Rising to the challenge: London’s community gardens

Professional gardener Catherine Miller explores the adaptability that is helping to future-proof London’s community gardens.

National Trust founder Octavia Hill’s campaigns of the 19th century, ‘Space for the People’ and ‘More Air for London’, seem very relevant today as Covid-19 restrictions have brought so many more people into their local open spaces for essential exercise and contact with nature.

According to the Office for National Statistics, one in five households in London have no garden. Any green space, however small, is therefore very important to our well-being as Londoners. Community gardens such as Sunnyside in Archway and Phoenix in Soho are largely surrounded by flats; Sunnyside describes itself as “a massive back garden for local people”.

The Phoenix Garden (Photo: Lynne Eva)

London’s community gardens have always adapted to changing circumstances, but COVID-19 has brought exceptional challenges. They have had to close for much of the duration of the pandemic in many cases, or operate with many restrictions. Their visitors usually include the most vulnerable of society, and many were set up to reduce social isolation.

Culpeper Community Garden (Photo: Colin Wing)

Accordingly, they have repurposed their resources to support their local communities. Bankside Open Spaces Trust, which runs several community gardens in Southwark, put on its Great Get Together event online in 2020, and the Calthorpe Community Garden in Kings Cross has organised food parcels and phone calls to vulnerable or shielding local residents, instead of its usual social gatherings. Culpeper Community Garden in the Angel is now open again with clearly signed restrictions, and socially distanced digging is possible for local plotholders.

Funding difficulties

London’s community gardens do not have large reserves to buffer them from crises: they are small organisations built from the energy and resourcefulness of local people, and creative, committed staff. In terms of funding, the income they made from venue hire and corporate team-building days vanished in a puff of smoke overnight with lockdown. It is anyone’s guess how this will pan out in the long term, as companies have changed the way they do business, with so many people working from home. London may look very different as restrictions gradually come to an end.
In contrast, funding from charitable trusts has reportedly been very flexible and understanding. Funders are adjusting to circumstances too. It’s apparent that if community gardens cannot help people face-to-face they can do so in other ways which are valuable and worthy of support. The need for support has not gone away; mental health problems and poverty may get a lot worse this year and community conduits for help will be needed.

Community gardens, putting the natural world on the doorstep, have provided great solace to people in built-up areas enduring lockdown restrictions. Seasonal changes take place regardless, and bird and insect life of course does not distinguish between parks, community gardens or private gardens. It is all part of that great network of green space which makes London liveable.

And now, spring is here.

Follow Catherine on Twitter at @CommGdnsLondon