Increasing community engagement: a community gardens perspective – By Poppy Nicol, Egin Peer Mentor and Project Coordinator for Global Gardens Project
Engaging with the local community is key for any project that identifies as community-based.
For meaningful community engagement, it is critical to value it, resource it and recognise it as an ongoing process. Places, the landscapes and ecosystems within which they reside and the people and other entities living and working within them are dynamic and ever-changing.
In this blog, I offer a reflection on how Global Gardens Project has worked to engage with the local community.
About Global Gardens Project
Global Gardens Project is a community growing project based at Flaxland allotments, Cardiff. Our aim is to support community-based learning about food growing, seasonal nourishing cooking and sustainable arts and craft. We work with a range of people living in our local neighbourhood including students, families and sanctuary seekers.
We recognise community gardens are an important resource for people to build skills and experience in food growing as well as providing opportunities for connection both to nature and other people living locally. Our programme of activities includes regular volunteer sessions, social prescribing sessions (where people are referred by their GP), forest school sessions, a making and mending club, workshops and courses.
Over the last 7 years, we have sought to develop understanding of how our community garden can benefit more people in the local area.
Women in the Garden: community consultation
In the first year of establishing the Global Gardens Project, women remained in the minority at volunteer garden sessions. In 2017, we hosted two community workshops to explore how we could do more to support women through our work. Workshop attendees were invited to discuss how community gardens, including Global Gardens, could be more safe, welcoming and nurturing spaces for women. They highlighted the importance of making community gardens family-friendly spaces as well as the importance of both toilet facilities and shelter on site. At the time, Global Gardens was lacking both.
Co-designing a family-friendly space
Feedback from these workshops significantly influenced the future focus of our project activities. In subsequent volunteer garden sessions, we worked to create a family-friendly space, removing rubbish from our site that had previously been subject to fly-tipping. We also successfully acquired funding for an accessible compost toilet and a range of shelter spaces.
In 2020, we sought permission to take on a new area of the allotment site which had several mature deciduous trees, including some fruit trees. In taking on this new patch of land, our aim was to create a wildlife-friendly area that supports safe play for families. Thanks to funding from Keep Wales Tidy and the Lottery, we planted a native hedgerow, developed a storytelling log circle and erected a storytelling canvas canopy. Creation of this space enabled us to extend our programme to include forest school sessions to local families. We now host monthly sessions for 1-7 year olds and have been trialling another regular session for 7-11 year olds.
Our forest school sessions are underpinned by a spirit of co-design. From the beginning, our forest school leaders have worked with local families to co-create the outdoor play space and programme of activities. During the Covid-19 first lockdown, when hosting sessions in person was not possible, we invited families to go for a walk in a local park and choose a leaf to trace around on to canvas and send back to us. These canvas leaves were then stitched into the canvas of our storytelling canopy. Other sessions have enabled families to create objects used in the sessions – including cups and bowls out of clay.
Seeking ongoing feedback
Ongoing feedback from volunteers, project beneficiaries and local residents has guided our work as a project and informed how we have moved forwards as a project – including development of both the physical infrastructure and our programme of activities.
Each year, we seek volunteer feedback via an online survey and via in-person meeting, where volunteers are invited to share feedback on their volunteer experience. We have also hosted a number of specific community meetings to focus on specific work streams. Our 2020 Climate Action Visioning Workshop with volunteers, for example, led to the development of a making and mending club and development of a series of workshops supporting climate action in the kitchen and garden. We have also held open days and a community consultation shared within our local neighbourhood to build understanding of how we could help strengthen community.
Working with partner groups and organisations to widen engagement
Whilst seeking feedback from existing project beneficiaries is critical, it is also important to consider how to widen reach and explore why certain community members might not feel comfortable or able to access our site.
We have found that working with partner groups and organisations support engagement with harder-to-reach and/or under-represented groups. Rather than trying to duplicate existing activities, working in partnership builds on the existing strengths of community groups and organisations whilst also enabling you as a community group to carve your own niche.
Working with the Welsh Refugee Council playgroup and The Birth Partner Project for example has helped us build an understanding of how we can better support sanctuary seeking families at the garden. Over the last three years, we have sought feedback from sanctuary-seeking families attending several events hosted at the garden. Funding for transport to the garden, translation costs, a nappy-changing space and food all emerged as important factors that support the families in attending.
Thanks to funding from the Lottery, we are now embarking on a 10-month programme ‘Growing Together’ where we will be hosting a series of workshops for sanctuary seeking families at the community garden, delivered in collaboration with The Birth Partner Project. In the first of the sessions of this programme, families will be invited to co-design the programme.
Community engagement can often be the invisible yet essential work of community projects. It can often be under-valued and under-resourced. To enhance community engagement, community projects would benefit from building communities of practice, connecting with pioneering examples of community engagement and building skills and tools for self-reflexivity – so that their own personal learning journey in community engagement is documented.
Poppy will be one of our panelists at our webinar Growing Food Resilience: Community Gardens and Climate Action on the 29th of November 2023, 2-3pm UK. Read more and sign up here.