs. We’ve involved local people but it’s not been as part of the whole journey.
“Because we know Lia – chair of the Residents of Fairfield Association (ROFA) – the first port of call was to her to say, let’s do this together, who can we involve?
“Coming up here and being part of the community has made a big difference. It’s really easy to pick a venue you know and ask people to come to it. It was key we were up here using local venues like the ROFA office or the school which people were very familiar with.
“On those first meetings people were a bit guarded and thinking oh here we go again they’re going to tell us what we’re having. When it became clear that wasn’t the case they started to relax a bit and were more happy to chat about things. It also helped them have the confidence to say if they thought something wasn’t right.
“There’s a real community feel now. Before it was very much an open space people could use but it didn’t feel very community focused. Today you’ve got some younger children here, some older children and a mixture of adults and children. It’s a space where people will stay, there’s much more for people to do.”
A warm feel on a rainy day
A launch event for the park showed a glimpse into its place in the community. Even with the weather misbehaving everyone still turned out to celebrate. Shift Community Builder Emma explains:
“On the day it was absolutely throwing it down with rain but there were loads of people here. It was really nice they came out to celebrate even though the weather was a bit grim, grey and drizzly.
“We had a face painter and some small games. The local leisure centres also came out to show people how to use the new play equipment and someone to do parkour to show older children how the equipment could be used in a different way.
“The nicest thing was we’d set up some simple target games with cones and hoops which were really engaging local boys. Lia was really keen for this to be something local mums could do so we’ve bought the same equipment and it’s being kept at ROFA for people to use. It’s all really colourful. They can just pick up and use it. It’s sustainable play now. That came from showing how simple it is just to grab a bag and off you go. It’s hours of play and can be used for years and years creatively in many different ways.”
A vision for the future
Lia Roos has been the chair of the Residents of Fairfield Association for the last 18 years and manages numerous volunteering initiatives for local residents. As she circles the park handing out ice pops she’s bought from the shop and listening to children shout her name, it’s clear she’s a really central part of this community.
Lia says: “I moved to Fairfield as a single mum. I know how hard you have to struggle to make ends meet so I’ve always been an auntie or grandma figure around here.
“I love helping people to help themselves. I don’t agree with providing everything for everyone because if you take it away when the funding ends what have you got? Nothing. And you’ve learnt nothing.”
Lia explains what it’s been like developing the new park.
“I’ve been involved in meetings for so many years now I can’t even remember. This has been so wonderfully successful and incredibly different because it involved the people it was aimed at. They felt a part of it right from the word go and it’s not finished yet.
“I’m Italian and in Italy we have community parks. We call them health courses and they’re just like this but on a bigger scale. Just a track around some rough equipment but everyone uses it because everyone believes in physical activity. Young mums push their prams around, old ladies in wheelchairs are pushed around, athletes run round. It suits everyone.
“This is what we now have on a smaller scale. It’s flat enough for a wheelchair or zimmer frame. The elderly become socially isolated and lonely. I can get them down here on their zimmer frames but they need somewhere to sit so we’re installing two benches.
“Then we can start getting them doing some gentle exercise and we can get the younger people interacting too.
“Those who are more able are going to feel safe to come down to the park for an hour. We can do picnic on the park for the elderly. There’s so much we can do to make everyone feel a part of the community. It is a true community park. It can only go from strength to strength.”
A safe place to bring children
Vanessa Marshall and Alicia Curry are local mums who’ve lived in Fairfield all their lives. They explain what a difference the new park has made to them.
Vanessa said: “Fairfield is a really nice community. Everybody gets on and helps each other. The park used to be a really little thing and it was used by teenagers for drugs and drinking. I didn’t let my kids come up here.
“Emma and Lia asked us what we’d like to see on the new park and what would make it better. It was good to have the opportunity to have our say because we can see some of the things we suggested have been done.
“There are activities for all ages now. You’ve got this area with the gym equipment and the skate park for the older ones and little slides for the smaller ones. There are more activities going on now like picnic days which is great. We wanted it fenced off to make it safe which has been done too.
“My kids come up here nearly every single day now if it’s nice.”
Alicia said: “It’s ten times better now. We just wanted to see it a lot cleaner with no idiots hanging about so kids could feel safe up here. That’s the main thing which has been achieved.”