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Examining brownfield land use for social and environmental justice

Keele historian Dr Ben Anderson has been working with local community interest company Urban Wilderness to investigate the potentially-transformative role of brownfield sites for the UK’s most deprived urban communities.

The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the hidden inequalities of access to green space in our inner cities, a burden often borne by those most vulnerable to both catching and succumbing to the disease. Young people have, however, faced particular challenges in accessing green space, with early research suggesting that teenagers feel under particular surveillance from adults, and are consequently reluctant to leave often unsatisfactory home environments which, in many urban places, lack gardens.

Brownfield sites – access to which is often informal and unofficial – offer a valuable resource to these communities, even as they are under threat from development. Though an increasing number of community projects focus on their constructive use, academics have been slow to investigate this social value, preferring instead to focus on their significant environmental and ecological diversity.

In April 2020, the project brought together community projects from across the North West through a virtual event to discuss how the social value of these sites could be expressed, communicated, and improved for young people. During the event they discussed how the community management of these sites could be improved in ways that include the often marginal communities involved, and in particular legitimised young people’s presence.

The Urban Commons Charter has been created as a result of the collaboration, and sets out the guiding principles that communities should adopt to successfully manage the use of the brownfield land. The charter represents an important first step in research that has the potential to shift attitudes and perspectives to brownfield sites as places of social, as well as environmental importance.

This research builds on the existing collaborations of Dr Anderson and other Humanities colleagues with Stoke-on-Trent’s vibrant co-creative arts scene, which often delivers performances within deprived communities in derelict or disused spaces. This has included the SEAMS Memories of Mining project, and the Feral Futures project at Burslem canal port which introduced over 150 people to the interaction of young people with brownfield land. Dr Anderson is also working with Claybody’s Dirty Laundry podcast, which aims to explore how the environmental heritage of the potteries industry connects to contemporary social, political and health concerns.

To hear more about Urban Wilderness, listen to podcasts at

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