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A volunteer run community garden

Urban Wilderness

September 2014

Jacquie Parker is a resident in Plaistow, an area in the London Borough of Newham. For the past four years, Jacquie’s been volunteering as chair of Urban Wilderness – a community garden on the street where she lives with her family. The land is council owned and has been loaned to residents locally for the next 10 years on a peppercorn rent of £1 per year. Together, Jacquie and others in the community are turning it into an edible green space and using it to benefit the whole community. As well as growing organic food and promoting healthy living, they’re also bringing people together, forging relationships and nurturing community spirit.

Volunteering for Urban Wilderness is the first time that Jacquie has taken on this kind of role. However, she’d always been involved with the school, helped out with community events and kept up with local news and issues. She is a mother and carer and says:

“I’ve always cared for my community and I’ve always wanted better for my kids.”

Her involvement with the community garden started when local councillors were door knocking and asking residents if there were things in the area that needed addressing. Jacquie was one of several residents who asked about the disused green space on First Avenue. Like Jacquie, lots of people were also asking for something in the area for children and young people. 

Following these conversations, local councillors started to work with a few residents to get the green space into use. Jacquie joined the steering group and within three months she’d been voted in as chair. The steering group received initial support and funding from Groundwork, the British Heart Foundation, Newham Council and Big Lottery Fund’s Awards for All. Within the first six months of the garden opening they had already drawn in around £10,000 of funding and donations of materials. 

Jacquie describes the first year as hard at first for a number of reasons. She had to learn about all the rules and maintenance which affected the council owned space. And she also had a lot to learn about gardening. Jacquie turned to other people for knowledge and advice and to learn new skills. Together, all the people who use the space have been learning through doing, year by year. 

In the past, the space which is now home to fruitful allotment beds, benches, an area for children to play and a pond (with donated goldfish) was used for drug taking and selling. Jacquie says that initially they had those people to deal with. But she and the other volunteers invited them to come in and use the open garden respectfully. “If you shun those people you make a problem worse” says Jacquie.

Urban Wilderness’ gates are open to everyone, and they are active in welcoming a diverse group of people to make use of the space. 

There are 31 allotment beds which are used by residents. Some of these are cared for by individuals, and some are communal so that anyone can look after and pick their own fresh food. The cost to residents is £10 per year, which is to cover the water bill. 

Apart from wanting better for her children and community, Jacquie says that she gives her time to the community garden because at heart, she wants to make her life in that community. It’s a great outdoor space for children and young people, with facilities such as a trampoline and ping pong table, as well as space for ball games. The children that play there often come from different schools and come there after school and at weekends, rain or shine because it’s a place they have friends. “There are no postcode wars here” says Jacquie. The garden also offers young people an alternative to sitting at home playing computer games. 

Amanda is a local resident who volunteers and spends time at the garden with her two children and the children she cares for as a child-minder. She says:

“We live in flats, so we call this our garden. We’re over every day, it’s a haven.”

Moving to the area two years ago, Amanda is a mother who works two jobs. She didn’t know anyone when she first moved to Plaistow and through being involved in the garden she has met lots of people and feels safe because of it. Many of the people who use the garden have become good friends.

Amanda feels that it’s important for her children to be outdoors and in a nurturing environment:

“They now know where a raspberry or a strawberry comes from and that it doesn’t come from a packet”.

Amanda helps out by being there every day and offers support where she can. They recently hosted a dementia group in the garden and she was involved in welcoming people and offering support. There have been lots of events in the garden, including birthday celebrations, a street party and Halloween party.

There are about five key people who volunteer on a regular basis and make up the steering group. However there are other people who volunteer at different times or when something needs doing. In their first year of the garden, the group learnt to accept how people volunteer; that they come and go. Over time they have lost a lot of volunteers, but they have also gained a lot too. When asked how Urban Wilderness draws in new people, Jacquie says that it’s just by asking people and giving them lots of opportunities to be involved. The garden is very visible from the street and the people in the garden are constantly talking to neighbours and friends as they pass by. It’s not hard to see how people walk in and find themselves returning. Jacquie’s tip for working with volunteers is to allow them the space to take a break and always make people feel welcome to come back, even after long periods of time.

Urban Wilderness is always grateful for volunteers including teams of volunteers who attend through corporate days. Corporate volunteers (organised via company employers) are particularly helpful to the group when they have a specific job which requires a team of people. Corporate volunteers often bring some funding for maintenance or materials as part of their involvement. For Urban Wilderness this is a real help as applying for funding takes a lot of time and effort. 

Since work on the garden started, Urban Wilderness has attracted around £34,000 in funding and gifts in kind. In most cases, the group received this though approaching and asking organisations and funders directly. The funding or gifts in kind they receive are varied and are sourced to meet their different needs. For example, they have received donations of materials from their local Travis Perkins shop which sells building supplies. They recently received an Awards for All grant from Big Lottery Fund to take a group of children to Brighton for the day by coach. And through getting to know their Police Community Support Officer (PCSO), they have built a relationship with their local police station which is donating five bicycles to the community garden.

Plaistow’s community garden has helped to grow lots of relationships in the area, between residents and also local groups and services too.

Through getting to know their PCSO, Urban Wilderness has been invited to have a stall at the police station’s open day. The garden’s volunteers will take some of the children along. Jacquie hopes that by showing them around the station and inside the cells that they‘ll have the opportunity to think early on about making the right decisions and life choices in the future which won’t bring them to a police station for the wrong reasons. 

The lease for the community to use the garden is for 10 years, and they all hope that the lease will be renewed after that. The group feel strongly that they’ve really proved themselves in the last three years, and demonstrated what can be achieved when residents and others locally come together for the community. Jacquie explains that she’s learnt great amounts by volunteering:

“I’ve learnt not just about gardening, but about different types of people. I’m different within myself.”

Before Jacquie was involved she often felt anxious and had never spoken in public before. Jacquie feels differently now and in her role as chair she recently went to visit another community to share the inspiring story of Urban Wilderness and all they’ve achieved.
(Picture: Jacquie and her daughter)

The garden borders Plaistow South Big Local, which is an area with a high population of young people under 19. Urban Wilderness was established before Big Local but they are now connected. Jacquie was invited to a Big Local meeting by a local councillor and has since been involved by chairing Plaistow South Big Local’s green spaces group. They are looking into how through Big Local and Jacquie’s experience they can establish more community green and edible spaces in the area. 

You can find out more about Urban Wilderness and contact them via their website.

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