High costs and chemical contamination of fresh food is leading more and more individuals to seek to grow at least a portion of their own food, themselves. But as global populations continue to shift from being rural to city dwellers, gardening can be a challenge.
Urban gardening seeks to fill this void. Urban gardening is the practice of growing food within a city environment and can involve animal husbandry. It is a way of mixing urban style and design with nature and can reduce food miles by growing foods local to their use. Urban gardens help improve biodiversity, reduce urban rainwater runoff and help to mitigate the”heat island” effect caused by the concentration of infrastructure and lack of passageways of cooling air in cities. While most cities are far from the ideal envisioned by forward thinking urban planners, it is possible, with vertical farming, hydroponics, various agricultural technologies, and visionary architectural design, to conceive of a future where cities grow most of what the residents need, within the city confines. In the meantime, current urban gardens, like those on the High Line in Manhattan, provide relaxing green spaces for residents and revitalise business in the area.
Making the most of this growing trend is Nomadic Community Gardens, situated in the heart of the hip East End section of London known as Shoreditch. Nomadic Community Gardens works with city developers to care for disused urban spaces in a “meanwhile” use as they await planning permission to build. The space provides a venue for not only gardening but for community gathering of all kinds. The gardens are called “nomadic” because everything is portable and can be moved to a new location. Beds are built on pallettes to be transportable and to prevent contamination of and by the ground.
On Sunday 1 May, Nomadic Community Gardens celebrated a first birthday. The joyous celebration comes after several years of hard work to gain land use permission and a year of tenancy in the garden. The success of the community garden is largely due to the vision and dedication of James (Jimmy) Wheale, co-founder and Director of Nomadic Community Gardens and the next in our series of individuals using their skills to make a difference.
We met with Wheale earlier in the spring to discuss the social enterprise that has brought new life to a disused space off Brick Lane.
“I came across and idea in Berlin, when I was living there several years ago. It was a meanwhile use of space in an old carpark that they’d gotten the permission to use and so they created a cafe and a garden in a sort of foresty area and I thought: ‘Wow! There’s no reason this kind of thing can’t happen here.'”
Wheale admits “Continental Europe are light years ahead of us in terms of using space for the meanwhile time period and with a concentration on the creation of communities and the qualitative benefits that they bring to people’s lives,” yet, he was determined to turn his idea into a reality, in London.
When Wheale returned from Berlin, he described the idea to his friend, Junior, who had moved into a flat near to a disused space. Over the next couple of years, the two developed a winning proposal for the disused land, and when the land was sold to London Newcastle, they pitched the idea to the new owners.
“We’re attempting to act as a conduit between a corporation that finds it difficult to reach communities and the communities who need resources and who need space. Our project is there to find space and organise it so that communities can make use of it and if local authorities support what we’re doing it becomes more attractive to development companies who are trying to get permission from local authorities to do developments. If they can subside something in the meantime it almost offsets the damage that can happen in development.”
“Luckily for us,” Wheale says “their leadership has vision and believes in social responsibility and so they allowed it.”
London Newcastle quickly gave approval and although the team hoped to have access to the space in February 2015, in order to prepare the land for the growing season, they only gained access in May. This meant that there was a tremendous push to get garden beds ready for the remainder of the growing season. Fortunately, they built over 100 beds, and because of the position of the garden between two railway lines, without overshadowing buildings, the conditions were perfect for growing vegetables. In a densely occupied city like London, Wheale notes, this “breadth of horizon is unheard of.” With such a great deal of sunlight, the vegetables grew quickly in the first season and gave the residents the boost they needed to their enthusiasm for urban gardening.
The space was initially leased to Nomadic Community Gardens, to act as caretakers, on an initial 6 month lease. Wheale admits that he couldn’t demonstrate to the owners that he had done this sort of work before and that the plan would work, and he credits London Newcastle for their faith in the team.
“They took a real chance on us,” he says.
The lease has now been renewed, but the garden could be given 2 months notice, at any time, to vacate the space.
“But, you know, that’s part of the deal,” he adds.
In anticipation of this, Wheale has been talking with other landowners about taking the garden elsewhere, when London Newcastle begins to develop the land. Wheale explains that the intent of the project has never been to reclaim land from development but to make use of the resources, for the community, in the meantime.
Beds in the garden are free to residents and the garden is self supporting through the hosting of events that generate a minimal income to cover basic running expenses. Wheale hopes that in future gardens, development companies could subsidize start up costs to allow gardens to focus on being self sustaining once they are operating. In this way, the garden does not need to apply for funds from limited charity funding sources.
“Obviously we’ll never be earning big bucks,” Wheale says “but it doesn’t need it.”
For the Shoreditch Nomadic Gardens, Wheale used in his own savings for start up costs to get the ball rolling. Some of his investment has been repaid, though he admits that not all of it has.
“The boss always gets paid last,” he says, smiling.
At present, the garden is tended by volunteers, but Wheale has plans to pay certain key roles in the garden and if the garden concept spreads to other areas, he hopes to be able to provide employment opportunities, training and skills development along with community garden resources.
Wheale has a degree in Cultural Studies and has developed an eclectic set of skills. He worked in construction, and gained problem solving skills and determination in his time in the theatre industry. He has managed bars, where he learned to create ambiance and to nurture the social relationships of a community. Wheale also has prior experience with organic gardening. He argues that bringing vegetation into the urban environment is important for increasing biodiversity, and allows wildlife to flourish. The gardens also provide habitat for bees, which are currently under threat in many countries.
Vegetation, Wheale says, “softens the urban environment so you’re not always facing hard, impenetrable surfaces and there is a sort of therapeutic and health benefit to vegetative life, whether it’s just walking around it or growing it and tending to it and reaping rewards from it.”
Whilst Wheale likes the idea of offsetting carbon emissions with more vegetation, his main reason for creating the garden, was the social aspect and potential to improve urban quality of life.
“One of the most important things for people is quality of life. We are the sum of our relationships, and I saw that spaces in cities were being restricted with austerity measures and space is really where we get to build those relationships. Creating a community garden I thought was important, with the idea of growing vegetables because I felt that was a universal language that would create more cohesion as they all share in an activity. And that grew into trying to meet the more diverse needs of people in the community.”
In our trips to the garden, TTDOG experienced the great ambience of camaraderie and community. Friendships have been established and grown through the experience of being a part of the community garden. TTDOG asked Wheale how community became so important to him.
“It really came from my studies. It opened my eyes to the way society is structured and the way that structure affects people’s experiences, and I think that there is something to be said for support networks. We need to feel like people are caring for us and know our name. Anonymity is a really dangerous kind of experience to fall into and the way that society is organised and the way it atomises people not only affects their quality of life but also means that they’re under a level of consciousness that isn’t really benefitting them. They’re sort of really propping up something that is benefitting out of them.”
The garden has a wide reach through what Wheale calls various “spheres of influence” from the sphere of the immediate community that tends to their beds to the wider community that comes to the garden for workshops and social events to an even wider sphere of tourists who visit the garden and take ideas back to their own communities. And, because they have so much manpower and materials now, the team at the garden has been able to help other community projects, building beds for other gardens, and hosting workshops for other community gardens.
Nomadic Community Gardens currently hosts skills training in pallete furniture building, pallets bed building and basic DIY skills. There is also knowledge sharing in gardening.
Individuals experience a sense of satisfaction from the relaxed atmosphere and previously frictious relations between different communities have been eased and bridges built between members of these communities who have come together in the garden.
There are cafes in the garden and market stalls can be established to accommodate people’s enterprise.
The garden plays host to street artists who paint the walls with beautiful murals, musicians who jam on music nights and interactive theatre events.
TTDOG wondered how the community might respond when the landlord chooses to develop the land, removing this wonderful oasis for gathering, learning, sharing and gardening. Wheale philosophised that there may be a saturation point for community resources, when their impact begins to ebb. This may be because people have had the benefit of it, learned the skills they wanted to learn, or the limit is reached in terms of the number of beds. At that point, the garden can become more exclusionary than inclusionary and moving to a new location allows a new community to reap the benefits of the life cycle of the public space.
And, when there is a void that is left behind, this can create the impetus for the community, who has had the benefit of the space, to create it for themselves. His hope is that this can create a kind of community activism to rejuvenate and develop their own public spaces.
TTDOG asked Wheale’s advice on creating a community garden using meantime use:
“Come to me and I’ll give you the lowdown. I underestimated what it was going to take to get this project off the ground. There is a whole world of stuff that you have to do from writing literature that inspires people to having the practical knowledge of how to build things to the social knowledge of how to manage relationships, create and hold space and see yourself as the gatekeeper and not the possessor, how to relinquish control and allow stuff to happen organically, and, how to have discipline to turn up and work and inspire. One of the things is also creating the relationships with the PLCs and have them believe in you. You have to come with a proper proposal and a plan and some sort of strategy.
It’s no mean feat. You need to have a bit of self confidence and self love, because there’s been so many times when you think: ‘Should I just walk away?'”
Wheale looks around at what he and his team have created, and continues:
“It’s not an easy task and it looks great because it’s come through the really hard work of people that believe in it. But the only way to have more of these gardens is if the communities run them, themselves. I’d like to provide consultancy and maybe have some sort of a manual and some Youtube videos.”
“You’ve got to be the change you want to see in the world. One of the beauties of consciousness is that you can learn by doing. You don’t have to necessarily know how to do, before you do. There needs to be a certain conviction and a direction of purposeful intention that you go towards a goal and stick with it. Appreciate the down times and have gratitude for when it’s all coming together. You just have to start and you’ll find your way. And you may have a couple of false starts but it’s about the personal journey.
We’re all destined for greatness as long as we tread that road.”
As is our practice at TTDOG, we asked Wheale:
For what are you grateful and where do you find your greatest joy?
“I’m grateful for the experience to experience life. We are eternal spirits that have entered a soul to experience this space time. And I’m grateful for the tools that I have to experience it. I’m just happy to try to make the most use of them as I can in my lifetime and hopefully encourage others to live to the maximum of our potential and the fullness of our being.”
“My greatest joy is in that experience: the emotions that come from the sensory communications that we have in our life. As much joy as I can feast myself on, really. And not without sadness. I think sadness is as valid an emotion as joy and happiness is. You need to sit with your pain and work through your demons and I think that everybody has insecurities and everyone has something traumatic happen to them and those are the two defining experiences of our lives, and those are the important things to work on.
Once you work on those, the door is open for more joy.”
Nomadic Community Gardens is located off Brick Lane and is open Monday – Sunday 10 am to 10 pm. The garden hosts special events and workshops daily. Meeting of Styles UK will hold a major event on the UK bank holiday 27, 28, 29th in the garden with dozens of artists gathering in an annual Paint Jam. The public is welcome to come and watch live painting, enjoy food, music and drinks in a relaxed community setting.