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Weekday Picnic in Millennium Square anybody?

Submitted by on March 16, 2014 – 8:54 am7 Comments
mil sq
In 2012 we hosted  a series of events which looked at how, as citizens we could give ourselves permission to play creatively with our city, take small, responsible steps to realise ambitious creative ideas…In our final event held at what was Borders on Briggate and supported by Child Friendly Leeds 150 of us came up with a whole series of playful pledges. We’ve continued to agitate here on this site, and over at Playful Leeds to ask how we can find ways to make our public spaces more friendly, colourful & convivial. How can we create spaces which bring people of all backgrounds together? How can our creativity as a population be reflected back to us in the heart of the city and beyond?  Do we seek permission or ask forgiveness?


After a recent trip to Bradford’s City Park, where the kids joined hundreds of hardy Bradfordians enjoying watery spring sun,  I was musing on about the £24 Million transformation of the city centre space, aware that this was a decision made in different times, but wondered if Leeds would have ever dreamt something so bold in better times. It sparked a conversation on Twitter (where else) with Roger Carter who has a simple idea about playing out on Millennium Square.

Over to Roger

It seem that we’ve finally been forgiven by Mother Nature and escaped the gloom and despair of the wettest winter on record. Punxsutawney Phil promised 6 more weeks of winter, but not in Leeds where seemingly Spring has sprung (hopefully not raining as you read this).

It got me to thinking about the usual formulaic run of things in Leeds, particularly for workers in the city as the sun shines and summer approaches.  I’m not talking about those special days where we hit the bar and café terraces – just an average day with your average lunch.  At worst, picture a lonely office worker, limp sandwich in hand, heading for an austere corner of a stark space designed for something other than people.  Depressing image. Familiar? The reason you stay at your desk and surf the net.  Write a blog.  Don’t get me wrong – there are some lovely spots and places that feel very sociable.  People have their own favourites, but St. John’s Garden of rest (behind err.. St.johns) always seems a big winner.  Lots of stepped edges to plonk yourself down, a quiet breathable space, lots of green, great for people watching, reading a book, eating, chatting and meeting up.  It got me to thinking about how some of our ‘flagship’ spaces aren’t that fun.

Leeds has some ‘award winning’ spaces such as Millennium Square.  It really did win an award once upon a time for something, but I’d guess it wasn’t as a people place.  Described as ‘one of Europe’s most innovative multi-purpose city centre spaces’, it’s brilliant for things like the food & drink festival, Leeds City Beach or events like Wimbledon.  But the rest of the time (most of the time mon-fri), is it just ‘dead space’?  There are about 50 or so formal seats for people to sit on around the edge of the square plus the Civic Hall steps if you fancy a chalky white bum.  Biggest open space in the city centre ‘enjoyed’ by 50 people midweek. The numbers don’t add up for this gargantuan space.  I’ve been snow blinded many a time by the dazzling glare as I attempt to eat a sandwich on the edge.  Reading a book may bring the same challenges.  But there is a lot going for it… big open space, prime city location, giant interactive TV, lots of food outlets in a stones throw, gorgeous historic buildings.  It seems those of us who use it spend all our time looking into the empty void from the edge, instead of sitting in it looking out.  It also feels like we don’t go there to have much fun.

It’s really bizarre that places like this are so devoid of life and spirit mid-week, save for the paid spots.  It should be a social hub and frankly a bit more cultured.  I’ve never ever ever seen a busker there in 7 years.  I’m no pro on bye-laws though.  More gratis seating isn’t necessarily the answer – though in the right financial climate some temporary seating and moveable plant life might be good somewhere in the middle for those not partaking in café life. I’m sure it would help Leeds to avoid becoming an urban heat island.  But this isn’t the right climate, no pun intended.  I always believe that if you identify a problem then you should offer a solution.  We can’t chuck buckets of cash at this sea of stark stone, so in the meantime there is a solution to make this place shiny happy….  picnic blankets!

Leeds is a social media connected city.  It’s probably how you found this blog.  Twitter does enable social contact and I love that – real human contact!! I’ve seen it working in so many ways that adds value to what Leeds has to offer.  I’ve met lots of nice people through it. Learnt lots about the city.  I know we’ve had twitnics in Leeds before for the connected… This idea just shifts the time of week. With a little bit of twitter mixed in to the working lunch I think it could help our fear of using our public spaces and make them human friendly.

It would go a little something like this:

It’s a sunny day.  Sunny days mean picnics. You want to escape your desk. It’s looking exciting out there. You know to check twitter for #civicpicnicleeds Or whatever someone more fun comes up with.
You check and see if anyone fancies hitting a space in the city to picnic on twitter.  Millennium square was just an example.
Everyone else thinks what a great idea and turns up with their blanket at said space.
Everyone nods and winks at each other as they sit down on their picnic blanket somewhere like millennium square, queens square, park square, arena plaza. Picnic blankets become the new hipster craze. Blankets are laid near each other. People start talking to each other.
Maybe someone brings some cheese and crackers. Or a ball. Or a kite. Or a unicycle. The world becomes more fun.
It’s really that simple.  Anyone can suggest it. People turn up at whatever time they can make between say 12-2.
Friends are made, new adventures planned.  Hey, you might just want to sit on your own… but you’ll be a part of something which has to beat being that ill-fitting suit munching your hummus & red pepper flatbread all alone*. Who knows in time with some support we could use the giant tv to have some fun.  No more solitary sterile sad spaces.  Yes I like alliteration.

Essential kit: picnic blanket in your office draw!  Access to twitter.

*I’m that guy.

You might also like to be aware of an event which brings together people with ideas for playing in the city, The Tour De France, and the chance to do some fun stuff. Sign up here
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  • Great idea. My point was raised previously on a similar article though about who decides what people represent the public or is this all public.

    Cheese and crackers, kites etc conjure up a certain kind of public. Not that its a bad thing

    I am fascinated by our obsession with using public space and yet not being too happy when the ‘public’ that don’t fit out our social norms occupy said spaces.

    Open space is open space for all. Lets ALL meet each other and enrich our lives. Viv La Difference!

  • Rosie Wright says:

    Millennium Square is one of my pet peeves! It irritates me that it’s such empty barren space which feels difficult to use. The Peace Gardens in Sheffield is an example of how space can be used well and made accessible for the public. Millennium Square is an example of how not to do it! It’s great that events can happen in the space like the German market or the ice rink, but inbetween those times the space really ought to work. It saddens me when I walk through on a Saturday afternoon and it’s pretty much empty. Could (cheap) chairs not be stored in the toilets underground for people to access? (like deckchairs on a beach). I would love someone to come up with a solution! If I worked in the centre of town I would DEFINITELY be there for a lunchtime picnic!

  • Ed Carlisle says:

    Yep, absolutely. We were trying to push this via our Midsummer Feasts last summer, but this is just a simpler version. At those events, we noticed an interesting dynamic around people (even people who’ve bought into an idea like this, ie who’ve turned up) often not feeling comfortable talking to strangers (even though they’ve also bought in and turned up!) – but I’m sure there are easy solutions. Go go go.

  • Roger says:

    It’d be great for all types to feel welcome … Be it quiche, white socks n sandals through to heavily inked dudes with beards (I don’t know why I opted for those examples!) or buy buy sell sell suits. It’ll always start with a few twitter types who like to give stuff a go… But I don’t think we’re easily labelled!
    Glad the blog reflects other peoples experiences. I got my blanket… Just need that sunny day & a few people to wink at. Ed – we could discuss your living skywalk!

  • Alice says:

    That made me think or rethink about the picnic idea. The city could be a great spot to take out your picnic blanket and enjoy the weather. So not only country side and not only the green city areas, the city squares is something to consider.

  • Kim says:

    Not comfortable with the idea of being winked at by strangers off the Internet.

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