What’s your favourite city vantage point? Ours has to be the waterfront at dusk, from Everton Brow. Here, at the top of the town, you only spy glimpses of the Mersey, shining between the three graces, the warehouses of the docks and the ribbon of industrial units heading towards Seaforth. Doesn’t sound particularly romantic. But is.
The park itself, though, is a hard place to love. A municipal land grab, carpeting over what was once a tightly knit network of terraced houses: a community wiped from the map. A park borne of violence and destruction – like a cemetery without headstones.
Still, it’s a lovely view.
This summer, a team of artists, urban landscapers and nutritionists are heading to Everton Brow to see if we can harvest the spoils of this lofty lookout. Sounds scary. Like some implanted, genetically modified cell being grafted onto our home turf.
The idea is to make us reconnect with the park and, in doing so, find reasons to get us all re-acquainted with our own terroir.
Parachuted in artists? Coming here with grand plans to stick an intervention in our midst? Haven’t we been here before? What happened to the rusting rotundas of Kirkdale, or the spinning trees of the Baltic? Having said that, what happened to the Garden Festival site for, ooh, 25 years?
This, though, is different. The Biennial has secured the services of two of the world’s most respected ecological artists – working together with local residents to promote a dialogue, and dig a little deeper.
James Corner transformed a couple of miles of disused elevated railtrack into New York’s lauded High Line – a soaring canopy of perennials and decking which has regreened the west side of Manhattan, and Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates has seen front gardens from Los Angeles to Budapest turned into vegetable plots in an effort to make self-sufficiency a sociable enterprise – not something you do in secret, round the back, as it were.
Together, they’ll be setting off from the hollowed out cauldron of Everton Brow over the summer – with the help of urban art and health crew Squash Nutrition and Liverpool’s ace National Wildflower Centre – on a series of expeditions and experiments, to see how we can learn to appreciate Everton’s turf again. And we’re not talking Goodison.
“Everton Brow is a strange park,” Haeg tells SevenStreets. “It’s been created violently, with the destruction of vibrant communities and, to this day, the place is hardly what you’d call loved.”
He’s right. It’s a great place to drive up at sunset, or take the dogs for a walk. But its featureless contours and grim 1980s aesthetics don’t exactly make the heart sing.
“Most parks have high density planting around their edges, are surrounded by prime real estate, and have a very definite identity. This place is the opposite of that.”
You’ve only got to think of our great parks – Walton Hall, Sefton, Calderstones – to visualise Haeg’s point. And, in doing so, remember that in Birkenhead Park we gave the world the blueprint for municipal green spaces.
Haeg and Corner plan to change all that. They’re starting with the name. From now on, the park will be renamed Everton People’s Park.
“It’s a statement, more than anything,” Haeg says, “It’s saying ‘this is your place. What do you want to do here?’”
Positioning himself more as an enabler than an errant member of Ground Force set to cement in a water feature and decking, then vanish while the park gets reclaimed by bindwind and buddleia, Haeg is keen to plant ideas not allotments.
“I’m not interested in the end product, I’m only interested in the process,” he says, explaining that, by autumn, a platform will rise from the park’s core – a flat expanse of turf surrounded by a circular grassy knoll. Here, at People’s Park HQ there’ll be a geodesic tent, home to a laboratory, meeting space and expedition base.
“With National Museums Liverpool we’ll be carrying out an archaeological dig, we’ll be letting the grasses run to seed and grow into tall, natural meadows with mown paths wandering through, and we’ll be re-introducing native wildflowers. But all of these processes are merely another way of looking at the space. We’re not saying any of them will be permanent. This isn’t civic gardening. It’s just a chance for people to see the potential of the area.”
Of course, the very idea of a natural landscape in a city as ripped up and multi-layered as Liverpool is up for debate. Before the terraces this area was dotted with windmills, there’s that famous lock-up, too, near Shaw Street you might have seen on a shirt or too. Before that, a royal hunting ground. If palimpsest’s your thing, you haven’t got to scratch far beneath Everton’s scrubby surface to see – our soil is our history.
For some environmentalists the very notion of artists being commissioned to make us feel the earth beneath our feet is anathema. Kerry Morrison, who’ll be working alongside Fritz and James, notes a word of caution. For her, key to the commission’s success is the artist’s commitment to putting nature first, aesthetics second. And, she says, that’s a tricky line to walk.
“As an environmental artist I have strong reservations about the High Line Project (pic r). In truth, what was there before – nature’s reclaiming of this old industrial site, was far more ecologically sound. The Highline is about aesthetics, more specifically the aesthetics of landscape architects combined with the aesthetic aspiration of the locale, which is building after building of privately owned galleries.”
It’s true, since the High Line opened, house prices along its length have quadrupled, and the Meatpacking district is now one of NYC’s most desirable locations. Gentrification might bring the plants back, but it too can also disperse the communities it was hoping to serve.
“My hope is that the project focuses on the way we look at, and value, the world around us. If we don’t start valuing nature, as ungoverned, un-gardened, and un-managed, we are at risk of damaging the very ecosystem that supports us. We, as a species, need to start to value the so-called ugly, because if we don’t we will only preserve what we consider to be beautiful, undermining the balance of nature.”
Fritz and James promise a critical mass of people coming together, building long-term relations, and reawakening a sense of ownership: of the park being some kind of green, open-air community hall, not jus a drive-thu with a view.
“Sometimes it takes an outsider to cut through the complexities of history and see, with fresh eyes, just how much potential a place has. I see that here,” he says.
Of all our neighbourhoods Everton’s has been uprooted, refashioned and levelled clean more than most. Let’s hope this summer’s seeds don’t fall on stoney ground.
Main pic: Irate