Is that a Park in your Pocket…?

or are you just pleased to see me?

Ah, Community Gardens! Even our Illustrious Mayor is exhorting us to create new ones in his programme for 100 Pocket Parks.

As a community landscape architect, and as a volunteer, I have been involved in a lot of these, and generally, I love them. Their benefits to community cohesion, health and wellbeing, and enhancement of the environment are many and various.

dalston eastern curve garden

Dalston Eastern Curve Garden is lovely : right in the middle of a dense urban area with no other green space near by : every time we go there my son goes Lord of the Flies with the other children there, and has to be dragged away after several hours. My friend Ali, sock genius extraordinaire,  holds a knitting group there, and now there’s a cafe in it, you can even get cake. There’s a gardening group run by volunteers as well, apparently, and they are growing all sorts of amazing fruit and veg.

I love the place wholeheartedly and unreservedly, and love the benefits it brings to the Community, but I have no illusions, and not a little cynicism, about how it was procured and built, because Community it wasn’t.

The project was conceived about a decade  ago, in the Illustrious Council’s plan for Dalston Town Centre : it was a lot bigger at that point, but no matter. The money for it (and it was a lot) came from The Public Purse, and the design of it was carried out by a range of high profile ‘funky’ architects and designers. That huge overengineered building you see there was designed by a team of architects and built by a contractor. Ditto the layout of the garden by a landscape architect ; it wasn’t necessary to consult on the design much, as designing gardens like this isn’t ‘rocket science’ apparently.

I know it is easier to design places without getting too bogged down with the public ; they get in the way, they don’t understand the process, they complain about things you can’t change, they don’t understand why the council can find 40 grand for a garden but can’t sort out the mould on their ceiling. It’s a long process, and it is one you can ignore if your garden can get by on its location, like Dalston Eastern Curve, but if your garden has to depend on the long term good will of the people you hope will love it, then you have to engage them in the process, not just the product.

When I became a landscape architect, I thought I would be able to facilitate  the transformation of the  environment, and communities by the same process : in reality, most companies, including those whose stated aim ii is (Groundwork, I mean you), have found it much easier to simply trot out ‘projects’ on the ground, and blame communities’ apathy for their speedy vandalism and abandonment.

Of course these projects won’t happen without the skilled, educated professionals that bring so much vision, passion and commitment, but whose responsibility is it, if not ours, to make sure these projects have community at their heart.


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