Nature and Us

Cultivating a healthier community in Tower Hamlets

Michelle Lyndson, Community Development Coordinator at the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, describes how a ground-breaking outreach initiative is improving the health and wellbeing of individuals and the wider community in one of London's most deprived areas.

The Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park (FoTHCP)formed in 1990 to promote the preservation, care and improvement of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park as a place of historic, ecological, educational and recreational interest. Local residents and the wider community enjoy leisure time, socialising and exercising in this unique 31 acre woodland cemetery, within the heart of London's East End.

Since June 2018, FoTHCP has been delivering an outreach community cohesion project called 'Nature and Us', funded by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, using Section 106 money from nearby developments. The project aims to bring communities together through nature, enhancing local green space and delivering activities and training opportunities across a diverse demographic. They work with residents, schools, youth centres, the Council, community organisations and many other groups, and activities include bat walks, bulb planting, clay creatures, wildflower courses, neighbourhood nature courses, tree walks, poetry walks and foraging tours. The project is also open to designing activities and courses based on the needs of the local community.

Nature and Us has allowed FoTHCP to work in two core green spaces in Tower Hamlets, where the charity has never worked before - Swedenborg Gardens and Shandy Park. These are urban parks with grassy areas, benches and children's play areas. They were chosen for their potentials as hubs for community activity.

Due to the nature, outdoor and social elements of Nature and Us, the project lends itself to the promotion of health and wellbeing - so much so that social prescribers sometimes refer patients to the project's activities. This is particularly important in Tower Hamlets, which, according to the Public Health Report 2018, has amongst the lowest healthy life expectancy in the country and the third highest proportion of the population living in deprived areas.

The better use of local green spaces has important impacts on improving the health and wellbeing of individuals and the wider community, by:

Engagement with local residents and groups at Shandy Park proved very successful early on in the project and this success has remained consistent throughout. However, engagement in activities at Swedenborg Gardens has proved very difficult. Conversations with local residents and organisations indicate that the park is underused in a positive sense, largely due to the fear of very visible antisocial behaviour, including drug dealing, drug and alcohol use, and rough sleeping. This is very unfortunate, both because the park is an important and rare piece of green space in a built- up and deprived area of Tower Hamlets, and also because the park has a unique heritage in its association with Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish theologist, philosopher, scientist and author.

The Nature and Us team has spent considerable effort gathering information on the issues surrounding Swedenborg Gardens, and has helped to create the Swedenborg Partnership, a formal collection of organisations with a stake in Swedenborg Gardens. The Partnership, which meets every six to eight weeks, includes the Council, a homeless charity, housing providers, the Metropolitan Police and local community organisations. They discuss issues in the park and make plans to help mitigate these.

This extensive background work has been key to encouraging the use of Swedenborg Gardens. As a result, events are now much better attended, so Nature ; and Us can focus on running more events which indirectly help to improve the health and wellbeing of the park's users.

Outside of the Nature and Us project, all of FoTHCP's work helps to promote the health and wellbeing of its service users, either directly or indirectly. One partner group, Grounded Ecotherapy, includes members who have suffered mental health or substance misuse issues, and/or have experienced homelessness. The project provides horticultural therapy for members through ground maintenance, wildflower gardening and allotment building.

The Nature and Us project is led by the charity's Community Development Coordinator, Michelle Lindson, with support from key staff, trustees, volunteers and partners. If you have any questions or are interested in volunteering or partnering with the Nature and Us project, please see FoTHCP or email

Activities in Swedenborg Gardens

Corporate group bulb planting in Swedenborg Gardens
Corporate group bulb planting in Swedenborg Gardens
© Michelle Lindson

Wildflower course at Swedenborg 'Square' Orchard
Wildflower course at Swedenborg 'Square' Orchard
© Michelle Lindson