Walking a different path: An alternative approach to neighbourhood walking

Approaches to enouraging people to walk in their neighbourhoods are failing to inspire people, argues WARG, the Walking Around Research Group (fb), which formed out of a project we undertook in early 2017, funded by West Yorkshire Combined Authority. Over the course of three workshops, the project introduced local people to Experimental Walking techniques from psychogeography and performance art, with a view to inspiring people to get outside and discover new things about familiar, or not so familiar places. This was conceived in contrast to the traditional approaches of focusing on the health and social benefits of walking, which have little connection with the urban landscape and

In the first workshop, we introduced concepts from psychogeography, mythogeography, street performance and tactical urbanism in a non-technical way, with a view to how these might be applied in the local area. This generated a number of ideas which were worth following up, and were geographically concentrated in two areas in the north and south of the neighbourhood, reflecting in some way its current divide between the northern part, fringing the city centre and home a Media Centre, tech. companies and a craft brewery; and the south, featuring some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country. From our perspective, the foci were on the mostly culverted Hol Beck in the north and the M621 urban motorway in the south.

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Annotated map of Holbeck with activities suggested by residents, and showing the clustering around the M621

Interestingly, having started out with the idea of walking in mind, it was the tactical urbanism and public space actions from the introductory presentation that caught the imagination of the attendees, with various ideas surfacing for actions which could take place around the M621 and areas of back-to-back housing.

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The M621 motorway dominates part of Holbeck and its relationship with areas further south. Workshop participants were keen on an intervention taking place here, with ideas including a dinner party
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In the first workshop, ‘greening’ interventions were suggested for The Recreations (pictured), one of the most highly deprived locations (Super Output Areas) in England

In two subsequent workshops, we investigated these ideas further, firstly by attempting to trace the course of the Hol Beck, long culverted for much of its length, and trying to solve the mystery of the location of the house of industrialist Matthew Murray, for which two separate locations have claims. A second, focused on the motorway and the Moor and green spaces, ending up with the subway beneath the M621 and a terrace of houses saved from demolition as ‘collateral damage’ during the clearance of back-to-back housing.

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Looking for evidence of pipework at one of the putative sites for Matthew Murray’s house, whose location is disputed and which had pipework supplying heat from the Round Foundry
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new social housing along the edge of Holbeck Moor

While bringing in local people and having some interesting discussion, there was a sense of inconclusiveness in that we had not finished with a single definitive walk for the Jane’s Walk Festival which we brought to Leeds for the first time in May, as we’d intended, but instead a series of points, something which we had to work creatively with on order to deliver something meaningful and coherent for the Festival.

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Cambrian Terrace, a street of solid terraced housing almost demolished along with the back-to-back housing around it as part of a Comprehensive Redevelopment

The final walk we produced for the Festival was focused on the area around the M621, starting from the Holbeck Working Mens Club (fb) and taking in the Moor, Cambrian Terrace, the M621 itself and going uphill to Holbeck Cemetery to watch the sunset.

However, we also ended with a sense of it being difficult to engage people in the area despite our partner’s existing connections to community groups. While it is well known that community engagement in deprived areas is difficult (as an example, levels of participation in voluntary organisations are lowest in the most deprived areas, and this is one of the easiest ways to reach out to a local area), we adopted an experimental approach in a project with limited resources for outreach. In seeking to co-create a community walk, we had tried to engage local people through conversation with community groups, with people on the street and in local businesses, but despite having existing connections through our partner’s earlier work in Holbeck, we would always be disadvantaged by being outsiders to the area and by the power relationships that come with arriving in a consultancy role. Nevertheless, we left with at least some understanding of what we could improve on should we have the opportunity to revisit this work, and we have the legacy of both WARG and the Jane’s Walks from the project to carry forward, of which there will be more in the future.

The Holbeck walk project was funded by West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s go:walking stream with assistance from Living Streets, and was carried out in association with Friends of Holbeck Cemetery and Simonspace

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