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





Come build a den at Furnace Park!

Join us this spring at Furnace Park, where we will be promoting play, exploration and the use of natural and found materials by creating microhabitats!

On the 15th and 17th of April, there will be free workshops where families and children will be able to work in collaboration with artists and students to build dens on the site. Furnace Park, once an abandoned industrial space, has been transformed into a creative space for the local community.

Both workshops are from 12pm – 3pm, there is no booking necessary. There will be indoor space available if it rains, please wear comfortable and weather appropriate clothing.

Find more info about Furnace Park here and more about the workshops here.

Join our facebook event page here! microhabitats workshops

Programme for the Microhabitats symposium, Friday March 28th


Venue: Bradley’s in the Nichols Building, Shalesmoor, Sheffield.

Topics of discussion for the day include (but won’t be limited to):

urban scale, huts, sheds, studios, dens, nests, micro environments, children’s spaces, dwelling, secret spaces, retreats, gardens, caravans

11am             Open and introduction

11.15am       Luisa Golob, Chief Executive, Art in the Park

11.35am       Paul Allender, University of Sheffield

12.00pm       Richard Bartle, artist

12.30pm       Discussion and questions

1pm               Lunch & walk to Furnace Park (weather permitting)

2pm               Luke Bennett, Sheffield Hallam University

2.30pm          Brian Lewis, Longbarrow Press

3pm               Discussion and questions

3.20pm          Mark Goodwin, poet, and Nikki Clayton, photographer

3.40pm          Closing discussion

4pm               End

[7pm              Launch of Neurone installation at Furnace Park]

For details of the talks, please click here.

To reserve a free place, please visit our eventbrite page.

Microhabitats // a symposium // 28.3.2014

We’re pleased to announce our next occursus symposium, which will take place on Friday March 28th, 11am – 4pm at Bradley’s Café in the Nichols Building (Shalesmoor, Sheffield).

Places are free but limited. To reserve, please visit our eventbrite page.

(There will be a £5 charge (payable to Bradleys Cafe) on the day for lunch & tea/coffee.)

The symposium will be the first in a series of events and workshops delivered in collaboration with Art in the Park, to build huts, nests and dens at Furnace Park with a view to creating spaces for conversation, story telling, music, poetry and other activities.

Beavers' den
Ph. T.L. Carroll (2006)

Topics of discussion for the day include (but won’t be limited to):

urban scale, huts, sheds, studios, dens, nests, micro environments, children’s spaces, dwelling, secret spaces, retreats, gardens, caravans

Voussoir Cloud by IwamatoScott Photograph by James Diewald  Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/conarcist/3154529939/in/photostream/
Voussoir Cloud by IwamatoScott
Photograph by James Diewald
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/conarcist/3154529939/in/photostream/

Confirmed speakers include:

BRIAN LEWIS (Longbarrow Press)

Refuge / Refuse [or Camping Without Tents]

This paper will explore ideas and practices of the ‘temporary shelter’ (those contingent and ‘unbuilt’ spaces that offer the user limited protection against the external environment: cardboard boxes, rubble bags, wheelie bins), with reference to Heidegger’s essay ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ (in which he argues that the act of building is a necessary precondition for man’s dwelling).

It will consider depictions of the temporary shelter in contemporary literature (including Peter Reading’s Perduta Gente, a collection of poems focusing on homelessness and dispossession in 1980s Britain), and recount the speaker’s own experiences of rough sleeping in difficult conditions: the thinnest layers of protection set up against the world.

It will also ask whether these unstable, ‘unhomely’ spaces (both of and not of the built environment) are inimical to the groundedness advocated by Heidegger, or if, in fact, the thinness of their skins and their near-invisibility is expressive of a more intimate relationship between the micro and the macro.

We attain to dwelling, so it seems, only by means of building. The latter, building, has the former, dwelling, as its goal. Still, not every building is a dwelling. Bridges and hangars, stadiums and power stations are buildings but not dwellings; railway stations and highways, dams and market halls are built, but they are not dwelling places […] These buildings house man. He inhabits them and yet does not dwell in them, when to dwell means merely that we take shelter in them. Building Dwelling Thinking, Martin Heidegger

LUKE BENNETT (Sheffield Hallam University)

Taking shelter: men in sheds, men in bunkers

This presentation will examine and amplify portions of my 2013 article published in Gender, Place and Culture on the gendered nature of the lure of abandoned nuclear bunkers and the (mostly) male bunker hunters who crave access to them. It will critically examine Joan Smith’s (2001) ‘shed men’ argument, before moving across to consider the socio-technical and traumatic aspects of male bunker-love. The presentation will feature examples of retreat, crisis and attachment enacted by men in abandoned bunkers across the UK, counterposed with similar examples in popular fiction (e.g. Stalker, Take Shelter, Six Feet Under). It will also draw upon the work of Erikson (1964), Bachelard (1969), Jung (O’Donnell 1979), Davies (1994), Mellström (2004) and Virilio (2009) in understanding the bunker siren’s call – showing retreat to these confined spaces as in many instances willed and comforting, thus blurring expected dichotomies between womb and tomb.

Mark Goodwin (poet), in collaboration with Nikki Clayton (photographer) and Brian Lewis (curator)

A poetry reading accompanied by photographs and sound-enhanced poetry entitled Cryptogram of Den

A sequence of poems that explores spaces, emotions, textures, and notions that include

garden, field, story, woodland, den, rurban city-rim, dwelling, civilization, children’s space, nest, loss, miniaturisation …

An accompanying series of Nikki Clayton’s photographs – curated and presented by Brian Lewis (Longbarrow Press)

Richard Bartle (artist)

Richard Bartle will speak about his recent work, Deities at the Bottom of the Garden

Paul Allender (University of Sheffield)

A Hiding Place

This paper will be about ‘Dens, children’s spaces, secret spaces & retreats’. I will describe the hiding place that I, and a friend, had between the ages of 8 and 10 in Neepsend in Sheffield in some detail, and show pictures, and then explore why this particular hiding place was so very important to me at that time and place in my life.

The paper will conclude with a very brief look at some of the theorising of children’s dens and hiding places.

Luisa Golob (Chief Executive, Art in the Park)

A bed sheet, a clothes horse and a torch!

Where do you get your inspiration from? How do you develop ideas or projects?

These are questions I am asked on a regular basis.

My answer is in imagination.

This will be a short talk on how playing as a child, creating new worlds in my back garden and having the freedom to explore has lead me to being a CEO of an arts charity in Sheffield.

The day will conclude with a walk in Furnace Park.

Spring designs at Furnace Park

SKINN (Shalesmoor, Kelham Island and Neepsend Network) are currently working on some prototypes for designing small, temporary structures on the Furnace Park site.

In the next few months we are going to be designing three prototypes for microhabitats, which would be built by children and families during a series of workshops.  Below are some thoughts about materials, structure and our approach to the project:.

Want to use materials which are common in the urban environment, materials which are free to source and which do not need complex tools or techniques to work with. Something which everyone can easily find, some waste material, of non-toxic nature. 

 For our three structures we want to use:


-plastic (from packaging)


The first two can be found around the house or in any food store. 

And the last material we wanted to be sourced from Furnace Park – small bushes and shrubs growing around the place. 

 The key idea is to use materials in a way which would engage the young people in thinking about basic material properties, but also about new technologies and about waste. 

We want structures to be parametric, designed on a computer to be both simple to make and assemble – yet impressive in both size, shape and the fact that it was made out what was waste a couple of hour ago. 

Parametric design is the generation of geometry from the definition of a family of initial parameters and the design of the formal relations they keep with each other. In other words this means that shapes are made from a series of parameters, which define the properties of the structure. 

And you get structures like this:

Voussoir Cloud by IwamatoScott Photograph by James Diewald  Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/conarcist/3154529939/in/photostream/
Voussoir Cloud by IwamatoScott
Photograph by James Diewald
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/conarcist/3154529939/in/photostream/

So with a couple of repeating shapes and simple assembly rules you can have a very impressive structure.

We have played with a number of shapes in the office, but then decided we might need to actually learn some Grasshopper (algorithmic modeling software). To make things like this:



Another occursus symposium // MICROHABITATS

On March 28th 2014 occursus will host the next in its series of interdisciplinary symposia, this time on the theme of microhabitats.

Beavers' den
Ph. T.L. Carroll (2006)

The symposium will be the first in a series of events and workshops delivered in collaboration with Art in the Park, to build huts, nests and dens at Furnace Park with a view to creating spaces for conversation, story telling, music, poetry and other activities.

Possible topics of discussion include but are not limited to:

urban scale, huts, sheds, studios, dens, nests, micro environments, children’s spaces, dwelling, secret spaces, retreats, gardens, caravans

We welcome proposals for 20-minute papers, screenings, readings, performances and exhibitions on this theme. Please email a.j.jackson@sheffield.ac.uk by February 15th with a short description of your proposal, listing any equipment that would be needed.