One of the questions I asked when we started working on ‘Who owns my neighbourhood?’ is whether any part of a neighbourhood should be unused. I’ve been thinking about how people view local land, what value they see in it, and whether our data can contribute something useful to this relationship between people and place.

 

I read something once (I think it was in the RSPB magazine) about how people view “empty” spaces. The writer pointed out that a property developer might view a green field as empty, whilst a conservationist might view the same field as being full – full of life and full of interest. This came to mind when we started looking at printed maps of our pilot area, on which the open green spaces appear as gaps between the printing, white nothingness, often devoid of labels or landmarks. I wondered how local residents would respond to that kind of representation.

Of course, for local residents these are not blank spaces at all – they are places that they know well. At a series of community events, we made about 50 recordings of people commenting about places on the map. The thing people talked about most often was how much they enjoyed using local green spaces of one kind or another.

A place to play

Walking to work

That little bit…

People had their own suggestions about how these spaces could be better used and cared for. We saw enthusiasm and expertise that local service providers are probably largely unaware of at present. We also heard from concerned residents who feel worried that decisions might be taken about their neighbourhood without their knowledge. For example, one lady said of the field next to her flat: “It’s the second time in two years that I’ve seen people standing there gesticulating and talking, as though they’re discussing what’s going on there… we were told that they couldn’t build on that.”

The question of abandoned, derelict or overgrown places arose a few times. People were mostly interested in seeing something done to make better use of disused buildings and untidy land, and were generally willing to get involved in doing something to help. We saw evidence that uncertainty over ownership is sometimes what prevents people from taking positive local action. A retired lady who lives opposite an overgrown green space said she has “itchy fingers” about getting out there and tackling it, but she asked: “would we be trespassing – would we get into trouble?”

Empty houses also drew people’s attention. People told us their concerns over derelict buildings attracting anti-social behaviour, but they also made suggestions about how things could be improved.

Old cottages

Art Deco house

A second home

 

If there’s someone in the community who can help make such suggestions a reality – be it a resident, owner, service provider, voluntary organisation or business – how do these interested parties find each other? What part can open data play in making that happen?

Our work with land ownership data in Kirklees has unearthed empty spaces of a different nature.  We’re looking at what data we have available and we’re trying to put it all together in a way that makes sense to people. Our base data is “acquisitions” and “disposals” of land, held separately until now. Our mapping team are using these two data sets to create a combined Land Ownership layer. This involves cutting away parts of the original acquisitions layer, leaving “holes in the map”.

Land that the council have disposed of is not tracked after it’s sold, so these land parcels are gradually removed. There are yet other bits of our map missing – for example, those places which the council didn’t own to begin with. So circumstance is already nibbling away at our map, but we’re trying to make sure that things don’t get lost down the folds.

One of the confusing things about council data is that it turns out there are actually many maps. Our search has revealed extra data that we hope to add, such as parks, conservation areas and woodlands. In some cases, there is an over-abundance of data (we have two separate sets of allotments data, held by two different council services) but in other cases we might not be able to use the data at all (for example, the council currently charges people for access to data about village greens, so we might not be able to display those on our map).

Now that we’ve got into it a bit, we’ve started to learn about the complexities of land ownership itself. Although the council might own a piece of land, it way be on lease (possibly for hundreds of years), there may be tenants, covenants and all manner of other confusion. It’s our job to try and help people to understand some of these complexities whilst still offering a simple and engaging interface that helps people to share what they know.

The sharing is the important part – because it’s local people who know how to fill in the holes in the map. They know the things that you can’t see by looking, such as where a Post Office once stood, where they built bonfires as children, and what local people’s aspirations are for the future.

Listening to people reminisce and imagine about these so-called empty spaces made me think that it isn’t just a question of whether any part of a neighbourhood should be unused, but also whether any part of a neighbourhood should be forgotten.

Diane Sims, Kirklees Council