This case study looks at how a community gardening project started from a conversation between neighbours about a small piece of largely unused land and grew to four well-used gardens, regular community meals and a local food café.
Granton Community Gardeners (GCG) is a community gardening project that has been running since 2010.
Granton is an area in North Edinburgh, recognised as an area of deprivation. The area was mostly farmland until the late 1920s, when the development of significant numbers of houses began, to meet the growing housing need in the city. Like many housing developments of a similar age, many of the houses include good-sized back gardens. There are also lots of pockets of green space interspersed between the housing. These are maintained by the local authority and most are currently grassed.
Granton Community Gardeners began as a conversation between a group of neighbours at one end of Wardieburn Road. They felt that the land on the street corner could be much more productively used if it were turned into a garden. A simple survey was carried out of all the neighbours who overlooked the site. While most were supportive, the general view was that it would never work; that it wasn’t worth spending any effort on the site as it was likely to be vandalised. Undeterred, a ‘family gardening day’ was arranged and the whole street was invited to meet at the corner to start work. The day went much better than expected with 30 people taking part. Neighbours spoke to each other that hadn’t before. Some commented how good it was to be involved in something so ‘public’ for their street. A small number of the neighbours kept cultivating the site. Others joined when they saw that it was working and that progress that was being made. Many people became involved after chatting to the gardeners over the site’s fence. The new garden resulted in significant changes for the local people involved: as well as increasing access to vegetables and fruit, for many it enabled them to find out more about their community and make connections with others. A small group committee was formed and the group was formally constituted.
Residents living at the other end of the street approached the group about developing a site near them. GCG concentrated on these two gardens until spring 2014, when two further sites in the area were developed. In 2014/15 an extensive consultation process was carried out to start a new larger community garden in partnership with Royston Wardieburn Community Centre, this has been put on hold due to the land in question being developed for a new children’s nursery, but the plans will hopefully be transferred to another nearby site. In the meantime, two additional small sites have been cultivated close to the community centre and nursery.
How it works
The gardens are all shared, (rather than individual plots). Everyone works together and then the produce is shared out. Each garden site has a named person to oversee the garden and to ensure that it is adequately cared for, asking for help from the wider group if needed. The group hosts regular drop in sessions every Tuesday and Saturday morning. These are an ideal way for new people to get involved, and also create good regular social gathering points where people work alongside each other. The project recognises that different models work in different situations, but finds that for a lot of people, the diminished individual responsibility, and increased sociability and mutual learning of shared work suits a lot of people for whom an individual allotment may be daunting.
The project now has a core of people involved. Its approach is that ‘everyone’s welcome, but never obligated’: having a core group of volunteers means that other people can take part when they want to. Some of the members have gardening experience and some with farming backgrounds from other countries. This has brought a wide range of skills and expertise to the project, with some crops not normally cultivated in Scotland growing very well.
GCG aims to do what it does well, and ‘not bite off more than it can chew’. By doing this it hopes to build support within the local community, and counter any opposition to developing new sites that it encounters.
A natural progression of the project’s work has been setting up community meals, which aim to bring people together to meet and eat. At its first meals, people taking part were asked to bring a dish to share that included produce from their own garden or a community garden. These attracted up to 20 people. In 2013, a Harvest meal attracted 60 local people: over 250 took part in Burns Suppers (2014+15), run in partnership with Living in Harmony (based at Pilton Community Health Project) and Royston Wardieburn Community Centre.
As an extension of the community meals, the Gardeners Café was set up in 2014. Running twice a week, the Café provided meals in the local community centre, produced from vegetables and fruit grown locally, products from FareShare, and other food donations. The meals were free, but everyone participating was encouraged to contribute in some way – for example by donating produce, helping to prepare or serve the food, or clearing up. GCG hoped to demonstrate that it’s possible for people to eat for free if everyone contributes something towards the meal. The Café was run by a member of GCG, whose idea it was. While not set up to address food poverty in the area, the Café was being used by local people experiencing this. GCG feel with sufficient opportunities for people to eat together sociably without a cash requirement this can ease food poverty, without feeling the stigma reported by many when accessing foodbanks or other emergency food aid. In March 2015 the Gardeners Café decided to contribute its ideas and energy to the regular community centre café in order to help each be more sustainable for the long term, and this collaboration is still evolving.
In its first year, the project ran very informally, and didn’t seek any funding. While there was a core group of volunteers, a lack of public communications made it difficult for many more people to become involved. Some of the members wanted the group to become more organised, and make the responsibilities of the group members explicit. GCG became a constituted organisation: not only has this made it easier to apply for funding, but having a formal, recognised structure is reassuring for some of the members.
The project is trying to maintain a balance between being formal and informal. The members were concerned about possible changes to the group dynamics in the project if they employed paid staff. But, while everyone involved contributed to the work, there were some tasks that tended not to get done, or fell to one or two people. Recognising this, the members decided to pay Tom, one of the founding member, for a few hours’ work each week, to carry out admin tasks and things ‘that no one wants to volunteer to do’. Tom still volunteers in the garden.
Growing crops that people want to eat is essential, or they end up on the compost heap. The group can easily grow lots of salad, but struggle to find enough people to eat it. Potatoes are popular with almost everyone, so they have become the largest crop. The level of production has increased each year, with over two tonnes of fruit and vegetables grown in 2014.
The land GCG uses is owned by the local authority, which allow the group to use it as long as it is kept in good condition. This provides a financial saving to the local authority as grass cutting costs are reduced.
When the group first started they were inundated with enthusiastic children who wanted to join in, but group members were uneasy about being responsible for children who came without their parents/guardians; reluctantly these children had to be turned away. The group has addressed this to some extent by partnering with the local community centre and library to run children’s gardening clubs, and these continue to be popular.
Local residents can be concerned that the gardens won’t be looked after. To counter this, a group member living near each site has responsibility for overseeing the garden. They can also answer local residents’ questions.
Anyone helping with the gardens can take whatever they want, and share this with family and friends. Some of the produce is used in the Café. However, produce is also given to people in need, including those not involved in the project.
Through adopting a community development approach, the project has resulted in lots of positive outcomes for the area, including some that were unintended. Developing the garden sites has resulted in communities forming around them, which in turn is leading to other benefits for everyone in the area. For example, some people are now sharing meals in their houses with neighbours as a direct result of being involved with GCG.
GCG has 12 dedicated committee members and several more regular volunteers. The members’ skills and expertise has grown as the project’s developed, including around setting up and running groups.
Initially the project began with a budget of £10, donated at the family day, and donated tools, plants and seeds. It has applied for some funding: a grant from the Big Lottery Fund Awards for All programme was used to run a ‘grow your own’ course which attracted new members to the project. More recently it was awarded funding from the Voluntary Action Fund to run volunteer capacity building training. And a number of smaller grants have also been secured e.g. to purchase tools and a secure shed, and meet community event costs.
This will depend on what local people want to happen. There are plans to develop another site at the local community centre. GCG is willing to develop a garden in any site in the area, as long as local residents want this and there is no opposition from people neighbouring the site.
Quotes from volunteers
“The only way to build a community is to have a difficult shared task. But this needs to be ambitious, capture the imagination and the idea needs to be shared by the community.”
“GCG is using an approach that’s as complex as the problems in the area.”
“We can’t solve food poverty, but in a small way we’re contributing.”
“I’ve lived in this area all my life, but only really knew my next door neighbours, since joining the group, I’m seeing people I know all the time!”