Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The City Is My Garden.....

Bloom Fringe is an amazing event that I visited in the first weekend in June. it is the fringe event to Dublin's Bloom Festival, Ireland's premier garden show, and I was invited by the awesome ladies who run the event to spend three days in Dublin, talking visiting awesome community gardens, and generally just to get involved in the event.
On my first day in Dublin, somewhat tired from the journey, I found this piece of street art and it made me really think.........

What does that mean?
Well for me in particular the city is my garden. Supporting gardens and gardening is my thing and is what I do as a volunteer, giving my horticultural knowledge to folk who can use it to improve those lost and unloved spaces that most areas of cities have. Whilst what I do is, of course around creating those community spaces around food and growing, it is also more than that. For me it's a horticultural call to arms. A demand, if that is not too bold a word, for horticulture to be at the centre of the way we care for our cities. A request for good horticultural practices from all the stakeholders and contractors who work within the city. Why on earth shouldn't good planting, tree maintenance and planting, care for our parks and wilder spaces, be at the centre of what we see as a healthy city.
Now I am more than aware that most people think I am somewhat crazy in my thinking but let me explain.
81% of the UK population live in urban areas and that is an ever rising figure. Our cities are becoming full to the brim and it's a frightening scenario, as mental health issues rise and the NHS and others struggle to deal with the rising numbers of people needing support. We are constantly told that we need to get people into nature, but what on earth does that means? As discussed in a previous post, we can hardly bus people out to the countryside every weekend for their dose of nature, so what do we do?
Surely it's obvious? Surely we bring nature into the city? Surely we open the door and allow not just nature, but good horticultural practices into the city and allow people to feel that they have a voice in hat their city looks like?
But what do you mean Sara? Well........
So here in Bristol there are a few things that really get my goat. Over the years pollinator projects have meant that there are a lot of areas planted for pollinators, using a seed mix that was especially formulated for that. Now that project is over, sadly the beds are very poorly, if at all managed, and we see huge swathes of Welsh and Californian poppies that have taken over from the other species sown, peppered with willow herb and other weeds that have come in. They look sad and tatty. Like nobody owns them my grandmother would have said.
We also have some junctions that have been planted as herbaceous borders,. Now this is a wonderful idea and I salute it wholeheartedly, but these borders were planted without any thought for how they might be managed in uncertain times, and now we are in a city that needs to make 101 million pounds worth of savings this year, you can probably imagine the state of these spaces. They are trimmed once a year and wood chip is used as a mulch, which by this point in the year is failing and weeds are appearing through them. Whoever designed the spaces also didn't allow for failures or for some plants being more vivacious shall we say. Phlomis fruiticosa waves in enormous drifts across the city whilst other plants struggle. In some places Peonies have been used and their beautiful blooms fall all over the mulch as they are missing any form of staking and other plants surrounding them have died away.
Bindweed is also a massive issue in all these spaces as they are trimmed yearly, or cut with a brush cutter, that cuts back the bindweed and just makes it's roots stronger so that it very quickly takes over and strangles the rest of the plants in the space.

Wolfe Tone Square in Dublin

Now I realise here I am painting a picture of doom and gloom but of course there is another way. We all know that in days gone by councils parks departments were the way so many now esteemed horticulturalists began in the industry. Today we see, in most towns and cities, the parks teams hugely diminished, if they have survived at all, and hence this entry point is closed, or severely cut. Here in Bristol parks are set to become "budget neutral" and so the parks department has to be 100% self sustaining and so our incredible council nurseries, which we are lucky to still have, have to concentrate on growing plants for other areas in order to make themselves financially viable.
But surely we can change this? With Incredible Edible Bristol we have made gardens in the most unlikely of spaces, concentrating on growing food for sure, but also, and sometimes more importantly, focusing on the change a beautiful garden makes to those most unlikely spaces.
Whilst I was at Bloom Fringe, those fierce organisers of the event took two spaces and changed them with plants, effectively making gardens, all be they temporary spaces, in a car park and in a square in Dublin city centre.
Wolfe Tone Square is, I think, Dublin's equivalent of our Bearpit here in Bristol. A lost, unloved and underused space populated by a community that is in trauma. A space used for drinking, for anti social behaviour and a space avoided by many through fear. The aim of our Bearpit garden, is to support the creation of a more safe and inclusive space, with the addition of food being more of a side line although the vast majority of the plants used are edibles. By turning the space in Wolf Tone Square into a temporary garden, the atmosphere changed dramatically. children played in the mud kitchen, climbed on the copper cow and played chess with a chess master who was one of the spaces usual community. People stood in the space chatting, talking about plants, about gardens and about life. The seating available in the square is set in place and in a line so placing chairs around the space, making it beautiful with plants and grass, albeit fake, made people stop, slow down, take a seat and begin a conversation.
Now for me this is the power of good outdoor design. We cannot change the way our towns and cities have been designed. We certainly cannot change these lost or poorly used spaces but what we can do is put nature and good horticulture into our policies of managing these spaces, turning them from lost and unloved to beautiful, productive and healthy spaces. Investment now into this along with requests to other stakeholders who manage land in our towns and cities, and a change in how we design spaces into the future, will ensure healthier city as we head into the future, and can address not just physical and mental health of people, but also the health of the city itself, using SuDs, green roof and wall technologies, and bringing nature into the city for the health of the city.
So how do we do this?
Well in my experience, we just do it. Organise your community around that space and get on and make that change. Often it can be done for the price of a few seeds and the use of some old furniture that otherwise might end up in landfill. Clear those spaces, add some seats, spread some seeds and see what happens. Bur along with that, lobby your local councillors and ask them to begin to see the areas they support as a garden. Speak to your children schools and clubs. Find those people in your community who can help with gardening, carpentry, crafting skills.
And if you need proof that this works to make more coherent communities, use the examples across the country that are really supporting nature within cities to support the health and well being of both people and place.

Bristol's Bearpit Garden

No comments:

Post a Comment