Multi-Use Games Areas, more commonly known as MUGAs, are being introduced to Hackney to combat the problem of youth crime and gang violence.
Essentially enclosed sports areas, they come in a variety shapes and sizes but they generally comprise of a mesh enclosure, floodlights, astro-turf surface and a goal area suitable for football, hockey, basketball or netball.
Hackney Council have installed a number of MUGAs across the borough such as the one I visited on the George Downing estate in Stamford Hill. Here young people of all ages (nearly all boys) play football long into the night, even after the floodlights have gone off. The lads I spoke to were unanimous in their appreciation of the MUGA.
They liked the fact they could bash a ball around without fear of it going on the road, but most of all they welcomed the idea that it was theirs.
As one would-be Rooney so eloquently put it;
“It’s good for the community, if it wasn’t for the astro-turf all these kids would be on the road.”
The MUGAs are seen as a way of keeping youngsters off the street. They also serve as a way of keeping teenagers within their ‘territory; the demarcation lines set out by different gangs.
The proposed new MUGA in London Fields will be positioned so that it lies equidistant between two local gangs. The plans met with much opposition though after three years, the go-ahead was given late last year.
Syd Bolton of the London Fields Preservation Society was chief amongst those who campaigned against the MUGA. He felt that the artificial nature of the area would be a blot on the natural landscape.
“We were concerned that it would be of detrimental quality to the open space and that the freedom of that space would be compromised.”
Not all local residents were against the MUGA. The London Fields User Group (of which Syd is also a member) campaigned for the MUGA arguing that it would give local teenagers somewhere to go and play sport.
Syd accepts defeat graciously but refutes accusations of NIMBYISM:
“It was a laudable initiative but it conflicts with the space we have here.”
As we watch The London Fields cricket team command the crease, he points out to me that there are plenty of green spaces where sport is already played:
“I think peoples ability to participate in sport is very valuable, but it shouldn’t be in an artificial space.”
He admits the final plans are much improved with the addition of foliage and the promise to re-seed the surrounding area.
However, not all MUGAs are in such open spaces. Most are within or next to estates. Noise can be a problem though there are plans to incorporate sound proofing measures in the design and layout of the sites.
Trevor Lafferty is managing director of Lightmain who design MUGAs across the UK. He argues that the quality of the mesh in new MUGAs keeps the noise to a minimum while timed floodlights bring a natural end to proceedings.
He is an advocate of teenagers getting involved in the design process and claiming ownership of MUGAs.
“They have got an area which is focussed on them and there is a sense that they own it, and because they own it, they take care of it.”
Trevor operates in an expanding market. MUGAs are not cheap; a new MUGA in Hackney Downs is expected to cost £1.1million. Hackney Council provided £100,000 match funding, the rest coming through Learning Trust lottery funding.
With seemingly no end to youth and gang violence, authorities are keen to make the investment if it means getting teenagers off the street and onto the pitch. They have police support too, possibly because as Trevor Lafferty urges, “they know where the youngsters are.”
Football clubs are also keen to be partners; Arsenal train kids at schemes in North London and Tottenham Hotspur are involved in a MUGA at the Hackney Wick Youth Club. Coaching is provided and the best young lads are taken for trials. In 2009 one of its promising players Jamal Mason Blair died in a stabbing incident in Hackney.