Wastes and Strays: The Past, Present and Future of English Urban Commons

Next January I begin a new 3-year, AHRC-funded, project investigating aspects of common or common-like spaces within or adjacent to urban areas. The project will be both historical and propositional. Called Wastes and Strays: The Past, Present and Future of English Urban Commons it will involve participants from university departments of Law, History, Architecture and English, as well as a range of community organisations and representatives from various parts of the country. As co-investigator for the ‘future’ work package, and an architect, I will be keen to bring an architectural sensibility (whatever that may prove to mean) to aspects of the project.

I’ve mentioned commons in a number of previous posts, most prominently in Tangible and Intangible Commons. This describes a symposium I organised partially in support of the Wastes and Strays bid, and partially to develop somewhat different strands of commons thinking from those in our AHRC project. I have also written about commons issues in Drawing Critical Typologies and Undisciplined Commons – a project in its pre-infancy, and in Pinewood, Mole, Sylvan, Old Oak, Shamwari…. which mentions the origins of my interest in commons and commoning.

Wastes and Strays is a collaboration between colleagues from Newcastle University; Chris Rodgers from the Law School is the Principal Investigator, and Rachel Hammersley from the School of History, Classics and Archaeology is one Co-Investigator whilst John Clarke from the English Department of the University of Exeter is another. I am the other Co-I based at the School of Architecture and Design at the University of Brighton. Emma Cheatle who is at the Newcastle University Humanities Research Institute (NUHRI) and was instrumental in putting the bid together, is moving to Sheffield University.

We (but mostly Chris and Emma) wrote, as part of our funding bid:

Urban commons are unique, ‘green’, open spaces vital for wellbeing, culture and biodiversity in the metropolitan context. With different legislative backgrounds and use-value to parks, the definition of ‘common’ use is often misunderstood. With many urban commons lost, neglected or underused, the project will use four diverse case studies as exemplars of the distinctively ‘urban’ common. The project will investigate and promote the urban common’s unique status, history of negotiation, resistance and freedom, and multiple benefits as open ‘green’ space for physical and mental wellbeing. Using innovative public engagement methods, it will generate a multifaceted definition of the ‘urban’ common to provide a robust base for education initiatives and future public policy guidance informing its development and use as a diverse cultural and ecological space.
Historically, commons were manorial ‘wastes’ or ‘strays’, or pieces of fallow arable land over which ‘commoners’ enjoyed specific land use rights. Building on Hoskins & Stamp’s 1963 The Common Lands of England & Wales, Bowden’s 2009 An Archaeology of Town Commons in England and Rodgers et al’s 2010 Contested Common Land, which made valuable contributions in determining the number of surviving commons, their legal origins and their cultural significance, this project will focus on the little researched and uniquely urban rather than town common, examine in depth its distinctive legal and political origins and cultural capital, and articulate critical ideas for its future.
Wastes and Strays is an interdisciplinary project combining expertise from across the humanities – law, archaeology, history, English, architecture, creative practice – with existing and new community and cultural partners. Combining rigorous historical and theoretical research with new public engagement modes, we will inform and enable communities to revitalise their commons, demonstrating the active value of research and knowledge exchange.[1]

Although the project emerges from Newcastle and my involvement also emphasises Brighton as a key research focus, we have in fact selected 4 far-flung urban commons across which to spread our research. We wrote:

The project specifically identifies and researches four surviving urban commons across England: Town Moor, Newcastle upon Tyne; Valley Gardens, Brighton; Mousehold Heath, Norwich; and Clifton Down, Bristol. These case studies vary from awkward underused strips to sizeable pieces of pasture land and have been selected to represent a full range of contemporary urban contexts, cultures, legal origins, geographies, sizes, and historical and current uses and values. Each is legally defined as common land or, in the case of Brighton, has been so in the past, and each continues to be at the centre of contemporary heritage and development debates.[2]
[…]
Google_Town MoorImage: Google Earth
North: Town Moor in Newcastle upon Tyne – is a 400 ha. area of open grazing land adjacent to the ancient urban centre. It contains prehistoric earthworks, and traces of an asylum, hospital and WW1 training trenches, and was the subject of a major political enclosure controversy in the 1760s. It continues to host a major annual fair, The Hoppings, and periodically witnesses disputes over its future between competing groups (the Freemen of the City; community groups; developers).[3]
Google_Valley GardensImage: Google Earth
South: Valley Gardens in Brighton is the narrow central strip of connected greens and wastes running north-south from the coast to the downs. Valley Gardens is 9.3 ha., yet fragmented into smaller spaces, which accommodate a variety of uses: dog-walking, a fairground site, war memorials, churchyard and a skate park. They are presently not registered as common land but are designated conservation areas. [4]
Google_MouseholdImage: Google Earth
East: Mousehold Heath, Norwich is an 81 ha. heathland within the suburban boundaries of Norwich. Originally open grazing land, the heath was excavated for gravel, flint, lime and marl in the seventeenth century. It is now a designated Local Nature Reserve in order to preserve the unique heathland flora and fauna from encroaching woodland. A local amateur group – the ‘Defenders of Mousehold Heath’ – and the municipal Mousehold Conservators campaign for its upkeep and conservation. [5]
Google_Clifton DownImage: Google Earth
West: Clifton Down, Bristol – extends to 160 ha. and was originally an iron-age fort. It was then grazing land, was mined and quarried and worked for lead, then encroached upon by Georgian urban sprawl and transformed into a fashionable spa area. It witnessed radical dissent in the 1840s and, in the 1860s, was refigured by the building of Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge. [6]

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Bowden, Mark, Graham Brown, and Nicky Smith. An Archaeology of Town Commons in England: ‘A Very Fair Field Indeed’. Swindon: English Heritage, 2009.

Hoskins, W. G., and L. Dudley Stamp. The Common Lands of England & Wales. London: Collins, 1963.

Rodgers, Christopher P., Matthew O. Grenby, Emma Cheatle, Rachel Hammersley, and Alessandro Zambelli. “Wastes and Strays: The Past, Present and Future of English Urban Commons [Ahrc Grant Application].” Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Newcastle University, 2018.

Rodgers, Christopher P., Eleanor A. Straughton, and Angus J. L. Winchester. Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present. London: Earthscan, 2012.

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[1] Christopher P. Rodgers et al., “Wastes and Strays: The Past, Present and Future of English Urban Commons [Ahrc Grant Application],” (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Newcastle University, 2018), 2. W. G. Hoskins and L. Dudley Stamp, The Common Lands of England & Wales (London: Collins, 1963). Mark Bowden, Graham Brown, and Nicky Smith, An Archaeology of Town Commons in England: ‘A Very Fair Field Indeed’ (Swindon: English Heritage, 2009). Christopher P. Rodgers, Eleanor A. Straughton, and Angus J. L. Winchester, Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance Past and Present (London: Earthscan, 2012).

[2] Rodgers et al., “Wastes and Strays: The Past, Present and Future of English Urban Commons [Ahrc Grant Application],” 3.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Ibid., 18.

[5] Ibid., 18.

[6] Ibid., 18.

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