Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Living in a food desert......

There's so much talk about food deserts but mainly we hear it from large, deprived areas of cities in the US and there's often some debate about whether they exist here in the UK. Inevitably the situation is not as dire here as our cities are smaller, and it would be rare to have to drive for half an hour to buy an apple in a city, although in areas in the countryside not so rare. However I'm going to talk cities as that's my experience and where I'm working.
Any city, as Bristol does, that has 16 working food banks, obviously has people living in crisis and food poverty. However, food poverty isn't just related to food deserts and, sadly, with access to food banks being quite difficult to attain, it's also questionable as to whether everyone in food poverty can even get to that food when needed. Far from it for me to criticise the food banks as they do amazing work, but the system to get to that food is long and complicated, usually including doctors and/or social services, which often is uncomfortable or even impossible for people due to personal circumstances. 
People are often very surprised to hear of food banks in Bristol. With its reputation as a foodie city, and its status in 2015 as European Green Capital, its reputation is somewhat different to its reality. For sure Bristol is full of amazing restaurants and has an abundance of community supported agriculture projects, city farms and community gardens, but it also has areas where people struggle to access fresh and most importantly affordable food for themselves and their families. Little did I know when I moved out of the city centre, that this would be something I would find out about first hand.
Where I live, in South Bristol, unless you have a car, which I don't as I don't drive, the closest supermarket other than the convenience store at the garage or the corner shop that sells sugary snacks and noodles in pots but not a pint of milk, is over 2 miles away. For sure there are buses, but buses no longer have the place to put your shopping at the front, as it's been utilised for free newspapers, so it's really important only to carry onto the bus the amount you can hold within your seat area. The buses in our area are really well used and are often packed so more than 3/4 bags is impossible, and in reality 2 bags for life is your limit. I've seen drivers refuse people entry to the bus with more. 
For me this is hard. I want a diet full of fresh, locally grown where possible, food that's good for me. The reality of the supermarkets that are accessible by bus most easily is that they are fairly small stores and their range is limited. A lot of the food isn't ingredients, but ready meals, pizzas, and their vegetarian options are limited to say the very least! 
Fizzy pop, crisps, biscuits, pastries and cakes are given far, far more space than fruit, veg or fresh meat and fish, with all the offers on snacks rather than good food. But of course I have options and choice, and although it means being more organised, I am lucky that I can fairly easily access the Bristol food scene that we all know of, and that with an allotment and garden I can grow a lot of our food myself.
But what about those people with limited choices, or no choice at all? What about parents juggling jobs, often with unsociable hours, and often more than 2 in order to pay the bills? What about families with no car? Or even with a car, but with several jobs that car always being out with the working parent? What about single parents struggling on one income? All these people are time poor as well as living somewhere that has been designed as a dormer suburb, with little thought to the logistics of life. Over and again I attend community consultations about food where I hear the clear message that what the community wants is a supermarket. And over and over I see middle class choice not understanding need. For sure community shops, box schemes and deliveries from local suppliers are wonderful but for many they are just not affordable, or what they want. Many of us take for granted the ease of a supermarket, or the expectation of having weekends and evenings free, but for many families this just isn't the case.
I have an understanding of this, as my husband is a prison officer who specialises in mental health and suicide prevention in a hectic women's prison. He works long hours, and does a job where he can't just leave when it's his allotted time. He also works every other weekend. Due to his work, for obvious reasons, we don't live too close to his workplace, so he has to take the car as public transport simply doesn't exist. Family life for us has always meant juggling his work commitments around everything else that has to be done. Easy when you live in a small town with two supermarkets and nigh on impossible when you don't.
So what is the answer? Well the answer is design. The answer is to stop building housing estates without thinking about food provision and stopping the expectation that everyone has  use of a car to visit out of town supermarkets. 
But what's also  important is finding communities that are struggling and empowering them to help themselves by creating positivity around the issues and looking at exciting, engaging ways to get people to look at how they connect with food.
But, and here's the crux of the point, whilst our government is happy to give control of our food provision to the supermarkets, effectively giving them a green light to behave in any way they want, it is going to be people power that changes things. Generally food deserts in the UK appear because the big guns know that people will have to visit them, however hard it is to do so, because there is no option and once in through the doors, their clever marketing has you in its hold. We need to demand that this changes, through both urban planning, local and national government but most importantly through people power.....
And with that ladies and gentlemen, I say...... 
'Watch this space'

Guerilla gardening or good use of a lost poiece of land?

Friday, 15 April 2016

A Garden In A Bristol Bearpit!

I don't usually post about Incredible Edible Bristol things here, as that's what the blog at is for. But today I'm going to write a bit about a project that has finally started to be planted this week, and why it's such a big deal, both for the organisation and for me.

I've been working with The Bearpit Improvement Group for 2 years, designing and working on making a garden in this extraordinary space. The Bearpit is a sunken roundabout at the city centre end of the M32, accessed only, until recently, by 4 tunnels although there are now stairs down into the space. Historically, as all such places tend to be, it was lost, forgotten about and had a certain reputation as it attracted people into it who were lost themselves. The tunnels were, and still are, used by people to sleep in, and the space has been used by people in crisis or struggling to cope in our society. 
For the last 7 years, since its inception, the Bearpit Improvement group has brought together key organisations and individuals who are looking to turn the space into a vibrant area that is both safe and inclusive, turning that lost and unloved space into one the entire city can be proud of. A destination.
Lots has happened, with new steps down into the space, 2 cafes and a fruit stall opening, vibrant street art livening the space and markets beginning to happen. There have been accusations that the community that uses the space are trying to be moved out, and that this is all about gentrification, but that is far from the reality. What is being designed is a space for all; a space people engage with and can enjoy, where they can buy a coffee and delicious locally made cake, or lunch, and relax, rather than scurrying through, disengaged.

I have designed the garden around various themes. The original idea came from the forest garden concept, but as the garden needs to be accessible and useable as a garden, the concept has morphed over the last 18 months or so, to include beautiful seating that will include pollinator rich planting, as well as a path that will lead people around the garden and through its different planting areas. All the hedging will be made from herbs, willows and fruit bushes, and the planting will be a mixture of herbs, perennial vegetables, pollinator rich plantings and plants that will help cool and calm. 
Now for Incredible Edible Bristol turning unused, unloved and forgotten spaces into gardens that are both beautiful and productive, is what our core work is. Across the city we have created and work with 29 gardens that have done just that, creating not just food growing spaces, but also resilient communities around those spaces, who are proud of what they are achieving. But of course not everyone wants to garden and with our motto being "if you eat you're in" everyone can take part in some way, be it baking a cake, coming along to a work party for a chat, helping with organising events around the gardens or any one of a myriad of other ways. So with that in mind, as people ask who the garden in the Bearpit is for, the answer I find myself using over and again is "you".

Many have suggested there will be vandalism and that this garden is a waste of money
To these people I say watch and I hope you'll be surprised . There could be vandalism but who cares? We'll replant, and as we have engaged with ALL the different people who use the space, and discussed what they would like and what the plans are, it's been a community discussion and decision  so we hope the community will be proud of the garden, meaning vandalism stays at a minimum. 
For many people living in the urban environment means access to nature is often difficult. Parks, although abundant in number, in our most challenging wards are often lacking in resource and so have lost much of their community feel and aren't easy places to feel safe in. Travelling to other areas costs money and often cultural differences mean a lack of comfort once there. I hope that this garden looks to talk of possibilities for and to people. Good urban design should include nature, biodiversity and their importance for people. Plants and planting should be dynamic, exciting and useful, and people should be inspired to take those designs and look at how they can design their areas, neighbourhoods and homes. 
And in the meantime, the garden in the Bearpit will continue to grow and inspire......

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Digging Towards Victory.

If I'm honest I was never really expecting to be writing this post this year. I'd almost dealt with the fact that I was going to spend probably at least a year without an allotment and I thought I'd made peace with that idea. I thought with my garden, the city wide Incredible Edible Bristol plots and the occasional visit to friends allotments, that I'd be fine without a site of my own. In fact very occasionally I wondered if I'd ever have my own allotment again.
And then I got a phone call.
"Hello, we'd like to show you the empty plots at the site of your choice. Tomorrow if you're about. At 1 if that suits? We think we have the perfect plot for you".
And that was it. Suddenly I realised it felt like Christmas Eve when you're a child, and that it was pointless trying to hide the excitement. My legs felt fizzy. In my head I was planning planting schemes. I caught myself going through my seed boxes, plotting. 
Now I must tell you a bit about the site. It's in South Bristol, where we now live, a 10 minute cycle from home. It is situated at the northern side of one of the Northern Slopes and has spectacular views across the city, to the suspension bridge and Cliftonwood's amazing colourful houses. It's peaceful, quiet, with just the sound of birdsong and distant traffic, and it's a site I know well as it has my favourite community garden on it. The Lets Grow Allotment is run by Knowle West Health Association, and it's chief gardener is Steve Griffiths, who was last years BBC Bristol Food Hero. It's an exemplary space that I'll write about more as time ticks on.

But also there is the Urban Retreat, run by Ben Carpenter of Youth Moves who, with his crew of local young people, has constructed a round house, planted an orchard and willow to improve drainage, built an amphitheatre and paths across the site, and recently added a polytunnel for growing as well as raised beds. It's an extraordinary space that is helping young people in our area reconnect with nature and food whilst having fun with their friends. 
So now you can see why I had my sights set on this space!! 

What I was never expecting was to be offered a plot that is ready to go, just waiting for seeds to be sown, and plants to be planted. And yet we arrived and were shown to No 6, and were told that we could have a full plot and that this perfect space was there for us if we wanted it. Apart from the occasional tussock of grass the front half is completely ready, and today I have planted out broad beans and sown spinach and rocket. The back half needs a little bit more work but it's very superficial weeding and tidying, and indeed I cleared one bed today so I could plant a little gooseberry bush we bought. 
And so here I am, back in my comfortable guise as an allotment holder, having realised a few things. I hadn't really considered that anything was particularly missing over the last few months, but the excitement of that call made me realise that the allotment sized hole was actually huge and gaping. With my deep belief that growing and gardening are good for both body and soul, and in my efforts to get that across to others, I had forgotten that I need that too. It's part of what makes me who I am and whole. 
But the peace of this site, the warm and generous welcomes and the offers of support from people who I know will be new friends, has also made me think. The last few months at our old site was heinous. Apart from thefts and torn friendships over the occupation of the land, the noise of diggers and barking of security dogs for months on end was emotionally draining as we watched the land be torn apart. My new plot is calm and peaceful, a million miles from the despair and anxiety caused by the building of that crazy road and bridge. But the juxtaposition of the two sites, both very clear in my head, makes me realise that we need to understand that all our sites could be at risk and that we must be prepared to fight for them if we need to. And why? 
Because allotments are a part of the British psyche. 
Because we are a nation of gardeners. 
Because we must protect our green and pleasant land and continue to dig for victory!!

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Supporting local horticulture....

When I sat down to write this post I was intending to write about a recent trip to Bristol Botanic Garden but I wanted to put it into an important context, or it just ends up being a stream of photos. Not that there's anything wrong with that of course, but it's not really what I do or what people expect!!
Almost every time I mention the Bristol Botanic Garden in a group, someone remarks they didn't know Bristol had a botanic garden. People in the city don't know it's there, let alone what a fantastic resource it is, with extraordinary plant collections, including a collection of sacred lotus flowers that are magical to say the least. It also has an entire garden set out for study of Chinese medicine, which is a rare and special resource used by students from around the globe. I could go on, but I intend to visit often this summer and blog about the collections so I won't bore you now.

But what I wonder at, is how we keep our botanic gardens alive and thriving in a world where they are constantly struggling for funds, meaning a marketing budget is a thing of the past? I hope by embarking on this series of posts I can help our garden here in Bristol a tiny bit, but how many others go unrecognised within their own communities? 
So why do I think these gardens are so vital? I guess in the first place as they are usually allied to universities, they're spaces for learning, best horticultural practice and research all of which are important not just for the horticultural industry, but for our world, our environment and our health. As our climate changes, plants are inevitably going to play an enormous role in the way we have to design our cities and towns for health of people, but more importantly for flood relief, for cooling and to maintain biodiversity within our sprawling urban spaces. Botanic gardens role perhaps should, and may be, trial grounds for this. Experimentation with new species, as well as best practice with those we already are familiar with, but in practice rather than in a lab. Field trials for the world of our future?
Volunteers helping to clear out and replant the Victoria Water Lily

But secondly these are beautiful gardens, with rich and diverse plant collections that can inspire not just gardeners, but any visitor to look at our horticultural history, geographical or social or political, and want to know more. And it can be just that spark that hooks a young person for life.

What always amazes me is that the Bristol Botanic Garden runs on an army of mainly volunteers, some of whom are retired, or career changers learning more about hands on horticulture, as well as others from many different places and of all ages. They are an inspirational bunch in themselves, always happy to stop and chat about what they're doing, and why they're doing it, as well as being fierce advocates for the garden. Volunteers not just work in the garden, but in the entry hut, behind the scenes writing newsletters and organising such great events as the annual Pollination Festival. And I know there's a waiting list to be a volunteer!! But we can all volunteer for our botanic gardens by being fierce supporters of them, writing blogs, taking and sharing photos, visiting and buying tea and cake, all of which keeps the interest in these gardens alive. 
I'll be back soon with a blog about the Chinese Medicine Garden!!

Wordless Wednesday