A successful example of a grassroots, justice-oriented built heritage conservation project

A recent preservation effort in England is well worth the time to understand because it relates so strongly to the future of the field. But, it’s who led these efforts that’s remarkable: it wasn’t preservationists/conservationists, but rather skateboarders. And we could learn a lot from their lesson.

You’ll understand what I mean once you watch the video, “You Can’t Move History,” which was produced by Dr. Pollyanna Ruiz (University of Sussex), Dr. Tim Snelson (University of East Anglia), Dr. Rebecca Madgin (Glasgow University), and Dr. David Webb (Newcastle University). The video received a “best research film” award in 2016.

The film documents the successful grass-roots efforts to save the Undercroft skate park in London. This film (and the overall effort) is significant because:

  • It is, at its core, a story about social justice. You have a marginalized and disempowered group — young skateboarders — who are threatened by London’s planning authority, which ignores or misunderstands the value of the skate park. As is stated in the video, planners had a “problem understanding the values of the skateboarders.”
  • The Undercroft represents recent history and is a Brutalist design that, on the surface, is ugly and strewn with graffiti. It is the antithesis of an aesthetically pleasing monument, yet it is very much loved and cherished by the people who use the skatepark. These people have a deep emotional attachment to this place because of the experiences that they have had there. There are no clear art/historical values at play; the value of Undercroft lies primarily in people’s emotional attachment to it.
  • The effort to save the Undercroft is a fantastic example of a grass-roots, bottom-up effort to successfully save an “historical” place.
    The video is a good example of research that should be done more in the field. I could see students possibly doing a film like this as part of a final project, for instance. Could we imagine a day when instead of filling out a government form (e.g., National Register nomination) or enlisting the efforts of bureaucrats to determine if a building or place has “special interest”, we could just submit a film like this to get something protected for its heritage value and let the people speak for themselves?

Lastly, there’s a poignant quote from the film that I’d like to share:

It’s easy to look at a building [the Undercroft] and work out why architecturally or historically it’s of importance, but the way in which space is used changes subtly over time. It takes quite a lot to get under the skin of where do these people [the skateboarders] come from and WHY is it important. But the really important thing is to ask what’s so special about this being found space rather than something that’s been created?

Happy viewing!

N.B. The research has also been published: Madgin, R., Wedd, D., Ruiz, P. and Sneslon, T. (2018) Resisting relocation and reconceptualising authenticity: the experiential and emotional values of the Southbank Undercroft London UK. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 24(6), pp. 585-598.(doi:10.1080/13527258.2017.1399283)

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