What can community gardens teach us?

The Coronavirus pandemic brought the importance of community support into the public arena, in a way probably not seen since the second world war. The sudden reliance on neighbours brought people out of their homes to offer help to the more vulnerable in society, and the unprecedented success of the Good Sam app, and its 750,000 Responders, suggests there had been an underlying need for such programmes, identified more starkly in the crisis.  

Lessons from the Beacon Project 

Whilst 2020 highlighted these issues, community outreach programmes have been around for decades. Their success is very much rooted in how interactive the communities they represent are. The Beacon Project in Cornwall proved particularly successful but required some external impetus (in this case two health visitors) to secure contributions from stakeholders willing to support resident-led initiatives. However, this combined power and resilience can have dramatic results in re-drawing the landscape. In this example a troubled estate with a high level of crime, poor health outcomes and low level of educational attainment transformed to a beacon of progress, with an evidenced-based standard of community regeneration. Within four years, despite austerity, funding and social care cutbacks, the project achieved success across a broad range of outcomes, including lower levels of crime and unemployment – and high take-up of smoking cessation, sexual health and walking for health programmes. 

Community Gardens 

The concept of community gardens and their benefit within this general scheme of initiatives is on the face of it an obvious one. Access to free or subsidised fruit and vegetables, exercise, fresh air, social connection: all things that would point to a having a positive effect and reducing health inequality and outcomes. However, what we can see from projects such as the Beacon Project, is that whilst these can be successful with limited funds, what is vital is to find ways to actively engage members of the community, good project management and support from community partners. For the Beacon Project this included the two health visitors who provided the initial catalyst, the initial five members of the community who responded and then helped engage the community more broadly, and support coming from local teachers, the police and housing officers. For other projects GPs, local businesses, charitable foundations and funds may provide alternative sources of support. 

The garden projects which do well are those where an infrastructure allows for an employee to oversee the process, ensuring there is guidance on planting and caring for the crops. Volunteers are both vital to the functioning of the project and ultimately those aimed to benefit from it, but without guidance may not be able to maintain such a project alone. Urban living can be transient, and thus people may become very involved, only to move on. Many of the population who would derive most from it are not those who would be initially able to manage such a project on their own. Growing crops, of any size and description, requires continuous care, but as is seen in the following examples, providing an employee with the knowledge and skills to manage the project, allows it to stay on track and provides a framework within which volunteers can contribute successfully. 

Finding new ways to fund 

Within London, there are numerous community gardens and farms. Since the 1970s the Surrey Docks farm has involved the community to support the farm, going from strength to strength because of this. However, as the farm has grown, it has recognised that for funding to be secure it needs to go beyond its original remit. To raise the finance to support the farm and its small team of employees it has diversified – offering classes from vegetable gardening to yoga, opening its doors to schoolchildren and groups supporting those with learning disabilities, hosting foreign groups looking to replicate the model and also organisations researching better waste management techniques. 

With the reduction of funding, the landscape of many of these projects has been forced to change. Urbangrowth in Camden started in 2014, originally as a garden therapy project to help people with mental health difficulties by connecting with nature and growing and cooking organic food. However, it struggled to survive the cuts. In 2018 they raised £340 via a crowdfunding page, having suffered a number of thefts and vandalism attacks, and started to sell their expertise to local companies wishing to have rooftop gardens. By 2020, still under the guidance of the founding director, the organisation found that by increasing their corporate alliances they could offer an extended programme of community projects, including online workshops and volunteer opportunities, and be more self-supporting. 

Is social enterprise the answer? 

The benefits of community gardening projects, as standalone or part of a larger farming project, are obvious when it comes to the mental and physical health and wellbeing of those who participate. Public policies are emerging in countries such as France, the Netherlands and Denmark which recognise the importance and relevance of creating communities in which, for people to thrive, the place in which they live must also thrive. How better to support this than to create sustainable feeding models, accessible to all? However, the model which best enables these projects to become sustainable may be embedded in social enterprise - marrying the charitable with the commercial, and allowing those that can afford to pay to supplement those who can’t. Alternatively, another option may be a hybrid of social enterprise and charity, as seen in Cultivate London whose remit is to both support community needs and improve employment for the local community by sponsoring apprenticeships. With appropriate management, this could be the way forward, although a successful social enterprise requires an element of entrepreneurial know-how, not necessarily at the fore of the community groups who may benefit from them. 

Ensuring that urban living doesn’t negatively impact on its inhabitants is crucial. Providing children with a springboard from which they can learn to manage their own health will reap financial and social benefits for at the least that one generation, and probably more, and thus the initial cost to society is actually an investment in the future. Social enterprise appears to be one answer where community projects face a dwindling funding pot. As long as profits are directed to where they need to be, this could be the solution some projects are looking for. 

Lorraine Boulting, July 2021




Connecting with nature offers a new approach to mental health care. Natural England.




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Mairs, J. (16 December 2020). Surrey Docks Farm: renovation of formerly derelict city farm buildings breathes new life into riverside Rotherhithe.




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