How to start growing food on social housing estates

| 30th July 2010
Medway Court
Communal gardening at Medway Court estate
Estate community gardens are springing up in our cities - here's how to transform a derelict urban space into a food growing hub

Urban agriculture is starting to take seed on social housing estates. Residents and volunteers are sprouting their fruit and veg on raised beds and in polytunnels on roof terraces, disused basketball courts and other derelict spots.

One of the biggest benefits of creating a food-growing space on council estates is that it brings people together. This is no mean feat, according to Alison Skeat, who has set up her own example, the Dirty Hands Project, on her estate in Plaistow, London.

‘I had been living on my estate for 13 years and I had never met my neighbours,' she says, 'but once people get together they share skills and share their problems.'

Brian Crow, founder of the gardening club of the Taplow Gardens Estate in Camden, agrees. ‘We've had everyone helping out from people with disabilities and OAPs to children; people of every creed and colour.'

This community success blueprint is being supported in London by the Capital Growth campaign's competition to encourage community gardens on housing estates called ‘Edible Estates'.

‘There are many spaces that could be used for food growing on housing estates,' says Paola Guzman, project officer for Capital Growth, ‘We have seen the potential of social inclusion and community empowerment in the place you live through really taking part in green spaces, rather than feeling it doesn't belong to you.'

Some community gardens are actually run by social enterprises, but with co-operation and with benefits to residents. At Medway Court Housing Estate in London's Kings Cross, for example, social enterprise Global Generation have regenerated a disused area to work with young people. Residents get space to grow their own food too, and can take part in twice-monthly ‘twilight gardening sessions' to learn new skills.

There are environmental benefits too: attracting bees and other wildlife to new green spaces. Food produced by residents for residents has a miniscule carbon footprint in comparison to air or road freighted groceries bought from supermarkets. ‘There will also be a greater awareness of where food comes from when in the supermarket - the impact of educating people,' says Guzman.

Health education is another big driver to start a community garden. Alison Skeat started the Dirty Hands patch, which spans three basketball courts, so her five-year-old daughter and other children would not only have healthy, organic food to eat, but also so she would grow up with an understanding where food comes from.

How to do it

The first important hurdle is to secure permission to have your way with the land.

If you live on an estate, the landholder is most likely your council's housing office. Find out who the right person is to approach with your proposal. If you live in London, Capital Growth may be able to help at this stage.

Brian Crow explains that his group approached the council while renovations were taking place to the property. ‘The grounds were one big building site and one big dog toilet,' he says. Crow set up a gardening club with some of his fellow residents to make the area attractive and to grow food. Now they have just won first prize for Camden in Bloom.

‘Camden Council's Parks and Gardens gave us a fruit orchard on the condition we'd look after it. They also helped us get support from the local housing office,' Crow says.

Once you have the permission you need, you can start planting. But first, you might need a few things. Here's the shopping list:

  • tools, such as spades;
  • good-quality top-soil;
  • wood for building raised beds;
  • somewhere to store tools;
  • a water supply;
  • insurance;
  • and most importantly, seeds and plants.

Green-fingered finance

‘Fundraising is always a challenge,' says Jane Riddiford from Global Generation. Her top advice is making some good partnerships with local businesses and looking for local sustainability funds. For example, she received funds amounting to approximately £6,000 for the Medway garden from the Guardian, Capital Growth, the Co-op, and the London 21 Sustainability Network.

As a residents' group it is even trickier to get funds, as Crow has found, with disappointing responses from local business. But Skeat has had success with a mixture of cash from the Parks department for topsoil (which is £45 a tonne), a grant from Capital Growth worth £1,000 for a shipping container to house tools, and site insurance covered by a £900 Grow For It grant. Another option is the Local Food Fund.

‘I'm very good at blagging equipment and tools,' Skeat says. She managed to convince a local construction site to donate wooden planks to build raised beds from. This shows that persuasion and persistence can pay off when it comes to starting up your own estate food growing site.

The aim here is to be sustainable, as you don't want to be out of pocket to keep the estate fed. Some projects, such as on Wenlock estate in Islington in North London, actually manage to make money from their edible spoils through selling their produce through a café. And Global Generation's youngsters aim to make a profit on their produce by selling it to Konstam restaurant and a café.

A digging crew

You will need plenty of volunteers to contribute to the food-growing and harvesting. Skeat runs a co-op where volunteers must work for 24 hours during growing season (early May to Early October) to receive the fruits of their labour.

But how do you get your neighbours on side, especially if you've never met them before? There are various methods, including leafleting, putting up posters and taking part in local events to raise awareness. Top tip from Crow: make sure your leaflets are translated into different languages.

In some ways, it is easier to get more people involved once you have already started as you can demonstrate what you are doing. 'Just get it started and others will follow,' says Crow.

Skeat recommends keeping an interest in growing food by taking part in events such as The Big Lunch, which are designed to get the community together for a street party around home-grown fare.

But what if other residents are actively opposed? Crow had a few confrontations with dog-walkers on the estate who were being told to walk their dogs elsewhere. ‘We put up "no dogs" signs and I convinced them to walk their dogs further away. I also shouted out of the window if I caught any.'

Luckily, none of the estates featured in this article have suffered with vandalism or anyone stealing their crops. Crow's project had £100-worth of tools stolen, so it is worth keeping these safely secured. But on the whole ‘people respect what you're doing,' he says.

A growing movement?

The good news is that these kinds of community gardens are easy to replicate in cities across the country.

Urban agriculture is already on the map for Luton's Marsh Farm and on the Isle of Wight through the Medina Housing Association.

Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, says it's impossible to estimate the number of estate community gardens growing right now. No surveys have taken place as yet, and it is challenging to count because some council estate growers fall beneath the radar (they have neither applied for funding or support, nor do they have an online presence, such as a blog or website.)

Even if you don't live on an estate, you can volunteer with the individual projects or do work for them through the BCTV's Carbon Army.

Other useful links:


Christine Ottery is a freelance journalist

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