How gardens help people grow – and why we must protect them

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Inspired by last week’s UCL’s Grand Challenges event on the role of urban farming and community growing spaces, Marina Goodyear shares how gardens in cities are vital for people, as well as the planet

The starting point for Sowing Sustainability was the fact that London is losing its allotments and community gardens at a rate of knots.

This is concerning because green space in cities is invaluable – for scrubbing pollution out of the air, for helping alleviate the urban heat island effect, for preventing soil loss and growing local food, for managing heavy rainfall, and for providing habitats for our increasingly endangered wildlife.

But this loss of green space is also problematic for people. Not only do urban gardens and allotments grow food – they grow social sustainability.

For me, it was also a chance to visit my old stomping ground at UCL to catch up with my former teacher and classmates. It’s been over a year since I finished my thesis on urban agriculture, sustainability and social justice. So, I went along to refresh my understanding on what gardens do for cities and their inhabitants.

 

Community spirit in spades

Public and community-orientated garden spaces develop social support networks between different generations and across different demographics. And on top of this, they provide invaluable therapeutic benefits for individuals – through exercise, positive mental health effects and promoting a sense of belonging.

They are, therefore, often a lifeline for people in difficult situations. There are numerous urban garden initiatives across cities in the UK that actively support people who are at risk of – or facing – loneliness, addiction, homelessness and mental health challenges, among other rocky patches in life. Green spaces also fight the chronic social injustice of poorer air quality in disadvantaged areas.

 

Gone to seed

So, when these spaces are lost, there are vulnerable people losing their social support networks. People lose contact with each other, with the places they live, and with the very human and traditional process of growing food.

And this lack of tenure security also proves challenging to setting these projects up in the first place as volunteers need to know they are investing their time and energy in a long-term project.

Enterprising individuals like Nemone Mercer are coming up with innovative ways to get around this issue by, for example, creating moveable gardens with containers on wheels. While this is great, and should be supported, these gardens don’t really help regenerate soil (a vital activity for the future of food-growing), and so aren’t a straight replacement for land gardens.

 

Nipping this loss in the bud

Housing construction is the primary cause of this green space loss. There is a desperate need for more (affordable!) homes, so future construction must find ways to work with green space, rather than displacing it. This is something very close to Bioregional’s heart, and we advise our partners on how to achieve this.

But these spaces are also at risk of losing people power. Running community garden projects is a lot of work and can be a large burden on the volunteers who have very little support or thanks. Especially when their work is constantly under threat.

Much of the work in setting up and running community gardens across London over the years has been done by people of black and other minority ethnic heritage. This is also often linked to campaigns for affordable housing and bottom-up democracy. On the panel, gardener Carole Wright mentioned among her key inspirations Dora Boatemah (a Ghanaian national who set up a transformational community project in Brixton in the 1980s), and Rasheeqa Ahmad (who helps people connect with ‘wilder’ urban green spaces through medicinal forage walks).

Projects also desperately need to attract younger people as we are in danger of losing knowledge from the older generations. This might require a new slant on how and why we garden. Carole shared how she managed to get young people involved using health and fitness, with young people arriving with recipes to try out a bike-powered smoothie maker!

 

Nurturing nature

So, what can you do? Championing and creating preservation of green space is an important start (personally and professionally). Those of us with professional input into the built environment or cultural spheres can do a lot. For example, the Tate Modern commissioned an edible garden on an estate over ten years ago, which is still going strong. It’s now being transformed into a forest garden by Tate Modern’s regeneration and partnerships curator, Synthia Griffin.

Just as important is supporting garden projects with donations or your own time. Find your local projects here, and here.

And don’t forget, there’s plenty you can do in your own back garden or windowsill to support your local green landscape – helping your own wellbeing, protecting our endangered wildlife and alleviating climate change. Check out our Nature of Gardens report, which we created with B&Q, for ten tips for how to get started.

 

Thanks to Dr Robert Biel of UCL and veteran London community gardener Carole Wright for their insight on the panel, and PhD student Rebecca Payne for shooting and editing the video that was shown.

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