Ben Hunt – Park Life
Within town and city communities, parks are often polarising places. In some cases, they are hot spots for trouble, anti-social behaviour and danger. Others, like Heavitree Pleasure Ground are magnets for community, sport, fun and activity. Done well, parks can be an invaluable resource for communities to gather around and be galvanised by.
I recently met with Ben Hunt, Chair of Park Life Heavitree which is an organisation that exists to create community, bring people together and facilitate social change – all within and around Heavitree Pleasure Ground.
Park Life started its amazing journey in 2010 when three families, who lived in houses near the park, started chatting about how to get more involved in the local community. Ben explained,
“We noticed that, once people entered the park, they tended to stay there for a while. Most people who were just trying to get from ‘point A’ to ‘point B’ walked around the park. So, we realised that if we could get people to enter the park, that was a big step towards getting more people to use the facilities and space for communal purposes. So, one day we simply wandered into the park with trays of coffee and started to serve them to people, sparking conversations in the process.”
A registered charity and a limited company, Park Life has twelve volunteer trustees who share the organisational load and their programme of events and activities is made possible by a team of around sixty volunteers. Park Life themselves run monthly events in the park which, over time, have evolved to include seasonal events (such as Easter Egg Hunts, Pumpkin Carving and Carols in the Park). In addition, they own a community coffee van (a beautiful vintage Citroen HY) which also runs as a community business on the weekends.
I asked Ben about the vision and mission of Park Life and, without breaking stride, he replied,
“Our overall aim is to support and grow community in and around Heavitree. Breaking that down into a few achievable goals, we want to a) increase community cohesion, b) raise participation in leisure activities leading to better physical wellbeing and mental health for local residents, c) enable local people to feel a sense of belonging and ownership of their local community and d) to create a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable community in and around Heavitree Pleasure Ground.”
Physical activities have played a key part in the Park Life journey. From Heavitree Volleyball to Park Yoga to Heavitree Running Group (who have an impressive 800 members and started in Jan 2017 with funding from Get Active Exeter), there are really amazing things happening all within this one park, in this one part of Exeter.
“Another aim of ours is to combat the social isolation and loneliness that is so prevalent in today’s society. It’s easy to think that this problem is limited to, for example, the older generations. But it isn’t. We have seen first-hand the amazing power of community activities drawing young professionals out of significant and, in some cases, debilitating loneliness. Community really is a powerful thing.”
BUILDING A COMMUNITY
Partnering with other people who are already organising activities in the park has also been key. For example, there is a Junior Park Run every Sunday at 9am – only the second of its kind in the South West – with over sixty junior runners every week, aged between four and fourteen. Also, the park plays host to Tennis For Free, a national charity who provide free tennis coaching between 10am and midday every Saturday.
So, how do you build a community, I asked? Ben mused,
“People actually really want to get involved in community, they just don’t know how to sometimes. We simply give people the opportunity to step forward and get stuck in and this has created a wonderful ‘bottom-up’ community who are active, vibrant and involved in each other’s lives. It has transformed our area already, but there is so much more to come.”
Evidently there is, as Ben told me that after an intense process of securing £650,000 of funding (from Power To Change, The Big Lottery Fund, The Garfield Weston Foundation, Exeter Community Forum and Sport England), Park Life are going to be building a bespoke community centre and café. With a hireable hall, indoor and outdoor seating, quality toilet facilities and lots of communal areas, it is a space which has been architecturally designed to encourage connection. It will also provide a much-needed income to help sustain the park’s short and long term future.
“We had a fifteen-month window within which we had to raise the full amount of funding required for the project. The Park Life team have been blown away at how much money we have raised and how quickly it has all come together. It has almost been unreal. It is not about the building itself though. It is about the building enhancing what we are already doing in the park. We can’t wait to turn the plans into a reality in the coming months.”
Echoing the words of Cormac Russell – a leading voice in Asset-Based Community Development – Ben finished our conversation by stating,
“We choose to look at what is strong in our community, not what is wrong. We look for the skills, expertise and experience that exist within our community, then apply them to the gaps and issues, rather than looking at the problems and wondering who is going to sort them out for us.”
The future of Heavitree Pleasure Ground is clearly a bright one, particularly with the growth and ambition of Park Life Heavitree – a galvanised community, committed to each other and their locality. I came away from my conversation with Ben feeling lucky to have been sat in the park chatting for an hour. I’ll certainly never travel through Heavitree again without glancing over at the park and marvelling at the community spirit that it represents.
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye