Helen Traill and others gathered at Baltic Street Playground

Community Engagement is Child's Play

Baltic Street Adventure Playground in the heart of Dalmarnock, an area of high deprivation, is providing a lifeline for local families, giving children a safe place to play and providing hot, healthy meals – which is invaluable for families living on tight budgets. Researchers from the University of Glasgow's Adam Smith Business School are working closely with the Playground to support and develop the sustainability of their Community Food Hub.

Established in the wake of the 2014 Commonwealth Games as a child-led supervised adventure playground, it has grown to become an important community resource. The team behind the charity want to give young people the chance to re-define spaces, objects, and even intergenerational relationships that have been defined by years of neglect in one of the most deprived areas of Europe.  

Democratic practices are at the heart of the Playground. Alistair McCall, part of the core team behind the project, explains their message to the children is, “This is your space. Come here, respect it, and respect each other. As long as it’s not dangerous, and it’s not harming someone else or yourself, come and do what you want.” 

Creating a community food hub

Feeding the children who attend the Playground has become a core aspect of supporting local families. Fresh produce is grown in the community garden space, tended by the children, with the help of community growers. This has been both educational and inspirational.

Alistair explains that for most local families, it can be hard to buy fruit and vegetables at a reasonable price making it harder to incorporate them into their children’s daily diets. Thanks to the expertise of the community growers from Propagate, a Glasgow-based collective which offers support in community growing space and who make gardening fun and educational for children, this has sparked their interest in food from seed to plate. One local boy who enjoyed the community garden so much now aspires to be a farmer. “Who would’ve thought that a young boy growing up in Dalmarnock, would want to be become a farmer?”, smiles Alistair.

Dr Helen Traill, is part of the research team with expertise in collaborative and community-led approaches to community food, along with colleagues Dr Stephanie Anderson and Professors Deirdre Shaw, Andrew Cumbers and Robert McMaster. Thanks to European Union/Scottish Government Social Innovation funding, the team have been able to work alongside the Playground to expand their community food hub to support the families and residents of Dalmarnock and surrounding areas.

Bringing generations together

The Playground also encourages members of the community to regularly sit down together to enjoy nutritious meals. They hosted a Christmas dinner for some of the elderly members of the community alongside the children to break down barriers and encourage relationship-building between generations. There are plans in development to start a pensioner’s club, where food will be prepared and served by the children. 

Helen explains, “From a research perspective, working in partnership with the Playground has been essential to enable us to engage with the local community to gain an understanding of how they feel about community food and sustainability and to understand how to encourage people to take part in cookery sessions or growing.”

More generally, the Playground has been invaluable in assisting the local community to overcome the problems associated with living in a ‘food desert’. This means that, without access to a vehicle, people would have to walk at least 20 minutes to reach the nearest shop. However, with funding from the project to provide a minibus, they are now able to support the mobility of local people and facilitate local deliveries of fresh food. The Playground plans to start a buddying scheme, whereby the children will assist the older community with their shopping. 

To develop this goal of improving intergenerational relationships, the children take freshly prepared, nutritious food to older residents who are house-bound or struggle to leave their homes. Some of this food is gathered fresh from the garden, while the majority of it is received from FareShare, a food redistribution charityThe impressive food storeroom is stacked with fresh produce and non-perishables. Local community members are free to visit during open hours and take what they need, creating a truly open community resource.  

Growing successfully

These initiatives have not gone unnoticed by the local community. In summer 2019, the number of people visiting the garden on a daily basis doubled to an average of 500 a day. During the six weeks of the 2019 summer holidays, the Playground hosted an impressive 7,000 attendees and prepared 15,000 much-needed meals. 

People travel to the Playground from all over the country to visit, play, and learn. To ensure no-one goes hungry at the garden, the team at the Playground ensure that there are options catering to all dietary requirements, at times cooking up to eight different meals at one time. Alistair is a regular in the kitchen and local residents rave about Alistair’s food, and for Helen it has provided a platform to have interesting conversations regarding food sustainability.  

Helen is full of praise of Alistair’s abilities in the kitchen. “He’s a magician! All the people who attend get excited about Alistair’s cooking. And they trust him. They are much more likely to try food they haven’t had before if he encourages them. So really a lot of the success of the food hub comes down to the staff here, particularly Alistair.”  

A Partnership with value 

Without the endorsement from Alistair, UofG researchers would have been treated with distrust in this hard to reach community, who are often suspicious and sceptical of unknown organisations and services.  

Thanks to the mutually beneficial relationship that has developed between the University and the Playground, Helen and the rest of the team have managed to gain rich data from their qualitative research, which will be used to inform future interventions and has the potential to influence policy decision-making.  

Working collaboratively has enabled the Playground to grow the services they offer the local community and has transformed the way the Playground works operationally, exploring options to achieve more ethical and eco-friendly ways of working. The children are at the heart of the Playground and have been given a voice to lead the progress of the space. As Alistair sums up nicely: “It’s not about rebuilding the community but allowing the community to rebuild itself”.  

Creating a community food hub

Dr Helen Traill talks about the research collaboration with Baltic Street Adventure Playground to develop a community food hub in Dalmarnock, Glasgow. 

Baltic Street Adventure Playground

Baltic Street Adventure Playground is supervised adventure playground for children from 6 to 12 years. Younger children are welcome with a carer or guardian. It is free to enter, children are free to come and go, and free to play as they choose.

What started as a temporary response to the lack of play space and out-of-school provision for children in the area has developed into a vital, ever-expanding community hub and resource for people of all generations, tackling food poverty and isolation.

Whilst retaining the focus on children, with plans to establish an outdoor nursery in coming months, the collaborative culture and community spirit which has been reignited in Dalmarnock with the Playground cannot be undermined. Their methods are innovative, yet unquestionably effective. With children at the reigns, we can expect to see this project develop to support many more families and community members in the years and decades to come.

Find out more: Baltic Street Adventure Playground