In this article we explore the place-making role of community gardens as sites of diverse communities and sustainable urban change.
What are community gardens?
Who organises community gardens?
Where are they?
How do community gardens shape place?
How is identity and belonging shaped by community gardening?
Martin Burrows @ The Conservation Foundation
Growing flowers, planting bulbs, laying stones, turning soil; these actions are everyday ways that people make sense of place by changing it. Gardens and gardening require skill and expertise to be shaped into places that are enjoyable, creative, and dynamic. Whilst many homeowners, particularly in the UK, have private gardens, there are some which are fundamentally shared spaces and are known as community gardens. Not only are they, by definition, shared and collective spaces, but they are public, rather than private. The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens support more than 1,000 community gardens and 200 city and school farms in the UK. This represents the work of groups who collaborate and share skill, materials, and expertise. In this article we explore the role of community gardens as place-making, home to diverse communities, and sustainable urban change.
In the UK, the community may represent local residents that are brought together by location or shared interest, or they may be brought together formally by a state institution, NGO, or charity. You can discover community gardens in your local area by visiting The Royal Horticultural Society and The Federation City Farms and Community Gardens. These organisations support and promote gardening, city farms, and urban agriculture.
Initially, gardens may begin simply to improve the aesthetics of an area, to make the environment more appealing through floral arrangements, and greenery. But often, they function in more important and diverse ways. For example, Urban Growth Learning Gardens is ‘a social enterprise that aims to improve the well-being of Londoners through providing education, employment and environmental transformation’. Its slogan reads ‘transforming spaces, transforming lives’ which represents the multi-faceted ways that gardens may aim to change both social and environmental geographies of an area.
In the UK and USA, community gardens have historically begun on land that has been disused, or in decline – “mundane or everyday spaces that have been neglected or abandoned by the local state or private landlords” (Milbourne, 2012; 946). Largely, these gardens exist in urban areas in order to provide a sense of rurality and experience with ‘nature’ that may be lacking otherwise. The human geographer Professor Paul Milbourne says that community gardening projects seek to “alter the meanings of these spaces, with the physical transformation of land also producing new spaces of identity, sociality and empowerment (Milbourne, 2012; 946). You can take a look at some of the varied spaces of community gardens across the UK here: UK city farms and community gardens in pictures, The Guardian (2017).
Artist Activists © Flickr, http://bit.ly/2ENq0aw
However, community gardens do not just exist in the UK and the US. For example, the Jaden Tap Tap initiative in Cité Soleil, Haiti was founded in 2011 in an area of distinct urban poverty and post-earthquake redevelopment. It is an urban garden that recycles waste into useful growing posts and decorations for the space. In doing so, the garden has improved the aesthetic of the shanty town area, whilst providing food and produce such as peppers, potatoes and herbs. The Jaden Tap Tap initiative helps to foster civic pride in place, as residents tend and cultivate their own green spaces: “the mixing of past, present, and future that is essential to place-making, particularly following a catastrophe when social and material modes of place-making are often disrupted and destroyed” (Puleo, 2014, 11).
What happens in community gardens? They are diverse and varied in their design and scope. For example, the Edible Bus Stops in London use ordinarily unassuming and meanwhile spaces such as bus stops, and benches to design gardens that become local landmarks that reflect the specific environment, identity and heritage of an area. How are these maintained? It is the gardening of these spaces that bring people together.
© The Conservation Foundation
In Gateshead, North East England, The Comfrey Project facilitates a community garden that supports refugees and asylum seekers across Tyneside. In 2017, this local council pledged to support over 500 Syrian refugees to the region (The Guardian, 2017). The plot is used to grow produce from their home countries, make new friendships, and craft a sense of place and belonging. This community garden is shaped by local, national and international processes of migration and globalisation – more than that, it aims to improve emotional attachment to place amidst these dynamic changes.
As well as volunteers on the ground, making, crafting and doing, it is important to consider the role of organisations and institutions who co-ordinate gardens. Their specific structures, governance and ideas will shape place in a particular way – they may even be tensions between stakeholders making places formally, and informally. For example, The Llangollen Community Garden plot in North East Wales was previously assigned land from the local council; but the council now seek to reclaim the land so it can be re-developed. This is an example of the complex and potentially contesting ways places are made formally and informally, and for social and economic benefits.
It is thought that gardens and gardening is good for well-being and health. This works in three ways: one, it is therapeutic for gardeners to work with land, two, the spaces can be enjoyed by communities they may be social excluded, three; environmentally community gardens are good for urban sustainability. Not only are these places made, shaped, and changed by people but these places change people too. It is in the making that community gardens feel good. It is not that gardens make communities, rather making gardens makes communities; the sense of place that comes from a community garden is dynamic, it is always changing.
In an everyday context, place-making refers to the practices, activities, and routines through which people make sense of the spaces in their lives – the ways they produce these spaces into meaningful places.
People who are brought together over shared space, activities in common, or interests.
The feeling of being connected, and part of, a particular group or space.
Sense of place
The way we perceive our spaces, communities and areas of interest, to be meaningful.
Ask pupils to discuss and share their representations, or ideas of what ‘gardens’ and ‘gardening’ are and do. Ask them to consider if gardens are a public or private space (to encourage discussion around access to space, place-identity and typologies of gardens). Introduce the idea of ‘community gardens’ with videos, or images shared in this article. What do pupils see in the images?
Encourage pupils to explore the place of community gardens in their area. They can discover this through Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens and Royal Horticultural Society. Consider, how could Community Gardens work as a fieldwork site? Would could you interview? How could you document changes? Take a look at some of our suggested case studies below:
Pitt, H (2016) Why getting children to ‘engage with nature’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, The Conversation:
What is the future of urban agriculture? Dr Michael Hardman, Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Salford, YouTube (2017):
The Conservation Foundation
Pitt, H (2015) On showing and being shown plants - a guide to methods for more-than-human geography, Area, 47 (1) 48-55
Milbourne, P (2012) Everyday (in)justices and ordinary environmentalisms: community gardening in disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods. The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability
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