Windmill Hill City Farm: people, places and sustainability

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10 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

News

View through a wreath made from tree shoots, over the allotments to a person and the greenhouse

Calvium has been speaking with leading figures who work at the intersection of people, place and sustainability, to share their ideas on how to achieve sustainable urban futures. 

Windmill Hill City Farm (WHCF) has been improving the health, wellbeing and life chances of local communities through education, recreation and therapy since 1976. Steve Sayers has been the charity’s chief executive for the past 12 years. He is also a trustee of Locality, a national membership network of 1,600 local community organisations, which provides specialist advice, peer learning, resources and campaigns to help communities thrive.

In this interview, Steve talks about WHCF’s multiple roles in the neighbourhood, what good community engagement looks like and how digital technologies might impact people’s experiences of the farm in future.

Photos and job titles for Steve and Jo Morrison

We are aware that Windmill Hill City Farm is thriving and a treasured place for its local communities. Can you paint a picture of the farm and its multiple roles in the neighbourhood?

Most people only encounter a small bit of WHCF and don’t get to see everything else that goes on. The obvious identity of the place is around the animals and gardens that people come to visit, so the primary audience tends to be families or preschool children. Things like the cafe are a big part of that visiting experience, and we also put on community events, such as arts and theatre events and comedy shows. I think the majority of people know that part of WHCF.

We have tenants and seven businesses – both national and local – that run from the site, but the biggest part of what we do is childcare. We’ve got a 94-place nursery and because we’re a charity it’s not just a private nursery space; we get very involved in the city’s panel system, looking at families that are in difficult circumstances and providing childcare through that as well.

Alongside that, we have health and social care work, with a big emphasis on supporting people with mental health challenges. They come in frequently to work in groups in the gardens and with the animals, getting a therapeutic kind of experience. We’ve also got the educational aspect, ranging from formal school lessons that can be brought into the farm, to more informal nurture-type activities – working with small groups of children who’ve got emotional challenges, for example. We also work with families in nearby flats who are crammed into small spaces or have been geographically displaced.

Beyond the walls of the farm, we help people engage with the developments that are going on around the neighbourhood, trying to make the world a better place to create a sense of place. So some placemaking thinking but also place-guarding. 

Butterfly wall mural with plant border in front

Sustainability, community and inclusivity are at the heart of the farm’s values. How does that manifest itself in the day-to-day experience and/or decision-making at the farm?

Environmental sustainability is central to what we do. We try to be exemplary where we can and the cafe is a beacon in that regard; it goes for as close to zero waste as we can get, it’s locally sourced, etc. But equally and at the same time, it’s trying to make sure we stay engaged with people, that sustainability isn’t seen as just a middle-class pursuit. It’s got to be something everybody can access and be part of.

Internally, we’ve got our in-house journey of improving our own farm credit and minimising carbon impact. We’re also trying to win resources to do things with the community and encourage community projects that can take that journey as well.

In terms of our role in the community, WHCF would be classed as a community anchor. One of the things that defines community anchors is around longevity and being embedded in the place. We were founded in 1976 and there’s a certain trust that builds up from the community; longevity is important in how people regard this place and connect to it.

Connecting to our communities is always quite hard because it’s a constant process of defining and redefining who those communities are, how they’re changing and what they want. We need to respond to that, but there’s a responsibility as a community organisation to do things individuals couldn’t do, so we also need to be leading change and gathering intelligence. Locality – which supports community organisations and where I am a trustee – is connected to Westminster, which means I can see and share things coming down the line, and that helps to shape our direction of travel.

We know that the built environment impacts health and that access to green spaces and natural spaces is associated with better health and wellbeing. Have you been able to measure the impact of the farm through the ‘health and wellbeing’ lens? If so, can you expand?  

A wealth of organisations have done the top-level work on whether engaging with the environment is good for your health, and we use that in terms of building our theory to change. We haven’t done research on that level because we tend to be doing the work rather than looking for the evidence. Where we do look for evidence is in the individual interactions we have with people. We’re very good at measuring the difference we make to people’s lives and keeping an eye on how well people do while they’re with us. We’re less good at measuring the impact of the whole. 

I would love to be able to say with absolute certainty that the farm has made its neighbourhood better – the same applies for the connection with health, access to green and wellbeing. I’m confident if we were to look and go knocking on doors, we could find that evidence. Unfortunately we haven’t got the resources to do it.

A row of tyres filled with plants

Looking to the future, extraordinary change is now happening in and around the Bedminster environment that will impact the farm and its communities. Can you talk about some of the planned changes and whether they have been designed with community in mind?

The way the Bedminster Green Redevelopment has come about particularly has been an exemplary model of how not to do community engagement and development. The whole thing has been bad from the start.

There are local planning groups and residents-led groups that took a deliberate stance on what the building should look like. The thing that was most exercising us was around this notion of placemaking and thinking what the entire area will look like, what the facility will be, how people will use it, etc. My biggest fear was around creating dormitories, in the sense of people sleeping there but living their lives somewhere else – going elsewhere to shop, to recreation, to work. 

I’m still banging that drum about needing to build community spaces into these developments. I don’t just mean a community hall, or a meeting room for residents of that block. There need to be places where people can get together – a library, yoga studio or community organisation, for example – and there need to be permeable, open spaces that everybody can flow through.

I worry we’re going to do the reverse by piling big tower blocks into new spaces without thinking about what infrastructure, such as GP surgeries or for wellness, goes with it. Not all these notions, like a 15 Minute-City, get really explored by the rush for big tower blocks, when it should be a great opportunity. It’s the speed of change. Things change and that’s fine, but when it changes quickly it can be disorientating.

In terms of community engagement and voice in the planning and design of future developments, what do you see as great practice? Can you give some examples from the local experience? 

The key thing is managing expectations in what is an exceptionally complex system. When doing a community consultation, the voices you get can only be used in certain and limited ways because that’s how the system is designed. You’ve got landowners, developers, the community, the local authority and planning, which are all tied into a framework with a predetermined performance that has to be gone through.

View over Windmill Hill to Bristol from park
Photo: Matt Buck

The Whitehouse Street Development is as good as it can be within the system that we’ve got. It started early, it’s asking questions at a broad and general level about what would be good in the area, and it’s coming up with some good recommendations; for example there needs to be no net loss of jobs in the area because of the development, and it needs to be a green space. The risk is that it ends up being a bit of motherhood and apple pie. Nobody’s going to disagree with it but what comes out at the end might not be what everybody thought it was going to be.

It’s how those ‘good’ things are interpreted. There might be the same number of jobs but they’re different than before and the people that can engage with those are a completely different demographic. If mechanics are pushed out to somewhere cheaper while more creative sector jobs are created, that inevitably changes the character of the neighbourhood.

Digital technologies are playing an increasing role in the lives of local residents, visitors and potential visitors. Is this influencing the ways that these groups engage with the Farm? How does it shape the way that you think about future place-based strategies and activities? 

I think quite a few people come to the farm to escape digital and interact with nature, so there’s a cohort around that. That said, we’re all using technology much more to augment our interaction with the world – even if it’s just using Google Maps to find out where the farm is.

Until now, we haven’t done many experiments in mediating people’s interaction with what we do. It’s a mixed picture but we are experimenting more to see how people use digital to interact, and how to build additional interpretation, greater understanding or meaningfulness to people’s experiences. 

That’s why I’m really excited by our new partnership with Calvium. We are planning to build a new digitally-mediated experience that will create new ways for our visitors to get to know the farm and build deeper relationships with it. We are using Calvium’s platform to create our own mobile app and the farm team will be supported to create the content. We are already imagining all sorts of adventurous ways for our local communities to engage with the farm, and in time we hope to involve them in content creation. 

 

Thank you for sharing your insights Steve. Putting local communities front and centre of development plans and creating spaces that have flexibility baked-in will help to achieve the types of healthy places we need. Windmill Hill City Farm plays a number of important roles in the local community and we can’t wait to work with you and your colleagues – and the pygmy goats!

Two pygmy goats eating hay

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