Reclaiming a derelict site to create a community garden


All images used in this article are courtesy of © Nina Pope & Tim Olden

The story of how a group of dissatisfied residents pulled together, got funding, and created a blooming community garden where the work, and the rewards, are shared

Not far from the 2012 Olympic Village in Stratford, another local regeneration project, albeit on a much smaller scale, has energised a small residential street.

For years overgrown with Japanese knotweed and littered with rubbish from flytipping, a derelict site behind a wobbly fence on Bakers Row had been a constant cause of neighbours' frustration.

Tired of looking at it, they pulled together resources, time and effort and in just over three years reclaimed it as a thriving community garden, anchored by an innovative artistic vision of how to weave culture and community into regeneration.

Breaking ground

'Over the years I would look outside my window to see if the site would be developed,' says Dasha French, who moved to the street in 2000 and who, with six others, co-founded a community group. 'Nothing ever happened so we started inquiring with the council to figure out who it belongs to and whether we could we do a bit of planting.'

They discovered that the site was protected by English Heritage and owned by the parks department. As a scheduled ancient monument site, it held the remains of the 12th century Langthorne Abbey. While it was protected from commercial development, the upkeep of the site had fallen by the wayside.

'Just enquiring as residents doesn't have much power with the council,' she says. In December 2006 they formed the Friends of Abbey Gardens (FOAG). 'We found a sample constitution on the internet, modified it, and signed it. We came up with the name Abbey Gardens because of the monastic heritage.'

As a group, they applied for and won an UnLtd Millennium Award for social entrepreneurs to help create a public communal space. 'While our aim was to host community events, says Andreas Lang, another co-founder, 'it was so difficult to access the site we ended up having to throw a BBQ on the street.' The Award allowed them to create a website to generate community interest.


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Culture within regeneration

Abbey Gardens is directly adjacent to the Docklands Light Railway extension, due to open this year, connecting the City to the Eurostar terminal. As part of the DLR's Public Arts Strategy there was a required art consultation for the station.

'We wondered if there was a way to combine public art with a community garden,' says Andreas. 'We got involved in the consultation to try to influence what form the public art piece would take. Newham council was very helpful, paying for artists that we chose to come up with a proposal to present.'

With a shortlist of four artists, Modus Operandi [the independent arts consultant which developed the Public Arts Strategy for DLR], Newham Council and the Friends group voted unanimously for Somewhere, a creative company run by artists Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope.

With a commission but no funding, Karen and Nina successfully applied for a grant from the Arts Council London for the garden design.

Rubble rousers

Meanwhile, FOAG members secured funding from the London Borough of Newham's Section 106 fund, and the London Development Authority.

The first task was to clear the space, no easy job given its protected status. The remains were excavated, investigated and covered up again. This allowed the group to access the site for the first time. ‘Finally we had a lawn we could walk on,' says Dasha.

They then discovered the land was contaminated with remnants from the area's industrial past. The result was that they couldn't grow directly in the soil, and a costly land remediation was necessary. Over the whole site, 20 cm of soil was laid, buffered by a permeable membrane that allows water to go down but doesn't let contamination go up. They then installed 20 triangular raised beds as growing areas, with the required amount of topsoil to prevent contamination.

The garden design is reminiscent of the Plaistow Landgrabbers, an early 20th Century squatters' group Karen and Nina came across in their research. This group of unemployed men would squat on 'Triangle Camps' or empty pieces of land that they would use to grow on.

'Unlike most allotments, it was crucial to us that the garden be cultivated communally, that no one "owned" any of it,' Karen says. They came across a photograph of the group in 1906 - it was a cross section of 'the working man', from labourers to sailors, each in his profession's uniform. They enlarged the photo to print on the garden's portacabin, and replicated the slogan on the wall behind their camp that reads, 'what will the harvest be?'

Harvest Festival

After almost two years' work, by June 2009 they were ready to start planting. 'We had collected email addresses at our street BBQ two years ago, but then nothing had happened,' Dasha says. They threw a picnic on the newly opened area to enlist volunteer gardeners.

The was a small trickle of volunteers in the beginning, but by the end of the summer there would be about 20 on any given Saturday morning gardening session, according to Dasha.

Chiltern seeds donated sponsored seeds, which were given to residents to take home and grow into seedlings. Residents duly brought forth some 400 trays ready for 25 sq metres of planting.

'For novices it was a great result. We started planting in July, ignoring a lot of the gardening advice, and it worked - the volume we got was astonishing,' says Karen.

Two-thirds of the garden is used to grow vegetables ranging from brassicas, sweetcorn and tomatoes to different varieties of squash. The other third is used to grow flowers. 'I actually can't think of a vegetable we didn't grow,' says Karen.

This year they are installing a rainwater harvesting system and planting apple and pear trees as well as blackcurrant and redcurrant vines on the south-facing wall.

In September 2009, the FOAG threw a harvest festival to pick, cook and eat everything from the garden. There were cake-making and vegetable sculpture competitions, and Sam Clark from upmarket restaurant Moro cooked for 150 people who showed up using a charcoal burner and a tiny grill with just produce from the garden, flatbread and spices.

A different kind of public space

The garden functions organically. It is open from dawn to dusk, and literally anyone can come in. If somebody comes to the garden and does work, they take home what they think is fair.

From FOAG's initial seven core members the group has grown to about 20 willing to do a bit more, and there are 200 people on the mailing list. There are weekly gardening sessions open to all, and they've led gardening sessions for local schools. FOAG is now discussing where any excess produce could go - whether local schools or hospitals.

Lydia Thornley, an active member of FOAG who has lent her design skills to create publicity material for Abbey Gardens, says, 'we share not just recipes but food stories, because there is a range of ages and cultural backgrounds, there is a lot going into the mix'.

She adds: ‘when I first got involved in the garden, I was thinking of moving out of London in search of community and a bit of 'outdoors'. Now I'm not. I've found both just up the road'.

Matilda Lee is the Ecologist's Community Affairs Editor

Abbey Gardens run runs free, open gardening sessions from mid march to end Oct, led by garden club leader Hamish Liddle. People can harvest what they like, and take home what they like.
Saturdays 10am - 3pm
Thursdays 4pm - dusk
Tuesdays 1pm - 3pm
(free to all; children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult; tools & seeds provided)

Useful links
What will the harvest be?
Friends of Abbey Gardens

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