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How to Make Friends in the City: Grow Vegetables Together

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Still from "Nomadic Community Gardens" by Ross Harrison.

In East London’s Nomadic Community Garden, Bangladeshi families tend beds of eggplant, squash, and other seasonal vegetables alongside their non-Bangladeshi neighbors. The Garden is a gathering place in a densely populated neighborhood known as “Banglatown,” where different communities often struggle to get to know each other. With an event space, a public park, and more than 100 mobile garden beds, it’s one of the largest inner-city outdoor growing spaces in England—a hub that director James Wheale hopes can heal urban alienation by bringing people together.

Forming meaningful friendships can be difficult in cities, partly because many don’t have enough public spaces where people experience the “repeated spontaneous contact” required for making friends, according to Vox’s David Roberts. He cites sociologist Rebecca G. Adams’ three key ingredients for building strong relationships: “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.” But public spaces where “people regularly mingle [while] doing errands, walking their dogs, [and] playing in parks” can be difficult to find as urban land is commercialized.

Wheale, too, shares this concern. He started the mobile garden project not just to create a green space, but out of “a concern that we are living in a fragmented, atomized society.” He wanted to create a space where people could re-form social networks.

The Nomadic Community Gardens are chronicled in a short film by Ross Harrison featured on 10shorts.com.

The Garden opened in May last year when Londonewcastle, a property development company, leased an abandoned parcel of land to Wheale. All structures are portable, and the project is intended to eventually be moved to other cities—veggie beds, rain harvesters, and all. Both the on-site office and lightweight veggie beds can be transported by truck. “We can move them overnight so they’re ready, pop-up style,” Wheale said.

I talked to Wheale about his hope that the Garden can improve Londoners’ quality of life by helping growers lower their food bills, share skills, and build relationships.

This interview has been lightly edited.

Jasleena Grewal: The gardens are hubs of both nature and of culture. Why is the sociocultural aspect important?

James Wheale: In a city, the social horizons can be very small because many people don’t really interact with neighbors, and instead [interact] with computers and TVs. The benefits of living in a community where people know your name and who you are are massively lacking.

For example, there’s a guy named Steve who has become an integral part of the garden. He’s a great volunteer who’s there almost every day. For the previous five years, before his contact with the garden, he kept to himself and didn’t talk to anybody. He got his dog a couple years back to start socializing with other dog-walkers, and came into contact with the project. It’s become the center of his social world now. He feels like his sense of humor has come back.

Grewal: The film shows lots of different kinds of people interacting. What’s the demographic like in the area?

Wheale: Traditionally, it was British working class. There was a Jewish settlement, and then the Huguenots came over from France. That’s the historic demographic, which there are still constituents of. More recently, since the second World War and the need to rebuild England, second- and third-generation Bangladeshi migrants populate the area. This is partly because Bangladeshi families are traditionally large, and they live together. This makes the population spike in the area.

Grewal: Do you see friendships forming among crowds of people who didn’t always interact with each other before?

Wheale: Yeah, definitely. Growing vegetables is a universal language. It’s an activity that everyone can partake in and everybody feels gratification doing. It’s something we’ve seen with the Bangladeshi residents who come from agrarian backgrounds, who are very confident growers and very green-fingered. They were teaching growing techniques to people from other cultures who lost touch with that [agrarian] tradition.

Also, that area of London is quite deprived. There’s a high level of homelessness and alcohol and substance abuse. Because the Bangladeshis come from a traditionally conservative society, their relationships to [people with drug and alcohol addictions] haven’t been very positive. But the Bangladeshis have seen them helping out, and now say hello to them. They’ve crossed that barrier.

Grewal: How did you create a safe space for different kinds of people to share?

Wheale: I think it has to do with the energy management of the space. One of our ground rules is that as long as you’re not a threat to yourself, crack on! We want to create a space local communities feel an ownership over—that it’s their space, it’s their garden that they get to use. We want to create a culture where people look after themselves, leave no trace, and respect themselves and the environment.

Grewal: I was struck by the mobile nature of the project. Why have the gardens move, instead of staying in place?

Wheale: I think that once you’ve created a resource somewhere, there’s a point where the novelty wears off. I think there’s a saturation point. Once that resource disappears, there’s a void that people are motivated to fill for themselves.

Once they see that this project was allowing them to co-create, they might think about joining a local group where they are able to fill that purpose for themselves. The resource we’ve created may go to another area and encourage a new group of people to create communities and teach them about the wonders of food-growing. The void it leaves behind can hopefully create an activism in the people it left behind.

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