University of Cambridge Museums

Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums

Growing Happiness: Bringing communities together with plants

In 1847 Birkenhead Park, designed by Joseph Paxton, opened with the aim of creating a ‘Park for the People’ – this was the first publicly funded park in the world. It was built because the importance and value of green space in the increasingly industrialised cities of that era were recognized by the policy makers of the day. Today if you do a quick internet search on the benefits of green space in cities, you will be almost overwhelmed by the wealth of research and projects – all demonstrating the value of communal green spaces in cities with benefits to society ranging from improvements in mental health to social cohesion and crime reduction.

Despite this evidence there has been steady decline in funding and resources for public green spaces across the UK, and so it is encouraging to see that the number of community gardening projects across the country has been increasing.  At last count there were over 20 projects running just here in Cambridge, led by local residents and community organisations, charities, libraries, churches, allotment societies and even one in a Cambridge College — developed by the brilliant Murray Edwards College garden team.

What nearly all these projects come down to is the realisation that growing plants is a great way to bring people together – it makes you feel good, it makes a difference to where you live, and even better it’s inter-generational, socially, economically and culturally inclusive. It forces people to be patient together and creates collective excitement for what is to come – will the plants grow?  And most of all it encourages new friendships – because the chances are that if you sow a whole packet of seeds and end up with 25 plants that you haven’t got room for you will probably give a few away.

From a Botanic Garden point of view, alongside all of this good stuff, we also know that growing plants widens people’s understanding and knowledge about the environment and the importance of plants.  Across the world Botanic Gardens are developing much broader outreach programmes by working with communities, particularly through gardening based projects.  Why? Well we need more people to care about our plant collections and support governments that will invest in green infrastructure and plant based education, and we need more young people to consider plant-based careers from horticulture to plant science. To find out more about work in this area by Botanic Gardens have a look at the Communities in Nature reports by Botanic Gardens Conservation International. You will find projects across the world, led by Botanic Gardens, that are transformative for local communities.

So with all this in mind we  have started a very small community gardening project of our own.  We hope it will deliver benefits to the community immediately surrounding our Garden, and increase understanding about what we do here at the Botanic Garden in Cambridge.  The project is based at Hanover and Princess Court just off the Hills Road.  We already work regularly with residents from this part of the city through the Centre at St Paul’s and St Paul’s primary school, and so decided that we would base our project within this community.  We started in the autumn of 2013, with a bulb planting session at Hanover and Princess Court and by supplying plants for flower beds at the front of the newly refurbished Centre at St Paul’s. We also began working with the residents association, supporting their application to the council for funds to landscape the area around a new community centre, which has now been built in the central square the flats surround.  A seed sowing session followed in spring 2014, along with more bulb planting the following autumn.

1665_D12_115Based on the feedback from these activities, we have now started a regular Gardening Club which meets at the Hanover and Princess Court Community Centre each Tuesday.  We began in March by planting herbs in some new raised beds, (built by the City council), for residents to use and care for.  Now each week we can be found loading up our Botanic Garden cargo bike to carry all the plants and gardening kit we need to run the sessions from the community centre at the flats.

To follow the progress of our gardening project, have a look at our blog and look out for us out on our cargo bike in the streets around the Garden!

Many of Cambridge’s community gardening projects – along with local artists and other community organisations are taking part in The Chelsea Fringe, an RHS Chelsea Flower Show spin-off Gardening Festival which runs in Cambridge from May 16 – 7 June 7. 

Felicity Plent, Head of Education, Botanic Garden

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This entry was posted on May 21, 2015 by in Goal 2, News, Society and tagged , , , , .
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