Tag Archives: community garden

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The Community in Gardening

I’m three months into my new life in Barcelona, this city of sunshine and history where millions of tourists every year take selfies in front of ancient ruins topped off by a blue sky. The visitors all seem excited and the locals love it, but some days, I just can’t find my joy. Despite the sunshine flooding the city, our comfortable flat in the Gothic quarter is shrouded in gloomy shade and I find myself staring at the Roman wall outside our window as if to ask it, what now? Despite its undoubted sense of history, the wall, like any other wall, is cold and hard, whereas my longing is for something soft and green.

On Saturdays, I take the Metro to the top of the city, where a group of anarchists have created Can Masdeu, a community in an abandoned building that used to be a leper colony. I join with a group of permaculture gardeners to weed vegetable beds and plant seeds. The soil is thirsty and even in February, when my friends at home in Wales are brushing the snow from their boots, I have to tie my hair up from the nape of my neck to seek relief from a cooling breeze. The sun warms my back as I bend to pull the ragged stems from the ground. It’s therapeutic, weeding, and the company is convivial. Our communal lunch afterwards is a protracted, Spanish-style affair, held outside on a long table under the trees.

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Something is different here at Can Masdeu. The consumerist grind of life in the city is stalled. It is not all about money, or reputation, or getting ahead. Here, I can relax and be myself. However, living in the city doesn’t need to be an inherently disconnecting experience. In Melbourne, for instance, the amount of spare land, rooftops and shared space that is being turned over to community gardening grows (!) year upon year. Quite aside from its ample parkland, Melbourne’s people have decided that it’s time to grow food in the city. Barcelona is catching on to this. In the urban barrios of El Born and Poble Nou and here, in Can Masdeu, I have spent time learning about vertical gardening, balcony composting and most importantly, I’ve made friends. There’s something about gardening that frees my soul to connect. After all, if someone has made time in their busy life to mess about in the dirt, I feel it says something fundamental about their character, their priorities and, in this context, their politics.

When I lived in Wales, I heard and watched stories of guerilla gardeners, thinking all the time how cool it was that people were digging up the concrete to plant trees, but never realising how essential it was for their well-being. After all, I lived in the countryside and tended my own garden whenever I liked. How could I know the deep importance of this radical act? An article I read the other day told about some research that measured to what extent people become depressed while living amongst concrete pavements and bland street architechture. The writer proposed that what the brain needs to function well is natural landscape. My first reaction was ‘duh!’. Another piece of stupid research to prove something we all knew already. But the planning of modern cities tells us different. We don’t know these things. We don’t understand the degree to which humans need nature. We are only just beginning to quantify the damage to our own mental and physical well-being from being cooped up in grey, dull labyrinths. Bob Marley published Concrete Jungle in 1973, but then, the poets and mystics always know these things first. For the rest of society, it might take an epidemic of mental illness, an avalanche of child obesity and ADHD, or a wave of climatic emergency to prove what the ancients have always known.

We need Nature.

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Greening the City

It’s a new year in Australia and it’s still holiday time. Being summer, the children are off school for another 3 weeks and the newspapers reflect the “silly season” when the parliament is not sitting. The lack of political backstabbing leaves room for some news which is actually interesting, and this weekend, the Melbourne Age carries a story about some people who have set up a share house with a view to living communally and sharing resources. They grow their own veggies in an ample backyard, eat together five times a week and have reduced their weekly expenses to just $120 each (£65), which is pretty amazing in the inner city. One of the housemates is someone I have met. Her name is Theo Kitchener and she co-ordinates a group called Doing it Ourselves. The group advocates a slowing down of society’s incessant need for growth and a return to a more self-sufficient lifestyle. Theo clearly walks the talk with her suburban “co-operative community”.

I am inspired by these efforts to make the city lifestyle more sustainable. One of the criticisms often aimed at my Living in the Future video series is that it tends to reflect only rural communities and obviously, not everyone can make that rural dream work for them. “What about greening the cities?” I am asked. Living in Melbourne is a good opportunity to explore just what that might mean and I’ve been impressed with some of the ideas that people are putting into practice.

One of the simplest ways in which cities can “go green” is to establish community gardens.  We have a planter box in one of the laneways between houses and manage to grow a constant supply of greens as well as some beans, a few root veg and lots of herbs.
This weekend, we were comparing our lifestyle in terms of carbon footprint and admitting that if we were honest, our city footprint was probably lighter than our rural footprint back in Wales! Here, we don’t run a car and our journeys to work are done mostly by bicycle. Our tiny urban flat only needs minimum heating for 2 months a year, compared to 6 months of wood and coal consumed by our burner at home. Our veg boxes come from CERES, which is a community environment park on 4 acres of rehabilitated landfill. They have beautiful spaces for workshops, funky buildings made of straw and mud, a thriving plant nursery and regular organic market. Their food comes mostly from farms within the state of Victoria, which means the veg is quite local. In our tiny backstreet planter box, we grow as much veg as we did in our large garden, thanks to bad weather and slugs diminishing the harvest.

Of course, we have to take into account the massive infrastructure which makes city life possible at all and it’s hard to measure the cost of that, but all this is worth considering before we make another move – either home or elsewhere. Spiritual fulfillment aside, (I will always yearn for the peace and quiet of Nature) if we are truly trying to live a sustainable lifestyle and cut our carbon emissions, does it make it easier to live in the city or the country?

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The Nature of Cities

This afternoon I had a filming appointment at a food forest garden nearby. To get there would take a half hour walk or ten minute cycle. It was raining. Hard. I was a bit worried about slipping off my bike and smashing my camera, but by the time I’d finished faffing – looking up directions; making a note of the organiser’s number – it was a bit late to walk.

I rode slowly and carefully, avoiding puddles and tram lines. I got there in plenty of time and as I arrived, I realised I was smiling. My inner mantra had changed from “Oh, it’s raining again” to “I’m so happy” and it only took a moment to work out why. I loved being in the rain.

The food garden was lush and fruitful, with lovingly tended plots abundant with beans, herbs and salads. Since moving to the city, I’ve become a big fan of urban agriculture and I heard that Kevin McCloud, of Grand Designs fame, was recently advocating turning Melbourne’s parks into food gardens. That would be great! Yarra Council is really forward thinking in that respect and has appointed an urban agriculture officer. He’s been responsible for putting planter boxes all around the neighbourhood so that we see herbs and veggies growing on many street corners. Today, the garden shone and twinkled with raindrops. You could almost hear the plants inhaling the fresh moist air.

Only this morning, I was thinking how Nature was enjoyable in any weather. Sunshine is great, obviously, but the beach in winter is wild and when the waves crash the shore, some primal energy is released not only in them, but in me. City life is short on primal energy and I often find myself flatlining in a dullness of being. When you’re used to being stirred by Nature, a caffe latte in a funky cafe and an illicit freewheel through the park at night can only take you so far. Mostly, I find it’s not far enough.

When I got back from my bicycle shower, I went out again. Just for fun. I don’t own an umbrella and I left my hat at home. I wanted to feel the rain on my face, the wind in my hair. I bounced up the street, focused only on the feel of Nature washing me down. My stupid grin could have been mistaken for love, or madness. I just felt so relieved to have found a way to be in Nature, even here, in the depths of the city. Melbourne is known for its “four seasons in a day” but usually, it’s a bit of a pain. Early in our stay here, a friend showed me the contents of her oversized handbag. She routinely carried both leggings and an umbrella, however the day began. “It can change at any time!” she warned.

I wandered up to the post office to send a leisurely letter, strolling lightly as people hurried by, heads down against the weather. I smiled and smiled to myself.
On the way back, I looked up to see a line of pigeons perched on a telegraph wire. They were mostly hunched, like the pedestrians. Heads tucked into their necks, feathers ruffled and damp. The wire hung over the middle of the street. Could they not have chosen a more sheltered spot to huddle? Thirty-one, I counted. Why that wire? And why was there only one single pigeon on the wire next door?

I spent a contented time, in the rain, watching the pigeons and realised that in one lucky afternoon, I had discovered that the city weather could allow me to immerse in Nature and city animals were also wildlife worth watching.

Have you got any tips for city survival?

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