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The power of community gardens – growing people and places

Logo: Groundwork

By Stacey Aplin, PR and Communications Coordinator, Groundwork

person tending to tomato plants in a polytunnel (Groundwork)
(Groundwork)

Over the last forty years, Groundwork has seen first-hand the tangible benefits of supporting communities to proactively engage with their local environment. Not only do local places and spaces improve as a result, but people grow as individuals as they start to reap the rewards of what these community spaces can provide.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s fair to say eyes have been opened to the importance of access to well-maintained, supported and funded outdoor spaces -and the benefits this can offer.

Community gardens play a big role in this. When done right, these spaces provide local people and places with so much more than aesthetics. They ensure that local communities have access to a space that is tailored towards the needs of the area through employment and training opportunities and physical and mental health provision.

Groundwork’s Growing Spaces report explores three community hubs in Blackpool, Kettering and Northwich. Though each of them is unique, they share a series of recognisable - and replicable - features and deliver similar outcomes for people and the environment.

Each of them is fundamentally a social space, helping people to broaden their networks and foster a sense of belonging. Everyone who comes to the community hubs is treated as a volunteer, rather than a beneficiary, and their contribution is valued, helping to build their confidence. People come to the community hubs from all walks of life, often meeting people that they would never otherwise cross paths with.

As well as helping local people, the presence of a community hub can improve the local environment. Each of the three hubs in this report includes a community garden, which promotes connection to nature and horticultural skills. Volunteers make use of the skills learned in the hubs to ‘green’ the local area and get involved in environmental action.

2 people enjoying a cuppa in a community garden (Groundwork)
(Groundwork)

Groundwork project Grozone in Cheshire has been supporting the local community for over a decade. The award-winning community garden is built on a small patch of land between a railway track and a river on the edge of the town. The town has pockets of deep deprivation hidden within areas of relative affluence and the neighbourhood in which Grozone in based scores among the lowest 20% for quality of local environment and among the lowest 30% for the level of education and skills in the local population.

The site had been derelict for 18 years before Groundwork took it on, holding consultations and a community design event to ensure that the plans for the site met the needs and aspirations of local people. The site has developed over time and is now home to many raised beds and growing areas, an outdoor kitchen, a compost toilet, ponds, wooded areas and more.

The garden provides volunteering opportunities, including cooking and eating together in the garden’s outdoor kitchen, and other activities include arts and music workshops, craft sessions and all kinds of outdoor activities. The garden also hosts social and horticultural therapy for people with mild to moderate depression and anxiety through the Roots to Wellbeing course which provides learners with a City & Guilds Level 1 Award in Practical Horticulture Skills.

The Green Patch in Northamptonshire is another great example of how a community garden can support local people. The 2.5 acre Green Flag award-winning garden in Kettering provides a wide range of activities for residents of the adjacent housing estate and beyond.

Over the years the site has been improved by volunteers and currently consists of a multi-use building, polytunnels, beehives, ducks and chickens, raised beds, a summerhouse and natural play area, wildlife areas including two ponds, and orchards.

Eating together is an important part of volunteers’ experience at the Green Patch, helping to strengthen the sense of community that has grown up around the site. Volunteers make meals with food grown on-site and can sometimes take surplus away to cook at home.

person wheeling a wheelbarrow in a community garden (Groundwork)
(Groundwork)

Speaking to community garden volunteers for the Growing Spaces project, the transformational impact that volunteering had one some individuals was clear. Many people spoke about how coming to the garden helped them to manage their mental and physical health, gain skills and take the next step in education or work.

Alongside these personal stories, the gardens created a strong sense of community that continued beyond their gates. One volunteer told us: “There’s a family atmosphere but everybody helps each other, and they all become friends in the end. We do things out of here as well, we do social groups, we do walking, sometimes we go to the pub or whatever. That’s what makes it nice.”

Of course, over the past year community gardens have not been able to operate in the same way as usual, with people unable to work alongside one another and socialise together. During the lockdowns, staff and volunteers have continued to do what they can to support one another and maintain the gardens, through online activities, staying in touch and practical support. The Green Patch, for example, set up a donations tent giving local people access to donated food and other goods.

As things start to open up this spring, outside in the fresh air will continue to be the safest setting for rekindling our social connections. Community gardens will be at the heart of this, providing as safe space for people to regain their confidence and enjoy spending time together while watching the gardens flourish.

Find out more at www.groundwork.org.uk

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