Bridging Divides in Dalmarnock’s Adventure Playground

In 2007, Glasgow was announced as the host of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The plans for a new legacy were met with optimism – especially by the residents of Dalmarnock. Once defined by its prosperous industry, the district of Dalmarnock now faces some of the highest unemployment levels in Scotland. The old buildings have been reduced to dust and the remains sit surrounded by swathes of tarmac, rapidly fading optimism, and headlines such as ‘Glasgow faces up to reality of a divided Commonwealth Games legacy’.

In 2016, I spoke to Robert, local resident and lead play-worker at Baltic Street Adventure Playground (BSAP). BSAP is a public art project, commissioned in the lead up to the Commonwealth Games. In an area where ‘55% of children are defined as living in poverty, 22% in over-crowded homes’ and where there is ‘nowhere else safe to play’, BSAP was set up to tackle the challenges faced by children growing up in an urban environment of relative scarcity. The playground has played a big role in resisting, re-defining, and breaking down the tensions and barriers between people and place, old and new.

BSAP started with an empty plot and the kids built it from the ground up: building treehouses and tyre swings, painting sheds, cooking meals, and planting allotment boxes. Where top-down planning is defined by regulation and bureaucracy, BSAP responds immediately to a need, an idea, location, materials, and equipment. With an absence of power or control, trial-and-error prevails. Successful projects become stable, failed ones are abandoned or revised. In short, if the kids decide allotment boxes are better used for parkour than plants, they jump on them. The key thing is the kids decide.

Here is an abbreviated version of my conversation with Robert:

E: Why do you think the playground is important to this area?

R: When Assemble got the funding, they seen there’s nae play facilities because waens were just playing in the street. We wanted to make it a child led space, saying ‘yous do what yous want to do, and we’ll support that’. It means we’re developing stronger adults because they’ll believe in their own abilities and build confidence in themselves to do what they want to do (…) it’s ten times more valuable for those children than just putting a steel frame swing.

E: What was the feeling in the lead up to the games, and then after the games?

R: The feeling was … the feeling was shock … and anger because so many promises were made to these people. They promised the world and never got nothing. They were closing all the roads round about down for the Games. They were fencing people in. The consultations turned into a rabble because people were asking questions and they couldnae answer them. It felt as if we’re bringing these lovely new people in, all these athletes, and we need to protect them but there isn’t any protection put in place for the community. It turned into a bit of an island during the games.

E: Do you think that with the Commonwealth Games people lost a sense of history and identity?

R: I think it’s a contributing factor. Local people sort of went into their shells, they never challenged it enough. There was promises of hundreds of apprentices, hundreds of this, hundreds of that, but it never came to fruition. For local people, they won’t forget that. People still reminiscing about the old flats, and that’s always gonnae happen. I believe what’s happened here will benefit these guys. For me, the thing that’s happened in this area can only make it better. But they should’ve put the infrastructure in first. We know where the houses are getting built, we dinnae know where the shops are getting built. I’ve helped pensioners home, carrying bags all the way from Tesco, they just forgot about them. The history of the place probably will be forgotten. There’s nae sign of the old Dalmarnock now. It’s about people trying to look to the future now, rather than dwelling on the past any more.

E: For the kids that come here, they’ve grown up through the Commonwealth Games, seeing a loss of local control over the area. Do local people want more agency and does Baltic Street offer a chance to take back a little bit of control?

R: Oh massively, especially the residents that just moved into the village. There’s a divide between both areas right now and, you know, Glasgow’s very territorial. I see that as my job. If we don’t break that down, in 5 years’ time they’ll be fighting one another. And I know territorialism. I’ve gang fought myself, I know what it can do to people, I know how much it can damage people’s lives. The problem comes when you’ve got an architect dealing in something for 25-50 year projects. A child’s childhood is 7 years long. That’s a child’s full childhood right there taken away because of the different things that are taking place locally. The new facilities, although they’re state of the art facilities, they’re nae for people from this area. Like the velodrome, It’s 7 to 8 pound. If a man’s got three waens, a single mother’s got three waens, she cannae pay that. It’s no for them. That big thing up there’s no for this community, that’s for people outside this area to come in, use the velodrome.

E: The future of Baltic Street is uncertain, but do you feel that it’s had a lasting impact?

R: I believe the children will have a lasting impact. The goal was never to change the world, but it was to help change the world. We’ve got young people now talking about being architects, artists. Things people from this area don’t do. If we can have one impact on a group of them 30 kids, I believe it’s served a great purpose. If these young people become what I believe they can become, they’ll change the world.

BSAP exemplifies a set of simple yet powerful ideas about childhood and about people’s relationship to their urban environment and to each other. Against the pressures of modern urban childhood, it provides solace, opportunity, and friendship.

In employing tactics that allow citizens to collectively and unselfconsciously develop space, BSAP has become a distinct place within the urban fabric of Dalmarnock. It has in many ways offered the people of Dalmarnock some relief from placelessness and the crushing homogeneity of mass development. The collaborative and inclusive process becomes a personally transformative one that builds confidence and resilience at an individual and community level. Thus, its impact outlives what is physically produced.

By inviting everyone to gather and contribute – freely and without prejudice – they break down some of the social barriers that exist in Dalmarnock. In an area with a history of sectarianism, gang fighting, and territorialism, places like BSAP are essential.

The things that make BSAP work might be lost if they were integrated into regeneration projects from the top down. However, the lessons that BSAP teaches – particularly those concerning social inclusion and sustainability – must no longer be ignored in the offices of those tasked with regenerating our cities.