Sheffield’s Furnace Park forges scholarly collaboration

Brownfield reclamation unites academics, artists and community

October 31, 2013

Source: Andy Brown

New futures: Amanda Crawley Jackson hopes her work will lead to the regeneration of other post-industrial sites

The University of Sheffield is about to open a site that will serve as a “disruptive laboratory” for “strange encounters between researchers and creative practitioners”.

It started, said Amanda Crawley Jackson, a lecturer in French at Sheffield, when she and a group of artists, writers, researchers and students began going for Sunday walks in a derelict area about 10 minutes’ walk from the city centre, and noticed an acre and a half of scrubland on the site of the Doncaster and Sons foundry established in 1778.

Keen to put the site to use, Dr Jackson assembled a team of academics and former architectural students involved in regeneration projects to secure a three-year lease from the council for a peppercorn rent. They then cleared the site, which was given the name Furnace Park, and built a network of partners for what Dr Jackson called “a co-production between the university and the local community”.

“The involvement of local companies and their expertise has been crucial,” she explained, “and lots of people have been involved as part of the design process.” Builders were brought in to repair walls and fill in holes; an engineering company donated a shipping container; and furnishings have been made from found and recycled material provided by a skip company.

Although there are many challenges in renovating a brownfield site, Dr Jackson was able to draw on university-wide expertise in legal, engineering and health and safety issues where necessary. To encourage similar projects, they are putting online all they have learned on subjects such as conducting environmental surveys and taking over abandoned spaces legally and safely.

While observing that “we all have to make better cities together”, Dr Jackson noted that the contribution from those in the arts and humanities often amounts to little more than “putting poems on the sides of buildings”. Yet research such as hers on the redevelopment of Les Halles market in Paris in the 1970s, for example, may have important practical lessons for today.

Furnace Park is part of plastiCities, a wider Sheffield research project designed to “investigate the ways in which recent advances in understanding the plasticity of the brain might help us repair and repurpose [wastelands and neglected post-industrial sites], evolve new futures for them and connect them to wider urban recovery”.

Input from scholars in the arts and humanities is specifically incorporated “to disrupt and recast perceptions, putting forward other visions and narratives of damaged topographies drawn from literature, art and film”.

Since the work got under way last autumn, Furnace Park has become a two-level site, split between an events/exhibition area and “a semi-curated urban wildscape” incorporating an external screening space.

Initial projects include a giant wall of Perspex cubes, which light up in different colours depending on changes in their surroundings such as noise and light levels, and a “prehistoric garden” that Sheffield’s archaeology department is growing from seeds of ancient strains of wheat and barley as part of a research project. The site’s perimeter fences will display “the world’s largest optical illusions” by artist-in-residence Simon Bill to encourage visitors to see the space differently.

In addition to making Furnace Park available for use by community groups, the university is actively seeking proposals from artists, activists, curators and other cultural practitioners for joint projects.

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