A Community Centre without a Roof

The Gardens Community Garden in Haringey was left for derelict, but is now a valued green space, open to everyone. Andy Newman, Vice Chair and Community Garden Coordinator at the Gardens Residents Association, describes the process by which this transformation took place, and its benefits to both the environment and the community.

The Gardens Community Garden, at the end of a cul-de-sac in the London Borough of Haringey, is intrinsically linked to the famous but now demolished Harringay Stadium, the first purpose-built greyhound racing track in the UK. The land was once a pedestrian entranceway to the stadium, and residents have fond memories of the large blue gate in Doncaster Gardens being flung open at the end of greyhound and speedway meetings, with thousands of people pouring into the streets.

With the closure of the Stadium in 1987 and the subsequent transformation of the site into a supermarket and housing development, the land between Doncaster Gardens on the north side of the Overground line and the housing estate at Wiltshire Gardens - including the railway archway - fell into disrepair. Local residents, notably the late Joyce Dowse, spent many years writing to Haringey Council and to Railtrack to complain of rampant fly-tipping, dumping, vandalism, prostitution and stone throwing from the railway line. Little was done to rectify the situation.

My wife Karen and I are both keen gardeners, and when we moved to the area in 1996 we saw an opportunity to bring the land into use by creating a garden for the local community. We hoped that, by creating ownership of the space, we could stop crime and trespassing on the railway line. As part of investigations into the history of the land we met with Joyce, who recalled peering out of her bedroom window as a young girl and watching cows being herded under the railway arch to graze at the local watercress farm, now Chestnuts Park on St Ann's Road.

We had just started a young family and bought a semi-derelict house with everything that such a project entails, but this image gave us the determination to bring the land back into natural use and regenerate a problematic crime hotspot.

We arranged various meetings with Haringey Council environmental health department and regeneration teams during 1997 and 1998. By now the site had water constantly flowing through it from various redundant pipes and chambers, and was littered with dumped white goods and garden waste.

In 1998 to 1999 the Finsbury Park Partnership (FPP) was formed. This tri-borough bid by Haringey, Islington and Hackney Councils aimed to regenerate the Finsbury Park area with £15million of local investment, and seemed the perfect platform to get our project off the ground. We fought to keep Doncaster Gardens inside the FPP regeneration boundary area, and finally it was agreed that the Community Garden and its neighbour Railway Fields Nature Reserve would be granted funding. Railtrack too contributed key funding to the pot, since the company was having to regularly clear the site of dumped rubbish, costing considerable amounts of money.

In order to ensure that the project would be delivered by the community for the community, we founded the Gardens Residents Association (GRA) in late 1999. Consultation with residents identified the key local problems: car rat-running, speeding, lack of trees, street dumping, crime, lack of youth activities and the problem of the derelict arch and land at Doncaster Gardens. A number of these could be solved by securing the land and bringing it into use as a community pleasure garden.

After a year spent negotiating a contract with Railtrack, securing planning consent and fundraising for the project, the local residents - adults, children and youth were involved in the creation of the garden, This involved: a trip to Capel Manor in Enfield to look at design and materials; consultation days; building and planting days; and the celebration opening.

Work began in 2001 with a small amount of FPP funding to seal off the archway and stop the crime route. During this time, however, Railtrack had entered serious financial difficulties and a number of contractors pulled out as they had not been paid for previous work. Volunteers kept the ball rolling and a fencing contractor was finally found, but at a much higher price, and Karen - who had carried out all the fundraising work - now had to start afresh. This time she approached the National Lottery, and successfully secured funding in late 2001.

The fencing was installed and full landscaping work carried out in spring and summer 2002, before local residents attended community days to install the top soil and plant up the space. The planting design was created by keen local gardeners.

The Mayor of Haringey, Cllr Dr Vivian Manheim, the Deputy Mayor of London, Nicky Gavron, and the GLA's Chair for the Environment, Cllr Samantha Heath, officially opened the garden on Saturday 14 September 2002, with attendance and huge support from local St Ann's Ward Councillors Canver, Barns and Heater.

Three streets on the Gardens Estate were closed and some 700 residents packed out the garden and surrounding streets. A stage was constructed to host live bands, Kurdish dancers and gospel singers, and we enjoyed food from around the world, children's rides, a bouncy castle and willow weaving in the community garden. The event evolved into a traditional local fair.

Since its opening, the space has been run and managed by the GRA. There is a staple diet of regular events including community garden maintenance days, spring seed planting alongside an Easter egg hunt, outdoor film screenings and Halloween events, and it becomes a recycling centre for Christmas trees during January each year.

We have held one-off events including the Jo Cox Foundation's Great Get Together, the Big Draw, the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch, Haringey Weekend of Play and a Creepy Crawly Crafternoon Day. On top of all of this, the garden is rented out by local residents for birthday parties and other community events.

The garden is open to everyone, 365 days a year, and has become a focal point for the local area. I think of it as a community centre without a roof. It has no direct core funding - the GRA has to raise every penny to keep it open for the community.

In 2013-14 funding became available from Haringey Council to introduce traffic calming measures at key junctions in the Gardens Estate. Alongside speed tables, community planting beds were constructed on street corners - these are maintained by a small gardening group based at the Community Garden. Volunteers also tend the small raised planters across the Estate as well as helping to maintain street trees and plant bulbs.

The GRA has become an umbrella organisation for other activities on the Estate including tree planting, community wardens, Neighbourhood Watch, play streets, children's clubs, fairs, a jumble sale and running and managing secure cycle hangars. Over the years the group has purchased assets including chairs, tables, gazebos, signage, giant games, gardening tools and much more. Instead of this equipment being used only by the GRA, we hire it out at a very low price to local community groups across Tottenham. This encourages and supports other local groups, but also generates a valuable non-ringfenced income for the garden to help pay for extra planting, tools and equipment.

The Community Garden has been awarded over 40 local and national awards since its creation in 2002. You can watch a film about it, made in 2019, showing its local importance as a vital green resource: From Dump to Oasis

All photos © Andy Newman

The Community Garden today
The Community Garden today

Initial concept sketch design for the garden (1998)
Initial concept sketch design for the garden (1998)

Christmas carols in the railway arch
Christmas carols in the railway arch