Trip to Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

On Friday 18th March 2016, SWLEN organised a tour to Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park in Mile End, East London for Friends groups from Richmond Borough.

The trip was an initiative to see the work of another very successful and well established group managing a large green space in East London with similar circumstances to many of the green spaces in Richmond Borough that groups support. THCP was chosen as it is an important historic site, engages energetically with the public, with volunteers, outdoor education and biodiversity.

The tour, led by Park Manager Ken Greenway, gave us an important and inspiring insight into the long term management of this popular and successful urban green space and the everyday activities and events that happen.

We went along with Friends Groups from Barnes Common, North Sheen Rec, Crane Park, Kneller Gardens and River Crane Environment.

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park is one of the seven Victorian Cemeteries in London, with 31 acres of beautiful and atmospheric woodland in the heart of East London. Opening in 1841, Tower Hamlets Cemetery is a designated park, Local Nature Reserve and Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation. THCP works with 3000 volunteers who help maintain a home for rare and endangered species of plants and animals for local people and they welcome 7500 school children who use the park to learn and enjoy.

With their three core themes of nature, people and education, the Friends run over 170 events each year, including guided walks, family friendly events, history events, forest school, fairs and volunteer events.

The incredible history of the Park is evident through the gravestones and burial monuments. “You can go around the world in two hours here” Ken said. This resonant history is not just relevant to the descendants of the people buried here, but to all of us, to the city of London and our collective history.
The Friends receives funding from Tower Hamlets Council for maintenance and litter collection in the park, and they raise money through corporate volunteers coming to work there too. The charity also takes on horticultural contracts in the neighbourhood for housing providers, consultancy work, other gardens and wildlife planting. But the work always stays within the mission of THCP which is to share the park.

The Soanes Centre near the entrance of the park provides a fantastic indoor welcoming and friendly social space for workers, school children, volunteers and visitors. During our visit, people of all ages and backgrounds were coming and going. There’s information, spaces to meet in, to make drinks and have lunch, for tools and equipment and for learning.

The park is right in the centre of a dense area of housing with many people using the park, and we were really interested to learn how Ken and his team managed all the various pressures on the green space.

 

Here’s a list of some of the things that were particularly inspiring and interesting:

– staff and volunteers being visible and present in the park giving it a sense of ownership and constant care, maintaining a daily presence so the neighbourhood knows who they are and that people are caring for the space

– their branded clothing ‘Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park’ helps people know and identify them, with people coming and going all day so there is a constant flow of staff and volunteers through the park

– welcoming and encouraging volunteers of all ages and backgrounds

– the importance of an indoor space to host everyone that provides a social, information and work focus

– a notice in the centre saying where they are working in the park that day

– creating a set of postcards for sale of the park through the seasons, designed by children

– a balance between paid and free events, so out of 180 events they run, 130 are free and 50 events are charged – “if you want things to happen, for the park to be here, you have to pay something for it.”

– innovation in events and activities, for example combining food with nature, ‘Dinner, dinner, batman’ – a bat walk with dinner!

– the park is open at night, with the installation of kissing gates allowing people free access. This stopped people breaking into the park.

– stopping any access to motorbikes through entrance design and posts to stop mopeds riding in or through the park

– borrowing ideas from visiting other green spaces and nature reserves

– using changeable A4 display boards that unclip so you can easily change the information according to the season or if something particular is happening

– being receptive to hosting public artworks – the bench was installed for free in the park through Annin Arts and a broker agency

– a tolerance to what people do in the park as long as it doesn’t damage, disturb others or the wildlife

– a constant vigilance and attention to the whole space, with a ‘cracked window pane’ approach to repairing and responding immediately to any anti-social behaviour

– their approach to trouble: make it known to the people doing it that you know what they’re doing and why they shouldn’t be doing it.  For example, if people are sleeping rough, Ken collects all their stuff, keeps it back at the centre and puts up a sign saying that sleeping rough is not allowed in the park and they can come and get their stuff to take it away, and he leaves a phone number they can call for support if they are homeless. Or for cruising or alcohol abuse, to leave a laminated sign in the location saying that the park staff know what’s happening, and asking people to clear up after themselves and not to come back. To make visible what others are trying to make invisible means you deter them, because you’ve drawn attention to it. They have also contacted local support groups and networks to communicate about behaviour they don’t want in the park.

– Ken is very affable, energetic, friendly and approachable as a park manager and avoids the more traditional role of a park officer.

 

Our thanks to Ken and Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park for an inspiring and insightful tour. We took lots of ideas and good practice away with us and really enjoyed the morning in this special place.