A relatively recent phenomenon, community gardens have proved enormously successful in bringing neighbourhoods together, as Andy Sturgeon reveals
Napoleon got it wrong. Monsieur Shortarse labelled us a nation of shopkeepers but, as everyone knows, weíre actually a bunch of gardeners. Yet, despite our national obsession, there are still 10 million people who donít even have access to a garden of their own. Heaven knows what these poor souls watch on telly while the rest of us are glued to Two Fat Gardeners, Changing Gardens, and all that.
But there is hope for the gardenless. The community gardening movement began in the 1960s in response to a decline in public open spaces and in order to regenerate local community spirit. There are now at least 450 spread over the country but they are mainly an urban thing and might be at the base of tower blocks or on derelict sites. The smallest is only 10 square metres. Some are leisure parks and others are entirely food-growing projects, there are gardens for therapy and training, and gardens for the disabled. Some are conservation or recycling areas and some are just meeting places and spaces in which to relax, but all are reliant primarily on regular volunteers to operate.
These gardens are immensely valuable to a community and can bring cultures together, particularly in inner cities where individual customs are frequently left hidden behind front doors. They present a great opportunity to bridge the divide between ethnic, political and socio-economic groups, and to dismantle cultural taboos.
Community gardening may also be about empowerment, offering an opportunity for people to experience an element of control over part of their lives. They can be about providing something for your own neighbourhood of which it has been deprived, challenging the powers that be and taking control of an open space and of your own destiny.
Gardening is also a fantastic form of therapy and not just for those with mental health problems or learning difficulties. The major benefit of a community garden seems to be the provision of somewhere to relax in a green environment rather than being surrounded by concrete. By improving the look of a bleak built-up area such gardens can really serve to pull a community together.
One such garden I visited in the East End of London was incredible. Ugly blocks of flats dominated the area in a very oppressive way, there was litter everywhere, abandoned and burnt out cars and paint daubed all over the walls. The only greenery visible was a tiny square of grass covered in dog excrement and I was beginning to wonder what the hell I was doing there. But then you round a corner and nestling in the U shape of the flats is an incredible oasis. Beautiful trees and shrubs and places to sit and individual plots for everyone to grow their own stuff. The contrast with the rest of the neighbourhood was unbelievable. Perhaps the most remarkable thing was the lack of graffiti. Apparently, ever since it was first built, the garden had had a dramatic influence on the community, binding them together in a way that nothing else could. Even the kids have a respect for the place and in three years theyíve had no vandalism at all.
Community gardens are never bland like public parks but are vibrant places and because most have very little or no money they have to make their imagination work harder. Many gardens have been set up without expert intervention and although the programme Charlieís Garden Army isnít really in step with the democratic process of creating a community garden (being bossed around by an outsider isnít really the point), it excels at demonstrating two really important aspects of this type of project. Firstly, it succeeds in bringing the community together and secondly it creates a genuinely useful neighbourhood garden from an often derelict or underused site.
The Federation of City Farms and Gardens encourages, advises and helps community gardens and provides a starter pack that tells you how to find a site, raise money, enlist volunteers, get training and meet legal requirements.
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