Although privileged to have access to the countryside, the role of public spaces in fostering rural communities is often overlooked. The Covid pandemic changed many people’s relationship with their local environment, offering time and space to explore their local footpaths and public spaces. In some places, it allowed neighbours who had never met, to forge relationships, and communities to value the distinctive qualities of where they lived. Parks facilitated people’s innate need to be active and socialise.
This new park in the North Yorkshire village of Sowerby, was built at the right time for the community. When opportunities for being with other people were limited, this park provided a place for the whole community to be released.
Sowerby is a village, located immediately south of the market town of Thirsk in North Yorkshire, England, UK. In 2012 Planning permission was granted for Sowerby Gateway, a new development at the south of the village – comprising circa 1,000 new homes, together with new transport and social infrastructure. This included a new ‘Sports Village’ to be sited on 11.1 hectares of land subsequently transferred to Hambleton District Council in 2016.
The Sports Village idea evolved into something more diverse. Although the place has become home to three local sports clubs and also includes bike trails, sports pitches and a bmx park, the project turned into a place that has much wider social benefit for the whole community.
The only way to find out what people what from a new park is by asking them. And then listening.
The community’s role in defining the brief for the park, through workshops and close communication has created a place that is rich and diverse. We heard the voices of sports people, local runners and established, vocal community leaders. We also listened to the people who might not always feel comfortable in a place that is focused on football, running or rugby. How might they use the park? Did they feel safe in public spaces? Do they have somewhere to be close to nature?
This approach has created an inclusive, multi-layered park that people use at different times of the day, in different ways, at different speeds! Children learn to ride their bikes or meet their friends. Older people meet for a walk, taking regular breaks. A new local club of nature lovers has formed, recording sightings of the varied wildlife that now lives here. The local running club has a high-quality facility, hailed by England Athletics as the future of community running tracks. And the whole community has somewhere to be proud of, which reinforces the identity of the place where they live.
The park includes a running track, bike trails, over 300 new trees, a sustainable drainage system and three high-quality sports pitches. There is also a 3G pitch and a new clubhouse that will provide a base for local clubs.
re-form worked with specialist track builders, using local sustainably-sourced limestone to create a challenging bike route and help craft obstacles on site. The range of routes will help encourage new cyclists to become active and then progress onto more difficult routes. There is also space for people to scoot or exercise on wheelchairs or mobility devices.
Existing hedgerows will be retained, improved and enhanced and new hedgerows planted, together with native trees and large swathes of wildflower meadow, which is already attracting a wide range of new species to the park.
Woodland shrub edge planting comprising a mix of native shrubs and small native trees provide valuable food for wildlife including overwintering birds including elder, blackthorn and hawthorn.
New allotments are also included – for use by the local community for the growing of fruit and vegetables, thus providing further opportunities for improving health and sense of wellbeing.
Sowerby Park is now vital social infrastructure for local people. This is a place to grow food, exercise, meet friends and engage with nature. The diversity of potential use, and users, mean that no one is ever alone, people feel safe and alive to the opportunities that a public park can offer. It is a park that is anchored in the local environment, shaped and cared for by local people and celebrating the environmental and visual beauty of the local area.
The project has significantly improved biodiversity and provided habitat corridors across the site to existing green infrastructure, supporting invertebrates, birds and bats in particularly.
The park has also proven to have been of benefit to local community sports and athletics clubs – allowing people to stay active during the winter months in particular.
Talking about the benefits of the park, Robert Burn – Chair at Thirsk and Sowerby Harriers (the local athletics club) said:
“The meandering loops, off road sections, cycle burns as well as planted trees and meadows make it an attractive place to come and enjoy and we get whole families turning up to use the ActiveTrack every day of the week – some run, some walk, some cycle …. it’s just a brilliant accessible facility for the whole community.”
Ed Hunt, of England Athletics (one of the key stakeholders), added:
“Previously in the winter months club members would train on the roads and face all the hazards that shared runners and cars present. Now they can run traffic and kerb free with embedded solar surface lighting. Due to its looped nature, anyone who is struggling or picks up an injury is always in sight and it’s a short walk back”.
Overall, the project has been so successful that re-form is currently involved in the planing, design and delivery of a number of similar facilities throughout the UK.
Landscape Architecture: re-form landscape architecture
Other designers involved in the design of landscape:
– Project Manager: Glenrate
– Constructor: ESH Construction
Design year: 2017 – 2018
Year Built: 2019 – 2020
Photography: Simon Vine, Dependable Productions and re-form
Awards – RICS Social Impact Award