By Jonathon Lee, Venture Out
(in Volume 25)
In 2005 Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) completed its programme for securing open access to the uplands, the so called ‘Right to Roam’ legislation. A few months after the completion of this mammoth task, which led to the opening up of 350,000 hectares of land with new public access, two of the officers responsible were standing on a hillside overlooking a small town in one of the former industrial valleys in South Wales. They were standing on an extensive slope of heather moorland, with far reaching views to the Brecon Beacons to the north and the Severn Estuary to the south; and they were on their own. It suddenly struck them that, despite an immense amount of time and energy having been spent in securing those rights of access, on the doorsteps of communities, something more needed to happen to enable local people to take advantage of the opportunities.
And so the idea for Come Outside! was born. It has been well documented in research that people living in areas that suffer high levels of social deprivation are less likely to use outdoor spaces for recreation. It is also well documented that, in these areas, health and wellbeing are compromised by a combination of factors such as unemployment, poverty, and low educational achievement – all working against the adoption of healthy lifestyles. How could we tie these two issues together and arrive at a solution whereby developing the use of local greenspace could lead to an increase in physical activity and a consequent improvement in health and wellbeing?
Using a small amount of the organisation’s research budget, we carried out some pilot programmes in two ‘Communities First’ areas of South Wales. The pilots suggested that, if ‘hard to reach’ people were to be convinced that going out into local greenspace was a good idea, we first had to persuade the professionals working with them; professionals that people dealt with on a daily basis who had already gained their trust. But community development workers, youth workers and health workers do not, traditionally, see the availability of accessible local greenspace as a resource for hitting their targets on health, wellbeing and employability.
The pilots, however, demonstrated that, by persuading and enthusing community development professionals, people living in areas of social deprivation were more likely to use local greenspace for activities that could lead to improvements in their health and wellbeing. Building on these findings, an application for funding was put to the Big Lottery, matched by allocations from CCW and Forestry Commission Wales (now Natural Resources Wales) and the Welsh Government. A budget of £1.1 million was secured, to be spent over three years.
The Come Outside! Programme was established in late 2012, with the appointment of a small team of staff with experience in community development, youth work, environment, greenspace and recreation management. With limited resources, and a limited time for action, the first decision was which areas of Wales should we work in? As the programme was part funded by Welsh Government’s Communities First initiative, activity had to be concentrate within 52 Communities First ‘Clusters’. In the end, twelve potential Clusters were chosen by looking at those in greatest need with accessible greenspace nearby – Newport, Torfaen, Caerphilly, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda, Cardiff, Barry, Bridgend, Swansea, Wrexham, Rhyl and Gwynedd.
At first, the Programme concentrated on raising awareness and building enthusiasm, hoping to establish cross sector partnership working. Workshops were held in each Cluster, bring together professionals working in the health, community development, recreation and environment and youth sectors. At the workshops we could see a sudden realisation within many of the professional representatives in the room that some of their respective targets could be hit very effectively by involving local people in activities in their local environment.
Using contacts established by working in local Communities First teams, Come Outside! then began to develop links with existing community groups – parenting, men’s health, weight loss, homeless, substance abuse, mental health and wellbeing groups. Gaining the confidence of these officers, and their groups, was not an easy process – the team needed to use all their experience in community based projects to forge relationships based on mutual respect and trust. Over time, groups discussed the options that were available in their areas and decided, overwhelmingly, to ‘have a go’.
Working in conjunction with experienced outdoor providers, activities were designed to meet the needs of individual community groups, reducing barriers to participation. Taster sessions were organised to develop capacity, confidence and skills, gradually increasing physical activity levels – by stealth! Further training has provided opportunities for re-entering work and education. By designing sessions that meet people’s needs and including different elements to capture everyone’s interest, participants have become more likely to return and continue their involvement – especially if they have a positive, memorable experience.
Activities have included ‘dark skies’ observation, community edible trails, gardening, angling, bushcraft, geocaching, cycling skills and many more. Participants have benefitted from renewed interest in the outdoors and have increased their physical activity, confidence and motivation.
To date, 1600 participants in over 70 groups have become involved. Some of these groups are making good progress towards self organising sustainability. We’ll end by letting those involved speak for themselves:
- ‘I think we all got the adrenalin buzz at the end and none of us were keen to go home so I guess that says it all. It has given me the push to do more, so bring it on! I’m even thinking of learning to swim now.
- One thing I noticed in particular is that one group member who never wants to do anything threw himself in and said how much he enjoyed the day. I have never seen him so animated!’
- ‘Before this summer my life was just routine and I’d forgotten about all the good stuff we used to do when I was a kid. Now I take my kids to the beach…we had a camp out in the garden the other night with a fire and a sing song, I’d forgotten you could have so much fun without having to spend money’
- ‘I really wasn’t going to come today because it was raining but I’ve had the best day ever and I will always remember it!’