Alison Somerset-Ward - Community Engagement Officer, Living with Nature

Alison Somerset-WardAlison Somerset-Ward

Alison Somerset-Ward is the Community Engagement Officer for the Living with Nature Team and spoke to us about the nature of the project, community response and how work is progressing.

Living with Nature is a three year project to improve play and recreational facilities on designated council and social housing land.

In what ways do you involve the local communities in your projects? 

Every way we possibly can really, to a greater or lesser degree. The Living with Nature project covers 24 sites across Sheffield and they’re all sites associated with City Council housing and social housing. Initially it was a partnership with Sheffield Homes which was an arm’s length organisation, Sheffield City Council, The Wildlife Trust and Sheffield University .Now it is just the three partners, the Council, the Sheffield Wildlife trust and the university. So these local communities are rooted in social housing regardless of whether they rent or are tenants. It’s not really just about residents though, it’s about other organisations which exist within those communities. Not just the people who live there but the people who work there and the people who visit. There is a vast array of people in and out all the time. So we do what we can. How we do that is, we try very hard to engage with a very important part of the community, schools.
The initial 8 sites, we invested more time and energy in, just because they’re the sites which have been prioritised, where capital works have to be delivered and engagement with the community is more important there because actual physical changes will take place, over the course of the project. Because we are not down to do capital works on the other 16 sites, changes can be made over time, as and when they would like them to. What they get out of the project is an initial engagement plan where we try to gather information from as many people as possible and feed that to a landscape architect, who then designs a plan basically. They get a plan designed by Simon Fagg (Living with Nature’s project coordinator) which includes their ideas, their issues, whatever they think about. And in return we try to offer them an aspirational view of what could happen in their space. We show them spaces which have worked well in a similar sort of space elsewhere, to illustrate how their particular space could work. Engagement is really good because you need to hear and listen to what people are telling you, particularly in some of the spaces where there are real issues with antisocial behavior, of all kinds. That’s the main issue and you can’t disregard what people tell you so however much you might want to do something, local knowledge is the key to everything. It can be a curse as well though where you know something would work well but there is such a level of opposition to it that you can’t. So it’s a balance of listening to what people say and also suggesting ‘why don’t we try this?’

And how important is the input from local people and communities?

Massively important, because they have loads of local knowledge. People also know what they want as well. Their input is important but they also need to be guided in some ways, by professionals, who may be a bit more knowledgeable about some of the issues, not everything. The worst thing you can possibly do is go in like you know everything or start being the ‘big I am’, because people know immediately. We had an incident at a new site recently where a woman was very unhappy about any change happening at all; she said ‘you can’t just come and put your middle class ideas in this area. You don’t know what it’s like living here’ and I thought maybe she’s got a point. You have to listen, look and see first what’s happening and then you have to think ‘is this right for this space?’ If I lived here, do I suddenly want to attract tones more people to a space just outside my window? Do I? If I’m elderly and bedridden do I want a new piece of equipment that’s going to be covered in children all day? Do I want that? So again, it’s all about balance and trying to find that which is right for as many people as possible. So even if you don’t agree with an idea, it’s about trying to get the best of what they (the community) want and supporting local people and trying to get the best for them and their kids and the whole community really.

Can you describe an example of where a Living with Nature project has enriched its local community? 

Yes, I think every space we’ve worked on and every event that we do even if it’s something really small, if it’s positive and its happening and people are enjoying it and being outdoors together then that’s it. That’s what it does. So yeah I think every time someone comes out and plays with us it enriches the community, whether they’re on their own or not or a few more kids are using the space, or there’s less dog muck or less litter, that’s enriching the community. It’s a very simple thing I think.

Has the current financial climate had any effect on your work?

Yes I think so. I think it’s affecting everybody but we’ve found it challenging to get work to do capital works that’s for sure. For a number of reasons different funders sometimes put new criteria in place and we sometimes struggle with that. On a wider scale I think there’s a lot less money around to do things like play schemes and holiday play. So in some spaces we’re perhaps the only organisation to be putting anything on and that’s a shame, but sometimes financial hardship can make people more creative. It makes us more creative in trying to get the best value out of a project.

Finally, what do you find most rewarding about your work... and why?

Seeing people enjoy being outside together, seeing places. Small triumphs, like doing something thinking ‘that’s not going to last 5 minutes’, then going back 6 months later and seeing it’s still there! (Laughs) Nobody nicked the plants! Positive feedback too, like when people let you know they appreciate what you’re doing. Seeing people picking up dog muck and litter, seeing that they care about the space, that’s very rewarding. There are loads of things though. Every time you go out and do an event, something rewards you for being there so I think it’s ongoing. It’s nothing big, just knowing that something in people’s brains is slightly altered about how they feel about being outdoors in their own spaces really, that’s it.