Meet the superheroes transforming desolate cityscapes into havens of heavenly greenery and delicious produce.
Community gardens have a long tradition in the larger cities of continental Europe and throughout the United States, but are a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland, which is only now faced with urban population density concerns. No longer the preserve of poorer urban communities or rural collectives, they are usually set up in metropolitan locations with an acute lack of green space – often on unused or abandoned sites donated by local town councils or businesses. These projects are sometimes run in partnership with local authorities, as part of community development or regeneration schemes, and are self-managed by groups of volunteers from the community, for the benefit of the community. The focus is primarily on growing food, but also on education, and the people usually involved in these projects are dedicated gardening enthusiasts and entrepreneurial types.
One such person is Jacqueline Kelleher of The Heritage Garden in Donnybrook (theheritagegarden.com). A part-time family support worker, qualified gardener and expert educator, Jacqueline decided to develop a community garden project, having seen the beneficial impact a green environment had on the disadvantaged young people she worked with in Dublin’s inner city. She also wanted to teach her urban-dwelling six-year-old son, and other city children, about the importance of living with nature. “This is what is excellent about the garden; my son, James, comes here with me and his friends – we do play dates here,” she explains. “His school even allowed his whole class to come here and see the garden.”
A real green haven located within the grounds of the Avila Carmelite Centre in Donnybrook, the garden is a restoration as well as an agricultural project. It had been closed for at least a decade and was “an absolute jungle” before Jacqueline’s team of volunteers took it over. Now, it is a thriving oasis growing around 60 varieties of plants, providing gardening courses, work placements for horticultural students, and a delightful setting for kids’ garden parties. It also has an ongoing partnership with Headway (headway.ie), a rehabilitation centre for people with acquired brain injuries who visit the garden weekly as part of their therapy.
Jacqueline dedicates about 40 hours every week to managing the garden and networking to popularise the project. She hopes that the garden’s reputation will attract government and philanthropic funding so they can further develop not only the grounds but also a year- long training programme; community facilities (such as an all-seasons café), and employment opportunities, not least for the garden’s three main volunteers, whom she describes as “a fantastic, dedicated, and loyal team, who give their all”. Dedication and loyalty is important because a community garden does not just happen. It requires hard physical work, mental determination, and the support and respect of the entire surrounding community. Equally important is financing. Local and government authorities have been quick to help; funding is available through statutory and community schemes but much more is needed.
Resources on how to set up and run a community garden are widely available, too. Dublin City Council (dublincity.ie) publishes an annual Dublin Guide to Community Gardening, a complete resource highlighting the benefits and challenges of a community green project. Other publications, such as those of The Organic Centre (theorganiccentre.ie), provide more resources on finding a suitable site and getting in touch with the relevant authorities, as well as tips on how to organise the community, recruit volunteers and raise funds.
A particularly excellent resource and delightful read on developing and maintaining community gardens is the Green Side Up blog (greensideup.ie), run by the inspirational Dee Sewell, an organic gardener and voluntary co-ordinator of the Irish Community Garden Network (communitygardennetwork.ning.com). “There are so many benefits to community gardening, from learning about growing food to making friends,” she says. “They’re social levellers, appealing to people across the entire social economic spectrum.” People of all ages, social or economic backgrounds can discover the satisfaction of growing their own food, and learn about the seasonality of different vegetables and how to make small-scale agriculture sustainable. All you need, she explains, is “a small scrap of land and a couple of enthusiastic of people”.
Some of these people form the Dublin Community Growers (DCG) network (dcg.ie), a voluntary open group that runs workshops on community-assisted agriculture in Dublin. The group organises events promoting and fundraising for community gardens, and its core ethos is social inclusion and environmental responsibility. Robert Moss, DCG secretary and manager of An Taisce’s Green Communities Programme, explains that as people became more concerned about the quality and cost of food, grass-roots community improvement initiatives have made clever use of unused land and labour resources. “A silver lining of the recession has been the many community improvement initiatives, carried out at a grass-roots level, across Dublin, often by people made redundant but with skills and time on their hands,” he says. There is now a very impressive community gardening movement up and running in Dublin. “From the two or three community gardens that could be found struggling for permission to exist in Dublin, back in 2004, we now see around 40 of these often organic food, to low-income and unemployed members of the community. Indeed, some of the community gardens have become true commercial enterprises, selling produce to local businesses.
In the last year alone, these gardens have attracted attention from as far away as Western Australia, and have been used as case studies at planning conferences across Europe – volunteers have even been asked to speak at study visits to the European Parliament. Alongside allotments, the gardens can provide a rich source of affordable, high-quality, often organic food, to low-income and unemployed members of the community. Indeed, some of the community gardens have become true commercial enterprises, selling produce to local businesses.
Being involved in a community garden increases focus on community organisation and social responsibility, multi-generational and inter-class communication, while creating a sense of belonging and community identity, and an environment of friendship and inclusiveness. Particularly in urban settings, where everyday life can be busy and disconnected from other people, these veritable outdoor social clubs can restore a sense of community and kinship, especially within deprived areas. Urban agriculture is more than transmuting rural culture into the city; it’s about regaining a sense of community and, most importantly, providing a nurturing environment and invaluable life skills to young people, and the next generation of urban dwellers. The Dublin of the future is most definitely green.