Monday, January 30, 2017

Go Ape with style: From tourist leisure to securitisation

Image: 'Roundhay Park', by Rodanthi Tzanelli (May 2014)

Leeds is experiencing its own evolutionary moment on the Darwinian scale of global urban development and competition, and its City Council is not taking a back seat on this front. The ‘Go Ape’ tree top adventure centre is advertised as a forthcoming development in the expansion of leisure at Roundhay Park, one of the biggest urban parks in Europe. The Park, which is the leafy pride of North Leeds, is bordered by the suburb of Roundhay to the west and Oakwood to the south, two affluent areas of the city. Stretching across about 700 acres, including two lakes, two adventure playgrounds, two cafes, a skate park, sports pitches, and the famous Tropical World with its surrounding gardens (all owned by the Leeds City Council), Roundhay Park is visited weekly by tourists and schools as an educational and tourist attraction.

‘Go Ape’ is an exciting project that bears the potential to put Leeds - a Northern English city too far from the capital that gets all the glamour of creative industrial development, and yet close to some of the most physically beautiful parts of the country -  on the map of global urban retreats. But we should also read the smaller letters in this enterprise, to realise how it may alter balances between technocratic, social and environmental complexities in the area. Technocratically, the project hits all the right strings when it comes to lifting the city out of recession traps and an impeding ‘hard Brexit’ that threatens whatever tourist profile it managed to acquire next to the historic city of York – an old domestic and international cultural tourist destination. The three planned ‘Go Ape’ entertainment sites compensate for any lack of historic interest with innovative leisure close to nature – a revamped eco-friendly touristic experience. Councillor Lucinda Yeadon, Leeds City Council’s Executive Member for the Environment and Sustainability, stated:

Due to ongoing significant reductions in government funding, we are always looking for new ways to be enterprising and the work that we plan to undertake at the three sites underlines our ongoing commitment as a council to help ensure that each attraction continues to thrive and offer visitors from the city and beyond a great experience for many years to come. Our recent investment in Tropical World which has seen visitor numbers rise by 45% compared to pre-development is a great example of what can be achieved by investing in one of our sites to raise the quality, boost income and in the long-term save money for the council. This is something that we now want to replicate again at Tropical World, Lotherton Hall Bird Garden and Home Farm, Temple Newsam.

No such ambition can evade criticism - including reactions from those it claims to benefit in the long term. Different interest constituencies will read different things into such initiatives. A recent petition appeared on Change.org to stop this project from going ahead because of its potential to destroy what Roundhay Park represented for many decades: a haven from the noisy urban life of Leeds and a little Paradisiac escape for families and other groups seeking respite from busy mid-week environments. Framed as the potential loss of a real, earthly utopian spot to the demons of business-orientated development, the petition gathered over 3,000 signatures and is about to be sent to Councillor Yeadon. A relevant article on Yorkshire Post (13 October 2016) had previously initiated a vivid conversation amongst readers over the benefits and problems of having such a multi-sited development in the area, including risks for its potential users. Plans to build a high-wire adventure course featuring aerial zip wires and rope walks raised concerns about noise and traffic problems. A BBC report featured Richard Critchley, Chair of Friends of Roundhay Park saying: ‘We are frightened that we are commercialising and selling off the park bit by bit’.

With 29 locations in the UK and 12 in the United States, Go Ape, which promises to generate about 30 jobs in Roundhay, Leeds, is the business venture of the Mayhews family. Set up in 2002, with inspiration from the couple’s holiday in France, it grew as a theme park enterprise so much, that today it can be associated with other touristic ventures we find in remote countries such as Japan, where artificial islands serve as leisure zones next to overpopulated urban centres. The benefit of the ‘Go Ape’ project is that, unlike artificial resorts, it is based on the reorganisation of natural landscapes, thus prioritising the user’s imaginative connectivity to nature. The idea is to allow visitors to activate the inner child in them, to be a carefree tourist for a few hours in a day, before becoming worrisome urbanites again. Proof that this is amongst the objectives is that, in addition to expanding ‘Go Ape’ into the US, the couple also launched in 2014 ‘Air Space’, an indoor trampoline business in two locations (Wolverhampton, West Midlands, and East Kilbride in Scotland). More explicitly orientated towards combinations of sports activities with childhood memories, trampoline gaming engages visitors in adrenaline-pumping rituals usually reserved for children.

There are issues to address here, especially with regards to the Ram Wood development of ‘Go Ape’ resorts. Yes, most of the development will upgrade empty grounds visited only by hard-core walkers. But concerns over of sound pollution or environmental modification, though the easiest to capture the public imagination (it certainly attracted my attention as a peace-seeking adult) are probably the least damaging to consider (and did Roundhay Park not commence its life as modified landscape, after all?). More important is the intrusion of business into the community’s common space, where environmental heritage with a social angle is concerned. Roundhay Park was created in an Act of Parliament, which was obtained on 21 June 1871, passing the land on to the City Council. Part of the Park’s public inauguration was to donate to localities a gift of leisure, thus designating a few square miles as common space for free walks and family or friend gatherings. The commercialisation of parts of this space redefines this history, thus taking away from locals what they thought of as part of Leeds’ autonomous autobiographical record.

There are even more pressing concerns to address. Some surviving Yorkshire Post readers’ comments suggest, for example, that there are risks involved in turning an area neighbouring ‘disreputable’ Harehills into children’s playground. Add perhaps to this the uses of ‘Go Ape’ by teenagers, young women and other ‘vulnerable groups’ to complete a picture of environmental racism. By this I refer to the designation of whole territories as leisure enclaves in need of segmentation, not only on the basis of ‘race’ or ‘class’ (an obvious connection, given the mention of Harehills resident profiles in Yorkshire Post), but also of age and gender. The securitisation of leisure zones in the developed world is now a common occurrence, where independent business casts its promising and much-needed nets. This involves surveillance run by corporate agencies and barely controlled by local authorities. We can just cast a look at the proliferation of contemporary phobias and philias (Islamophobia, paedophilia and the likes) across the world today to consider where this is going, if left unattended at this early stage. If newspaper readers point to ‘risks’ of this type at this stage, then we may not be talking about leisure innovation but about the militarisation of a once common space. And these are just the thoughts of a concerned citizen before any expert auditing.