The Friends of Starbank Park have much to celebrate in their well-loved, small green space located between Granton and Newhaven, by the sea north of Edinburgh.
The park's name is brought to life in a distinctive flowerbed cut into a raised bank and shaped like an eight-pointed star, suggesting a seafaring compass and reflecting the long history of navigation by sailors who would leave and return to the Firth of Forth - which is visible in a dramatic view from the park today. Now the park itself has become a shining star amongst all the green spaces in Edinburgh.
The park has been a public space since the late nineteenth century when the old Leith Town Council bought the classical, two-storied Starbank House and its grounds, including a cultivated rose garden.
Chair of the Friends group, Janet McArthur, explains: "This was a Victorian walled garden and laid out formally with shaped rose beds. It was a place where couples courted and came to walk and enjoy the views across the Firth of Forth. It is a hidden gem which today still attracts lots of visitors who can relax and enjoy the park".
The Friends group were formed in 2013 when Janet was looking after a toddler and former chair of the Friends group Alastair Robertson was newly retired - from the outset they were keen to involve all sections of the local community in caring for the park.
It was around this time that Starbank Park was protected in perpetuity with Fields in Trust as part of the Queen Elizabeth Fields Challenge. Like many other Friends groups across the UK, they wanted to support the maintenance of the park against a backdrop of years of council funding cuts. However, rather than simply arrest the decline in the park's upkeep the dedicated group has taken on many additional tasks including raising funds and delivering improvements to the park environment. Janet says: "Our group evolved organically, we began connecting with our community through social media and working with other volunteer groups locally. We don't have a local community centre but, over time, we have grown our group, developed the park and converted a small bothy into a community space - so in some ways now the park has become a hub of the local community".
Regular maintenance sessions twice each week ensure that Starbank Park is kept looking clean and beautiful. Tasks are scheduled weekly to tackle the seasonal needs and the volunteers document their ongoing work with a remarkable set of floral images on the Friends' Facebook page and Twitter feed. Since the regular volunteer sessions began, the Friends have returned many of the borders to their original shapes, built composting facilities and planted trees, herbs, fruit trees, shrubs, ferns, herbaceous plants and bedding plants. The work of the Friends extends and supports the more limited maintenance that the Council now delivers and, together, they are making a huge difference.
Janet is keen to stress the very good relationships the friends have established with City of Edinburgh Council staff: "We work with the park rangers, the gardening team and the Inch Nursery to obtain and maintain plants and flowers and organise events. I see our volunteers as part of a bigger parks team now and we work together very well".
As a volunteer-run organisation, the Friends group have been able to leverage funding and grants that are not available to the local authority; they have used innovative fundraising methods including crowdfunding. Extending the funding base has provided additional services and events, for example, the Friends group worked with local schools to make the most of the park's educational potential. There is a successful Little Free Library for children and a fairy-tale trail marks the local association with Hans Christian Anderson who visited the area and stayed nearby.
Friends of Starbank Park have very firmly adopted an entirely organic approach to their gardening and ensure recycling and reuse of all materials is carried out. Bee-friendly and butterfly-friendly planting and maintenance is an important consideration. This is a community-led change to the way Starbank Park is maintained which was instigated by the Friends group. Whilst they are caring for a formal Victorian garden, the landscape is sensitively enhanced with new planting to provide additional interest and extend the period when there is colour and structure in the bedding areas.
Many young people have their first taste of gardening in the park - there has recently been a group of Duke of Edinburgh Award participants volunteering, helping out with the regular gardening sessions. Janet remembers that the winner of the 2019 RHS Young Gardener of the Year Award, local lad William Rae, first visited the park with the Edinburgh Academy Junior school gardening club to plant tulip bulbs.
Not content with taking on much of the maintenance of Starbank Park the Friends also deliver a calendar of events to get the local community out into the park and celebrating with their neighbours. A very popular Easter Egg Hunt attracted around 600 people to the park in early spring and a well-attended Halloween party extends the season well into autumn. A recent event was the Summer to Remember, organised by a local hospice and supported by the Friends. The park provided a beautiful setting for a celebration of past lives, who were remembered by flags placed amongst the planting whilst a brass-band performed.
Starbank Park has a vibrant display of Allium, round-headed flowers in bold colours, and to reflect the shape and joy of the Alliums last summer the group organised a Bubble Festival picnic as part of Have a Field Day, our UK-wide celebration of parks and green spaces. The park was filled with people enjoying food and drink, live music and a children's toy swap event, but they also had a special celebration of their own to mark, having been presented earlier that week with the Best Neighbourhood Park award in the Horticulture Week Custodian Awards.
Colin Rennie, Manager of Fields in Trust Scotland says: "Friends groups play an invaluable role in maintaining, enhancing and encouraging greater use of green spaces across Scotland. This is exemplified in the work of Starbank Park Friends group in Edinburgh. Despite the challenge of Council funding pressures, the park continues to excel. There are a great many reasons why millions of visitors flock to Edinburgh with Starbank Park and its unique history being amongst them".
The Friends of Starbank Park are a terrific example of local volunteers who celebrate their unique green space and ensure their local community has a well-maintained and much-loved space to enjoy... forever. Reflecting on the impact the Friends of Starbank Park have made Janet says: "I think the best part of the last six years has been connecting different people in the community who would not normally come in contact with each other! Volunteer gardener Stan has enjoyed supporting the Duke of Edinburgh lads, Billy (a retired printer) helped welcome young families to the Easter Egg Hunt... the Friends of Starbank Park has brought us all together across different ages and communities and makes people feel valued".
You can find out more about Starbank Park and the work for the Friends group by visiting their website.
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