Jane Withers // Microhabitats – a symposium report

‘Last week one of our researchers, School of English MA student Jane Withers, ventured down to Furnace Park to attend the“Microhabitats Symposium.” It was Jane’s first time at the Park, and today she shares with us her thoughts, responses and photographs.’ – Adam J Smith

There’s a little plot of land, just a stone’s throw from the University that I had never seen before. Its sharp metallic fence looks unimposing amongst the many other buildings in the area, surrounded by the same silent guard.

I peek through the bars expecting a wasteland, the tired remnants of the industrial era, packed neatly away behind functioning garages and shops; but there’s colour. A bright fence separates the sloping levels. Happily painted tyres – ones that look suspiciously like those stacked in the car dealership behind me – line a wood chipped path up to the top tier. I walk on, gazing through the brittle branches of slumbering bushes and the cold blue steel of the fence; more colour. A makeshift den stands at the back of the plot, interspersed with old planks of wood and plastic bottles to create bursts of light and dark. Oversized benches swathed in purples, reds, and yellows takes centre stage around a makeshift coffee table. A strange triangular object, pieced together with half a breeze block, some twigs, a brick, some wire, and many other things besides, stands on its own, a little from the seating.


My eyes move past this puzzling object to the raised planters behind, bursting with life. Familiarity washes over me. I considered all the research I had done on the 18th and 19th Century kitchen gardens as I looked at those planters. I imagined the people of Sheffield (some of whom may have lived or worked in this very spot) who used their allotments or gardens as a den: an escape from the real world of smog and smoke and that plants they would have grown there. I saw them in the planters before me, the swaying sheaves of wheat, and the curled leaves of the rhubarb. It was as if I was watching their phantom hands carefully tilling the soil, and breathing a sigh of relief that the rain hadn’t caused too much fuss, followed by their silent prayer for a bit of sunshine.


This was the first time I had visited Furnace Park, and seen the driving force of the project; the planters.  Whereas before I had only sat in front of books and journals, reading of the history of allotments in Sheffield, and the types of fruit, vegetables and herbs to be grown there. There I was, stood in front of those very same fruits, vegetable and herbs growing in the 21st century. The two married together in my mind, and the project seemed to grow tendons flesh and skin over its academic bones.


The reason for my visit to Furnace Park was for the Microhabitats symposium held at Bradley’s Café in the Nichols Building in Shalesmoor. The symposium was organised by Dr Amanda Crawley Jackson of the University of Sheffield, through the Occursus group in collaboration with Art in the Park. The event brought together many minds from many different walks of life, from lecturers at both Sheffield Hallam, and from the University of Sheffield, to poets, photographers, artists and the chief executive from Art in the Park itself.

inside the park

The day’s discussions all concerned the idea of ‘microhabitats’. We discussed the idea of worlds within worlds, covering topics such as sheds and dens, to bunkers and hiding places. Sat on the quaint sofas, cushions piled around us with our hands wrapped around our mugs of tea, the talks were insightful and interesting, differing vastly from speaker to speaker. Although each speaker warrants their own in-depth description, this short blog wouldn’t do justice to the brilliant projects that we were given an insight into.

In very brief summary, each of the speakers discussed the instinctual need for every person, young or old, to have a den, or a hideaway; a world of their own within the wide world that we all share.


All of these talks made me ponder Furnace Park, and the purpose of this strange little plot of land in a highly developed area of the city. The park in itself is a hideaway, protected and enclosed by its blue steel fences, giving you a sense of security and ‘other-worldliness’ in the middle of the city. Then the structures within the park give you worlds within the world of Furnace Park, within the wide world – that’s a lot of worlds. I can see the appeal of the park, it’s a malleable space, a clean slate ready to be built on, and then swept away and rebuilt. A space not dedicated to industry or business, but purely to being a space for imagination and creation to run wild amongst what is at first view, a barren wasteland. I can now see that the imposing blue steel fence that I speculatively peered through on my approach protects the park, not from people, but from development, from builders and industry-men, fighting for new ground to build offices, factories, more and more money for more and more business. Do not get me wrong, business is essential to keep a city like Sheffield alive and vibrant, and the city is one with a proud industrial background that many of its residents would be eager to tell you about. This piece of land is different though, not one of the manicured parks, nor the levelled plots with cranes towering above, ready to sketch a piece of architecture from stone and mortar. It is a material representation of an idea, able to be manipulated, used and formed in whichever way the users need or want; and at the end of the day, the gates are locked, the park is put back to sleep, ready for another day, another fresh idea to be formed on its eager ground.


Furnace Park reminded me of the allotments that I had pored over in my journals and books. The allotment, an idea of its humble owner, realised in sweat and soil. Able to be ploughed, planted and reaped, and then ploughed again, turning over new soil, for new plants, for the reaping of new crops. The allotment, a world away from the trials and tribulations of lower class life in the 18th and 19th centuries, a world within a world. The gardener’s den and hideaway. I can see their longstanding appeal; I can understand why Furnace Park is the perfect place for the recreation of the gardening heritage of the city and country; an idea grown from the history of the people themselves on land protected for the people.


If you ever do get the chance to visit this little retreat in the big city of Sheffield, I strongly urge you to. To me it was food for thought, causing me to reassess what this space means to not just me, but to the city as a whole. It made me realise that we all need that place to escape to, a place that’s open for our imaginations to run wild within, unleashed from the constraints of work and day to day life. I thought of my little dens and hiding places that I had used throughout my life, and I smiled at the memories. Furnace Park was a happy place for me that reminded me of fond memories, and the promise of new experiences. If you visit Furnace Park, what will it mean to you?

Note: All images were taken by myself and are of Furnace Park and the surrounding area.

Further Reading





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