Category Archives: Community

Has Cuba’s urban organic revolution stalled, and should that be a surprise?

Fruit and vegetable stalls are on almost every corner in Havana
Fruit and vegetable stalls are on almost every corner in Havana

We were over in Cuba a couple of weeks ago. This trip had been planned for years, but has only recently come to fruition. As it turned out the timing was interesting to say the least. We were there just before Obama’s ground-breaking visit (and that of the Stones). One might argue that Cuba is on the cusp of change, and I am sure the history books will mark Obama’s visit as the great change point, but the truth is that change has been happening at a remarkable rate for the last few years. The alterations brought about by Raoul Castro in 2010 onwards, such as deregulation of farmers markets and allowing home-run restaurants and guest houses to open are the most obvious manifestations of these changes to a visitor. The Cuban government is trying to pull off a difficult balancing act of maintaining ‘democratic socialism’ whilst allowing inward investment and motivating private enterprise by allowing individuals to keep profits. One can argue about the degree of democracy of course, but there is no doubt that broadly speaking the system has popular support.

Trinidad rural organoponico
These sort of out-of-town organic farms were established in Cuba during the special period and are still fairly common
Built from raised concrete beds and re-inforcement steel to support shading, they are a simple solution to a production problem.
Built from raised concrete beds and re-inforcement steel to support shading, they are a simple solution to a production problem.

Around twenty-five years ago, Cuba entered what is known as its ‘Special Period’. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cheap oil for sugar deals that Cuba had benefitted from came to an end. At the same time, the world oil price rose sharply. The country lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34%. This caused major hardships for the population and a considerable rethink in the way Society operated, particularly with regards to energy policy and agriculture, as oil, pesticides and chemical fertilisers became unavailable. Australian and other permaculturists arriving in Cuba at the time began to distribute aid and taught their techniques to locals, who soon implemented them in Cuban fields, raised beds, and urban rooftops across the nation. Organic agriculture was soon after mandated by the Cuban government, supplanting the old industrialized form of agriculture Cubans had grown accustomed to. This is all well documented and probably well-known to many of the readers of this blog. And up until around 2008 or so, the system remained in place. One of the most interesting and unusual characteristics of the Cuban agricultural revolution was the widespread dispersed urban agriculture movement. Any free space became a food-growing resource – courtyards, rooftops, empty public and private plots were all turned over to communally cultivated fruit and vegetable plots. Check out this article from the Guardian almost exactly eight years ago for an interesting snap shot of where the country was in 2008. Oil and commodity prices were high and rising, the US blockade was still in full force (although the cracks were beginning to appear).

We went to Cuba expecting to see many ‘Organoponicas’ as they are known. However, over the last six years or so, a combination of lower oil prices and higher personal incomes has had some interesting side effects. The rise in roadside markets (on almost every other street corner in some areas) and the falling cost of growing food, coupled with more money in people’s pockets has meant that many of the smaller unorganised urban agriculture projects have foundered. Others are threatened by development although many of the larger ones survive. I guess this shouldn’t really be a surprise, although to many starry-eyed western permaculturists it may come as a bit of a shock. I suppose the real surprise is why they thought that Cubans were really any different from anyone else. After all, if you have spent ten hours at work, why would you want to stop by the community garden to tend the vegetables when you could buy them cheaply at the corner stall on your way home. Unless you wanted to that is. Because like anywhere else, there is a significant minority of the population that are motivated and interested growing things, but it is a minority. The legacy of the special period in Cuba has meant that unlike other countries there is an understanding of and skill-set in organic horticulture.

As well as Terrazas (a well known sustainable settlement dating from the late 1960s), we also visited a number of smaller local Organoponicas in Havana that have survived. Some of these visits were by arrangement and others just be looking over the fence!

So where does this leave Cuba and where does it leave permaculture? Well, the answer is certainly in a better place than it was before the agricultural revolution. But in the end it should be obvious that given the chance, people will specialise in what they do best and enjoy. That after all is how cities and indeed civilisation work.

As far as horticulture goes, our trip was exciting as we had expected as well as being interesting in unexpected ways. Plus we got to hear some really good music and drink a few knock-out mojitos.

Urban Havana School garden
Urban Havana School garden
These Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
These Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!

 

What’s the point of community gardens?

John has invited me to write this month’s blog post as it is 15 years this year, since we started the Triangle Community Garden (www.trianglegarden.org) with a group of friends around our kitchen table in Hitchin.

Over the years, the question I get asked most often is: what is the community garden for? So I thought I’d try and answer it properly this time …

As many of you will be aware, the community garden movement started in the 1970s in cities, where plots of land lay undeveloped awaiting a better financial climate. High rise populations looked longingly at the waste land and sought ways to cultivate it and use it in the meanwhile. Once these ‘meanwhile gardens’ became established they took on massive importance to urban communities, as oases of usable productive green space and a way of bringing people together for positive ends.

Making a garden, as a community
Making a garden, as a community

At the Triangle Garden our tagline is ‘Connect, Grow, Enjoy!’ and it’s the sharing of the process of growing, creating, planning, gardening, harvesting, baking, making and just soaking it all up, that is what it’s all about.

Many people assume that community gardening is all about food growing, and for many projects it is, but the Triangle Garden has always been about the making of a garden, for everyone to enjoy.

That’s not to say that we don’t grow food – we do – but there are other, equally important, yields to be had. Over the years we’ve shared in the creation of a place of unexpected peace and beauty; a magical place between a busy road and a noisy railway line, with a magnetism for children and a time of its own … a secret garden.

Volunteers have come and gone, and as the Triangle Garden has evolved, so those involved have grown with it. We’ve learnt skills, like willow weaving, composting, pruning, mosaic making, peace-making, delegating, problem solving. We’ve shared wildlife adventures: the discovery of bats, hibernating newts, basking lizards, new froglets, bumblebees, butterflies, the creation of a wildlife pond, a bug hotel and a pollinators’ garden.  We’ve made mistakes, missed opportunities, suffered setbacks, had successes, been inspired, worked hard and had fun.

Volunteers picking this year's apples, and showing off a bottle of last year's juice
Volunteers picking this year’s apples, and showing off a bottle of last year’s juice

This month we’ve been busy picking and receiving donations of apples, to be processed locally into bottled juice, and sold to raise funds. We don’t make much money out of it, but it’s positive and fun, and makes use of fruit that would otherwise go to waste. People can’t wait to give us their apples or offer us their orchards to pick.

They say horticulture is a de-stresser because plants can’t talk back at you, but I think it’s more than that. Working with nature grounds you in a way that nothing else can: nature works to its own agenda and at its own pace – try and tame it at your peril! But when you observe it, try to understand it and work with it and not against it – then it gives back in spades!

One of our gardeners with some of the things she's grown this year
One of our Growing Ability gardeners with some of the things she’s grown this year

Our Growing Ability project for adults with learning disabilities, demonstrates that in abundance. In between the weekly sessions, nature is at work, rewarding our ‘gardeners’ for nurturing their plants and helping to achieve a small step towards a result they can be proud of, whether it be a crop of beans, a bed of strawberries, some bee-friendly flowers or a long-awaited and much-revered aubergine.

For those who attend, the project is a place where they can come together for a purpose and interact with the natural world.

Through planning their crops and tending their plots, our gardeners are learning and consolidating their literacy and numeracy skills, recognising cause and effect, and taking responsibility for seeing something through. From choosing and buying seed, to enjoying and sharing what they’ve grown, there is much to discover, learn and remember.

Growing Ability gardeners and staff at our allotment
Growing Ability gardeners and staff at our allotment

Observing and interacting with nature, even just being outdoors, can be therapeutic – individuals enjoy sharing their knowledge and feelings about the life around them: whether it’s birdsong, butterflies, earthworms, bees or the robin that frequents our allotment.

The social aspect of the project cannot be underestimated either. For some of our gardeners it is the only activity they do outside the house during the week. With no work, no spare cash and a limited circle of people who accept you, life can be very isolated. Sharing one morning a week in a supportive, positive, natural environment is a highlight to look forward to.

Our Growing Ability project has a sister initiative, born a couple of years ago from the desire of many of our gardeners to lose weight and get fitter. Growing Health provides a supportive environment where individuals can learn about weight management, portion control, and how to plan and cook healthy food on a limited budget, using the facilities available at home – usually a microwave and a kettle. The group share cooking and eating experiences, support each other in setbacks and successes, take regular walks together and play outdoor games in the summer.

Cricket with Growing Health
Cricket in the park with Growing Health

In the first year of the project, the group lost a total of 3 stone 12lbs, and this year another 14lbs was lost overall. As well as playing basketball and cricket, and walking together around the park during sessions, individuals are now choosing to walk into town instead of catching the bus and several have joined Hitchin library, making regular visits on foot. At break times in both projects, biscuits have been replaced by fruit as the snack of choice. Impressive stuff .. . and thanks overwhelmingly to our amazing staff team led by Project Manager Liz McElroy.

I must end now, having probably gone on far too long, but that’s what happens when you’re passionate about something…  (just don’t get me started on latin drumming).

Any questions on this blog, please drop us a comment below.

Vicky Wyer (landscape architect at Bowles & Wyer, Chair of Trustees at the Triangle Community Garden, wife and mother to his children,  mad drumming woman).

If this has inspired you to find out more, please visit our website at www.trianglegarden.org.

Our community gardening sessions are on Friday mornings and the last Sunday of every month and are open to all. Our learning disability projects: Growing Ability, Growing Health and Growing Gang (a community-based work-experience project), run during the week from our allotment and the Triangle Garden.

If you’re in the area, come and find us at our next local event: Apple Day in Hitchin town square on 17th October 2015, 10am-2pm. Follow us on twitter @triangle_garden and Facebook: TriangleGarden

Receiving an Award can be a mixed blessing

You might remember my post from November 2012 (Awards – What are they good for?). Here Vicky Wyer picks up the theme and explores some of the issues further.

What do you do when you’re nominated for an award but you’re the only one shortlisted?

This has happened to me several times and once recently to John. I helped to found and still help to run a community garden in Hitchin, which for many years was the only one in the local area. Rather embarrassing then to be awarded the local In Bloom award for Best Community Project several years running, with no competition!

A young volunteer at the Triangle Garden
A young volunteer at the Triangle Garden

Having said that there were a number of criteria we had to meet to qualify for an award including high levels of community participation, environmental responsibility and horticultural excellence (In Bloom is no longer all about bedding displays). Despite being the only entry in our category, it was a great boost to all involved in the Triangle Garden, to have their vision, hard work and dedication recognised in this way and helped to raise awareness locally of the widespread benefits of such initiatives.

The Collection in St Johns Wood, London
The Collection in St Johns Wood, London

By contrast John’s project ‘The Collection’ was one of a number of entries in the Best Public or Communal Outdoor Space category of the 2013 Society of Garden Designers’ Awards, but the only one of sufficient calibre to be shortlisted, although you wouldn’t have guessed that from James Alexander Sinclair’s presentation banter on the night!

It is a shame that winning an award in this sort of circumstance can be such a bittersweet experience. It’s almost worse to win from a one-horse shortlist, than to be short-listed and not win!

The Collection, a design created in response to an extremely challenging set of technical and spatial issues, was chosen by the judges for its ‘… interesting layout and clever use of a narrow space, which jointly serves to screen the ugliness and clutter of surrounding buildings, and to unify the space into a single composition…’

Although this and the Spokane project (SGD International Award joint winner 2012: see blog post about this project here – separate window), were very much John’s designs from start to finish, much of the work we do at Bowles & Wyer is collaborative. As an office we often work in teams on projects, with John giving overall direction but leaving scope for our designers to express themselves freely and for graduates to grow and innovate.

Project in Spokane, WA, USA (image courtesy of Allan Pollok-Morris)

At Bowles & Wyer we try to cultivate confidence and independent thinking in our designers, while satisfying a series of sometimes very technically exacting briefs.  It is a difficult balance for a busy practice but I think it helps that we don’t have a house style and that every design we do is focussed on what’s right for the site and the client.

While many garden designers are one-man-bands, there is a growing number of high profile studios employing several designers who work collaboratively on designs – Andy Sturgeon, Tom Hoblyn, Arabella Lennox Boyd, Christopher Bradley Hole, to name but a few. And although the SGD recognises individuals as members, it does not recognise studios. In every garden design studio there are unsung heroes working on many and varied projects, making their mark in terms of design excellence but going unrecognised in the wider world. The SGD would argue that they should all register as individual members, and I wouldn’t dispute that as a sound idea in itself, but even if they did this, there is still no recognition in the SGD Awards for collaborative work. And let’s face it a lot of the best work is collaborative. Something for the SGD to ponder on perhaps…

Triangle Garden Trustees with the RHS 'It's your neighbourhood' awardFinally I have to let you in on a little secret… last year the Triangle Community Garden finally achieved an accolade of which its members and supporters could be properly proud: we were anonymously nominated for the RHS It’s Your Neighbourhood Awards and achieved the rating ‘Thriving’ – the equivalent of a Silver Gilt. Woo hoo! Next year we’ll be going for gold!

Vicky Wyer

Senior landscape architect at Bowles & Wyer, Chair of Trustees at the Triangle Community Garden, and cycling widow to John. For more info on the Triangle Garden see www.trianglegarden.org