The fiasco of Harrison Park

Sometimes the way public authorities take action re-inforces caricature, writes Gavin Corbett about a recent situation in Harrison Park.

At the southern edge of Harrison Park in west Edinburgh there is a strip of land between the grass and the canal towpath which, over the last few years has been allowed to develop into semi-natural habitat.  Unfortunately, this summer that has meant an awful lot of nettles but the basic idea is a good one – getting away from parks as solely manicured areas.  This use was endorsed by community consultation in the last couple of years as was the plan to place a picnic area in the south west corner of the park.

In the last few weeks, in the same area, some local people have placed 2-3 small raised beds, with the label “Trees not Trash”.  I pass this area almost every day on my bike and thought nothing much of it although I recognised that there was probably a limited shelf-life to it.  However, I read in a blog last week that the bed-builders had been told to remove it.  So I spoke to parks staff, saying that I understood it could not be a permanent feature but that I would like to see a soft-landing as to how the Council approached it.  I said this because I support guerrilla gardening (for example, the former site next to the old Morningside station) and I was heavily involved, as chair of Shandon Local Food Group at the time, in getting the Royal Edinburgh Community Garden going at nearby Myreside.  Edinburgh needs more growing!

However, as part of that process leading to the garden at Myreside I also know that people feel very strongly about the park.  When I suggested a community growing project on a small part of the park three years ago it had a very mixed response.  So I do understand where the Council is coming from.  The raised beds, to me, are rather charming and certainly not offensive, but other people’s innovations might be more jarring.  In others words – guerrilla gardening, great, but probably not in this space in the long term.

What I cannot understand and cannot support is the action which has been taken this week to summarily remove the raised beds without any prior warning.  Unusually, I did not cycle past the spot for two days and the first I knew of the action was when I got a third hand email telling me so a day later.  As local councillor who lives 5 minutes walk away I find that exasperating. I cannot see why it would not have been possible to say “look we have other plans for this space and work is due to begin in x weeks so can we come to an agreement about moving in that period? And while we are at it, we can help identify other sites which can get more established.”.  Ironically, knowing some of the staff I am sure they would have been keen to come at the solution in that way.

That kind of approach would have been to work with the spirit of what was intended in building the raised beds.  It would have worked with the grain, allowed the council to be seen as enabling rather than enforcing and resulted in another growing project which we all say we want. In the meantime, however, the Council has allowed itself to be boxed into an image of unthinking bureaucrats, more concerned with procedure than outcome.  And we have some dispirited people in the community whose only “offence” was to plant some seeds in a small area of land.

After six months as a councillor, I do now worry about the tendency of public authorities to seek to tackle issues through powers and enforcement rather than through dialogue and negotiation.