This is a letter from Julian Hoffam to:
Angela Constance MSP
Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security & Equalities
St. Andrew’s House
September 8th, 2016
Dear Ms. Constance,
I’m currently writing a book called Irreplaceable to be published by Hamish Hamilton and Penguin Books, which explores those places of great significance – to both wildlife and human communities – that are increasingly being lost from our immediate surroundings. It examines what those losses might mean in terms of a diminished sense of belonging, wonder and experience in our lives. As part of my research I travelled to Glasgow in June 2016 to spend four days in North Kelvin Meadow and the Children’s Wood in order to hear the story of this threatened place for inclusion in the book. I wanted to understand, as best I could, the deep connections that have been forged between local people and those transformed municipal football pitches. I wanted to get a sense of what the place, as it is now, means to them — and what its potential loss would entail. In the end, however, I returned home from that journey having learned more about gain than loss, seeing first-hand the extraordinary and wide-reaching benefits that can be attained when positive communal efforts transform not only a place but also the lives around it.
I’ve travelled to many parts of the UK and other regions in the world over the three years that I’ve been writing this book, and in all that time I can honestly say that I’ve never experienced a place that evoked so much immediate joy and tangible sense of community as the one currently under threat in Kelvinside, a testament, I believe, to the passionate and selfless work done on its behalf by a large and diverse number of people in the area. Their efforts are commendable particularly because they are communal. To see a place so clearly loved and enjoyed by so many is a reminder of the great potential for community in urban areas, a well-spring of opportunity that so often goes untapped for countless reasons. This was immediately apparent in the network of friendships that have sprung up around the meadow, in a part of the city where many neighbours, as I was told more than once, had little or no connection to one another prior to the transformation of the place and the campaign to preserve it. The meadow is the hinge on which so many other things open; without it, like the loss of a village square of old, an inimitable link would be broken.
Alongside its value as an important natural space in the city, where forest school classes have been immensely successful and bats swept above the meadow at dusk during my stay, part of the beauty of the North Kelvin Meadow is its inclusivity. There is a belief that it belongs to all. Nowhere have I interviewed a group of teenagers who proudly spoke about having such a personal stake in a place, honestly revealing that without it they would in all likelihood be hanging around city streets and alleys at night. Nowhere else have I been told by a young girl that a wood felt like the safest place in the world to her outside of her home. “I can feel free here,” she said as we sat beneath the gleaming birches of the Children’s Wood, the laughter of other children ringing through the air around us. And nowhere else have I known a man in his 70s who, for many years and without acknowledgement, pay or being asked to, has quietly gone about cleaning the rubbish bags from the meadow each day as his way of making a difference to the place – time and commitment being his personal investment in its fragile future. This is a place that brings out and sustains the best in people – enabled by the freedom of its space to feel at home while being supportive of others through its inspiring co-operative history.
This vision of openness and inclusion has engendered a remarkable degree of respect for the place from its various users and cultivated a sense of duty and care within the community as a whole. It’s a timely reminder of what our finest civic spaces should aspire to. At any given time I could find dog walkers, book readers and chatting parents in the wood. An hour later I might find myself talking to elderly, working-class gentlemen out for a stroll, or older, middle-class ladies who’d arrived having heard they could see wild orchids in the meadow. An hour after that I could speak to those teenagers I mentioned earlier, squatted beside their bikes and smoking cigarettes, or sit around a firepit and listen to people sharing stories and strumming guitars. And come morning I could walk with children through the leafy, sunlit wood and be able to peer for a few moments through a magical window of possibility as they described with their own eyes, words and experiences what they loved about the place so much. In an age when social exclusion, nature deficit and health issues such as obesity and depression are still sadly common, the meadow is laudable for being a shared space in which people are able to come together and contribute in meaningful ways, exercise in a stimulating and welcoming environment, deepen friendships and make positive local connections, grow fresh vegetables and share in the healthy fruits of the community orchard, and explore the natural world in ways that can cultivate an entire lifetime of wonder for a child. These real and enriching possibilities are irreplaceable, the very bedrock of personal and societal well-being. For such a small urban place, transformed and maintained not by a government agency but by motivated and caring citizens, its benefits are beyond measure – a community space that a council should be immensely proud to have in its city.