Some like it Splott

A disused Splott public park is on track to become the city’s most exciting, multi-functional community space. But it’s proving to be a bit of a roller coaster ride for the determined women of Green City Events.

If you’re a Splottonian or Adamsdowner the chances are you’ve heard of the community venture that intends to make use of a strip of unused land off Railway Street – at least, I hope you have.

It sounds like something that might happen in Canton. In many ways Adamsdown and Splott are playing catch-up with other districts of Cardiff.

Yes, Splott has a famous market (which hosts the biggest indoor raves in the UK) and a discreet TV studio, and Clifton Street is a bustling high street but they don’t have the same facilities, or as nice or as many social or green spaces enjoyed by others. (Both have a deficit of open recreational space of 19.5% and 12.6% respectively, compared to the standard requirement.)

Splott’s pubs have disappeared. A notable piece of non-religious Splott architecture, the 1904 Splott University Settlement building, was allowed to be flattened. So when something this exciting is mooted for this area, people rightly sit up and take notice.

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Google Maps satellite view of the site before railway and bridge works had finished.

A short walk from Splott Road and Clifton Street, there’s a quarter-of-an-acre (by my reckoning) site that runs along the railway tracks for about 240 feet (73 metres). It’s about 60 feet (18 metres) across at its widest point. Until a few years ago it was overgrown and all but forgotten.

Yet this space, which is accessed from the north end of Adeline Street, near to what was until 2010 the Cardiff Arms pub, was once a park, having been gifted to the city by Network Rail in the 1990s. Technically it still is a park but sadly antisocial behaviour caused it to be shut a long time ago.

Plans to bring this scrap of land to life were first made public by sustainable events company Green City Events in late 2017, but it was their very public petition last autumn when its future as a community space was in doubt that brought it to the attention of a wider audience, myself included.

Last week I visited Becca Clark, co-director of the Community Interest Company at her lovely Railway Street home to find out more about the project, before she showed me the space itself, little more than a stone’s throw from where she lives.

“Since I moved in this is the first time there hasn’t been overnight piling work going on,” says Becca. “You’d wake up and could imagine a giant monster walking around Splott shaking the ground.”

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Becca on site, April 2019

Having spied the overgrown space shortly after moving to the street, in 2015 Becca sought advice from CLAS (Community Land Advisory Service), which exists to enable local people to access, own and improve green spaces in their area.

CLAS gained assurance from Cardiff Council at that time that once Network Rail and Carillion had finished using the land for the Splott Bridge and electrification works keeping Becca and her neighbours awake at night, it would be given over for community use.

Becca thought that Green City is well placed to drive the project forward. “We want it to be a community led project and create jobs for the community, but we believe Green City should drive it and act as a facilitator and do the boring bits – the legal stuff and sorting funding.”

Becca spoke to the people using the site who were happy to leave it as she wanted. “Network Rail completely cleared it and gravelled it, and installed paths and electrics. The space was a lot bigger than I initially thought,” says Becca, who came to Cardiff as a student and never left.

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Canvassing opinions. Image credit: Green City Events

Prompted by the Council, Becca and Green City co-director Hannah, who also lives on Railway Street, carried out community consultations in Splott and in Adamsdown that were attended, impressively, by 130 people.

“We’ve had so many local groups get in touch wanting to help or use the space, and individuals have been in touch to offer their skills,” says Becca. “And the local Councillors have been really, really supportive. Jane Henshaw, Ed Stubbs, Owen Jones, and council leader Huw Thomas, have gone above and beyond to help us with this.”

Clearly others were also excited about what could be done with the land. Ignorantly I assumed this would be little more than a community garden. Oh no.

“We received loads of really good suggestions,” she says. “There was demand for an alternative community hub that had shared kitchen facilities, a space for workshops and for groups, an event space for outdoor cinema and supper clubs. There was a need for growing space and green space. Folks suggested a wild play area for young children, a tool library, a chicken coop, and beehives. It started to get really exciting.

“We thought there’s no reason why we can’t put all these things together to create a site that is multi-functional, that encourages many different people from the community to come here on a regular basis, not just one group or a certain type of person,” says Becca, who is also excited about the space showcasing and sharing sustainable living skills – such as the use of grey water, solar panels, as well as growing food.

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A blank canvas, April 2019

“As local Councillors, we’re delighted to see the scope of ambition that Green City Events is setting out for this site,” Huw Thomas told I Loves The ‘Diff.

“As a former playground that was closed over ten years ago due to anti-social behaviour, this site was crying out for some TLC, and we’re pleased that we were able to persuade the Council of the strength of opportunity.

“The Council has talked for a while about being a ‘co-operative Council’ and I think projects like this give life to those words, with ordinary people coming together to achieve – I have no doubt – extraordinary things.”

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The Bone Yard in Canton. Image by resident business Free Range Frames

Jodie and Bryce Davies (the latter perhaps better known as street artist Peaceful Progress) who own shipping container co-working sites The Bone Yard and Bridge Studios, will rent and sublet the site’s containers to small businesses. The money from this will go back into the project. The aim is the community hub to be financially sustainable.

“Jodie and Bryce are amazing ‘do-ers’,” says Becca. “Their experience has fed into our designs to ensure we create the best working space possible. They’ve had some great ideas.”

There’s already a list of people eager to rent a shipping container, but the team is keen to “curate” the right types of locals and social enterprises to best suit and benefit what they’re helping and hoping to create.

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Derailment averted

Already it’s been a long road for Becca just to reach this point – barely the beginning. ‘Very excited’ tweets and site visits have been going on since late 2017.

She tells me that she’s heard of other community groups that had previously shown an interest in the site but didn’t get very far. But then I doubt many people have the dogged determination and stamina that Green City has shown.

Despite all the work of the public consultation and comprehensive project proposal to convince the Council and potential funders, and the many meetings, derailment of the project seemed inevitable last year.

After workmen left the site in July 2018, Becca was informed by the Council that it would not be making the land available for community use after all, due to its potential for development.

“At that point I did feel like giving up because it had been years that I’d been knocking on this door and getting nowhere,” says Becca.

Fortunately, the CLAS representative, Lucie Taylor, convinced her not to keep going and recommended for her to start a petition. It quickly garnered more than 3,000 signatures, spurred a lot of social media activity, and ruffled a few features at the Council.

The petition probably helped to speed up the process whereby the Council’s strategic estates office undertook a valuation and assessment of the land. It quickly concluded that it could not be sold for development, and in December it declared that the community could use the land. Hooray!

Yet even this week (Green City has received “disappointing news”, having missed out on cash from the Welsh Government Landfill Disposal Community Fund. “We are gutted and this is a bit of a setback for the project,” the women tweeted. “We may be upset but we are not defeated!” That’s the spirit.

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And behind-the-scenes work is certainly moving things forward. Currently the 20-year lease is currently being sorted (it’s now with the Council’s lawyers), a steering group is being established, and they have chosen a name – which is not being made public yet. (But we loves it.)

They’re also doing the layout and design with Cardiff-based practice ALT-Architecture. This coming Saturday there’s an opportunity to have your say on the hub’s design, at the Repair Café at Oasis at 69B Splott Road between 10am and 1pm. (FB link here.)

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The initial site drawings look great. The architects’ ethos is “to create buildings and places which are coherently simple, elegantly composed, progressive and imaginative, intrinsically sustainable and, most importantly, embrace the spirit of place”. Sounds wonderful, not to mention challenging given how many activities and purposes must be accommodated.

That said, the site when we visit it does seem massive. Since everything will be built up off the contaminated ground, the planting beds will be raised, and their walls will offer seating to encourage people into the green spaces. The multi-functional hub structure itself may be multi-level too.

It’s hoped all the boring but essential legal and planning stuff can be done by the end of August, for ground works to commence.

In galvanising the community, and with its potential for providing many aspects currently missing from Adamsdown and Splott, bringing economic benefits and improving locals’ wellbeing, this venture could be a game-changer.

A version of this article was published in the South Wales Echo, as part of our monthly column, on the day this was posted.

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