The value of disused urban spaces

Walk with me down a dead-end street in a post-industrial neighbourhood; on one side high walls and fencing protect a new build estate, on the other crumbling brick walls shield a demolished factory site. Pass through an unmarked opening and uneven steps lead you to a pathway overgrown with brambles, littered with beer cans and burnt objects; the signifiers of a disused urban space.

A disused urban space ‘remains as forgotten wasteland or gaps between buildings and other constructions’ states Anja Graner in her article ‘Why should we deal with abandoned urban spaces?’ But disused spaces are never truly forgotten and we see evidence here of dog walkers, graffiti artists, drug users and the homeless. Each group recognising a value in this space, whether it be somewhere to let dogs run or privacy for illegal activities. Graner goes on to recognise the ‘high potential for reconstruction and repurposing (of disused spaces by) integrating them into the community’ and this is where my interests lie.

Since 2016 I have been developing youth-led placemaking projects in semi-wild disused urban spaces. Workshops invite young people to explore disused spaces, re-imagining them for their own purposes while experts bring the tools and skills needed to transform young people’s ideas into reality.

It was clear from the start that disused urban spaces offer young people unique experiences, igniting their sense of adventure, freedom and wildness. Over the past two years I have witnessed young people building new friendships, learning new skills and developing a strong sense of identity connected to nature and community. Jenny Hallam (Derby University) is researching the relationship between wild spaces and wellbeing. She linked the experiences of young people on our projects to a ‘range of benefits centring on learning and mastering new skills, connecting to nature and developing a growing awareness and attachment to the space’.

With most of the world’s populations living in urban areas children are at risk of disconnecting from the natural world with serious consequences for their mental and physical health. Nature Deficit Disorder is a term coined by Richard Louv that describes the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature. With charities such as Barnados and The Children’s Society stating that children’s mental health in the UK is reaching an ‘intolerable crisis’ we need to address the factors which are contributing as well as those that could alleviate this situation.

When young people in Stoke on Trent were invited to share their experiences of adventures with researcher Holly Norcop (Keele University) fear was one of the significant barriers cited as to why they don’t play in wild spaces. Biophobia is a term used to describe fear and anxiety of hazards associated with nature. Parents, teachers and the media spread biophobia through real life stories; such as the tragic drowning of a local boy in open water or criminal activities such as child abduction.  These risks are real but they need to be weighed up against the equally real risks posed by online cybercrime including, bullying, harassment and grooming. It is the responsibility of adults to support children to get outside by educating them about the risks and how to manage them rather than removing them from the natural world.

I propose that disused urban spaces hold a unique value for young people as places that they can access for free, re-purpose to their needs and build their own child-led communities. That by spending increased time in wild spaces children’s sense of well being, mental and physical health will improve. Furthermore, that by increasing positive activity in disused urban spaces they become assets for the whole community.


Original paintings available for sale. Contact Laurel for details, pricing and commissions.

Bird Boy Video


‘Bird Boy’ represents the importance of process over product by presenting the viewer with a non linear narrative of creation and destruction which denies a sense of satisfaction and conclusion.

The ‘Bird Boy’ project started with a sharing of ideas between Laurel and the Welsh musician and mythologist Gwilym.  This was followed by a back and forth of images and music tracks building on shared ideas of transformation, escape and the mythological stories that inform both artists practise. Laurel’s raw recordings of her paintings and Gwilym’s completed music track were then shared with video editor Dom who created a music video that is engaging but jarring, compelling and frustrating, perfectly reflecting the emotions associated with a creative process.

Bird Boy (2015) is a work of artistic collaboration between Laurel Gallagher (artist), Gwilym Morus Baird (musician) and Dom Lancaster (editor).

Feral Children

“Although psychology and pedagogy have always maintained the belief that a child is a happy being without any conflicts, and have assumed that the sufferings of adults are the results of the burdens and hardships of reality, it must be asserted that just the opposite is true” Melanie Klein