Gillian Morgan of Sustain, discusses the value of food growing in parks ahead of their new joint publication with Shared Assets.
Mention food growing in parks and the image of the dig for victory campaign with public parks being transformed into allotments springs to mind.
Community food growing, in local through to metropolitan parks, is ticking a number of councils’ priority boxes. Whilst this is often being delivered with minimal council involvement, great benefits can be achieved with cross departmental cooperation. Key messages to managing parks for the common good are:
• Parks are a common good and like all council assets should be actively managed to address local priorities and valued for their contribution eg to public health;
• Parks are a community resource, where food growing projects can engage citizens in their local environment;
• Parks are accessible to all and can be non-threatening environments to promote messages about health, food and diet;
• Community food growing projects contribute to visitor experience and bring to parks: horticultural interest, a diversity of recreational facilities, additional resources;
• A strategic approach to park management will ensure food growing projects contribute to the overall management plan, that managers build trust with park users and there is clarity of expectations on both sides and
• There is no single model for a community food growing space in a park; it will depend on the type of park and its catchment.
It feels the time is right for councils to use their public assets to meet a wider agenda about where food comes from. Public parks are valued not just for their horticultural and amenity value, but as multi purpose public assets that can enable local authorities to meet their objectives around economic resilience, social wellbeing and environmental sustainability.
The messages and conversations this can create are critical to not only people’s personal diet, but to understand and support farmers managing the rural landscape productively. Community food growing in parks makes the food message accessible. What’s more, it builds community engagement with their local environment where they can be park managers’ best allies.
Recent research by Fields in Trust found that few public services have such a wide-ranging, positive impact on local communities as parks and green spaces. Despite this, parks tend to be valued according to their maintenance costs rather than their true dividend to local communities.
Indeed, community food growing initiatives in parks can provide cost-effective opportunities for local authorities to work together with local communities to increase the social, economic, environmental, recreational and horticultural value of parks. Food growing provides spaces for social interaction, exercise, education in good nutrition and healthy eating, leading to improvements in residents’ physical and mental wellbeing and personal resilience . It provides opportunities where people can develop new skills and can be used as a pathway to help people get active or take up employment. Areas dedicated
for food growing bring new uses and users to previously derelict or neglected areas.
But, food growing in parks is not a one size fits all solution. There are many different ways of setting up and running including traditional council led approaches, as well as partnerships or in some cases community leadership.
Councils in the lead
A council run project is clearly the most intensive. These projects fit a service model, where volunteer sessions are run as a class dependent on the capacity of the staff leader and the abilities of the service users. Participants are referred to as service users; some may be walk-up volunteers, many will have been referred from social or health services. This is an option for large multifunctional parks where there is limited local “ownership”.
Duthie Park is a fine example of a late Victorian public park in Aberdeen city centre. It has benefitted from major investment by the Heritage Lottery Fund who wanted to see volunteer involvement. The Duthie Park Ranger Service organises the Park Force Volunteers who are likely to have been referred by local health services. The garden is highly visible, open access, decorative as well as productive, reflecting the high standard of the park. With herbs, fruit, vegetable plots and an area to demonstrate farming to school children, the Rangers are responsible for programming school visits, care of the volunteers as well as the garden.
In the facilitating model the council works in partnership with a third sector partner with a degree of formality relating to tenure, responsibilities, or programming. These projects are more appropriate for an established organisation or social enterprise, who require a firmer commitment than a local residents group, especially if they are taking on responsibility for a secure site such as a disused nursery.
A partnership run growing space in Albert Park in Middlesbrough has brought into use the former council plant nursery. The food growing project improves the physical and mental health of new and emerging communities through community based activities, which has resulted in public health funding. Middlesbrough Environment City (MEC) have an informal agreement with the council and support fundraising as well as provide training for the growers. Partner organisation, Investing in People and Culture (IPC), employ a part time staff member to manage the site and many of the users are refugees, who live nearby. and who benefit from the social contact, free healthy food and social interaction.
Communities in control
The third model is where the community take the lead, often approaching the council to request use of an area. A surprising number of councils have no formal agreements with food growing groups. These councils welcome residents’ involvement in the care of the park. This is particularly true for small local parks. Groups may receive advice from the council about health and safety procedures, insurance, and safeguarding measures.
The food growing space in Scotch Quarry Park in Lancaster was created from open grass parkland. A management plan originally agreed by Transition City Lancaster and the City Council is being implemented by local residents through a new trust. There is no formal lease. Any changes to the management plan are discussed with the designated council officer and then incorporated into the management plan via the Council’s legal team. The area is fully open to the public. Residents walk through the area and sit and enjoy the gardens now it is more interesting. Public benefits are improved park maintenance; improved perception of safety, increased amenity and biodiversity. The garden also raises the profile of food and gardening.
So, we want to dispel the dig for victory image; this is more about winning the battle for healthier urban citizens. Food growing in parks should be for the benefit of the local community, not for specific individuals. As Brighton and Hove Food Partnership say, “Community gardens are not about creating allotments in public spaces – they are about bringing people together and providing opportunities for learning and trying new things.”
• Food growing in Parks: A guide for councils was published by Sustain and Shared Assets and released as part of their presentation at the APSE Refuse, Recycling, Street Scene, Grounds and Parks Seminar on 19 October. The publication is available to download from the Sustain website.