Alex Wilde has been involved with community gardens as a grower, facilitator and artist, across Glasgow for many years. She is currently the Project Lead in the Shaping Places for Wellbeing Programme, a delivery partnership between the Improvement Service and Public Health Scotland (PHS), funded and supported by The Health Foundation and Scottish Government. The programme aims to improve Scotland’s wellbeing and reduce inequalities through changing our collective approaches to the places where we live, work and play, enabling partnership-based, wide-ranging action at a local level, while addressing the health of our planet. The programme is currently supporting seven local project towns across Scotland: Alloa, Ayr, Clydebank, Dalkeith, Dunoon, Fraserburgh and Rutherglen.

By taking part in the Conference I wanted to deepen my understanding about the role of community food growing in a place, what contribution it makes and how it supports wider strategic objectives to increase the wellbeing of our places. I was also interested in the space between policy and action, and how connections between practitioners and strategy writers are being made.

The work of the Shaping Places for Wellbeing Programme is anchored in using the Place and Wellbeing Outcomes (pictured), to improve Scotland’s wellbeing and reduce inequality.

Within the Spaces Place and Wellbeing Outcome under the theme Natural Spaces it says ‘everyone can access community food growing opportunities and prime quality agricultural land is protected’. What was clear from the contributions from Conference speakers was that community growing activity also contributes to many of the other Place and Wellbeing Outcomes, particularly those relating to the economy, the environment, stewardship of place and civic pride.

An ongoing theme throughout the Conference was of community gardens as spaces of connection to place to

  • our neighbours
  • nature
  • the local impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss
  • healthy food
  • our culture and history
  • And perhaps more surprisingly, to the planning system.
  • Also, that a healthy diet is closely connected to the health of the environment in terms of nutritional standards.

Joe Fitzpatrick, MSP, Minister for Local Government Empowerment and Planning, talked about food and community led regeneration and this was exemplified by many of the speakers. Greig Robertson from Edible Estates and Nancy Barr from Larkhall Community Growers gave examples of how community gardens had sparked greater involvement in engagement with place-based decision-making and collective organising around repair and maintenance. This included an inspirational shed making enterprise involving young people through Edible Estates and the impetus to start a community plan in Larkhall. Adding to this, Concrete Garden talked about the way in which they see gardens growing communities.

This was echoed in the introduction to the Good Food Nation, with Mary Brennan talking about food environments that are enabling and empowering. She highlighted the importance of building an articulation of what food means at a Local Authority level into local plans. Mary also reminded us that it is important not to see food in isolation though, as it is interdependent with housing, fuel and transport, all of which are vital to living a good life.  This aligns with the Shaping Places for Wellbeing Programme Place and Wellbeing Outcomes as mentioned above, which aim to help us achieve a more joined up approach, by making sure all of the features of a place are considered before any place-based action is taken.

In terms of the gaps between policy and practice, there were questions about scaling up to achieve strategic objectives and identifying and understanding the barriers to this and considering whether there is even an appetite to do so. Each and every community garden is likely to be very different and potentially fragile in how it operates, so scalability cannot always be applied. We returned to the theme of connection and the need to work together to build a local food system, something which Get Growing Scotland talked about and made the analogy of investing in the mycorrhizal network that support life on our planet. It was felt by many attendees of the conference that this system requires support and advocacy, with a specific suggestion emerging from the experience of developing the Glasgow City Food Plan and that a Food System Convenor within the local authority to link across departments could be one way to address this.

Despite it being acknowledged that community food projects make a valuable contribution to place, it was felt however, that there is often a lack of recognition and understanding of the wide and deep impact on people and planetary health gained from a small investment. Skilled support was seen as vital investment for success and this needs to be resourced. It was also highlighted that pay and employment rights in the sector are poor which is reflected in food producers in general operating below minimum wage. Perhaps viewing community food as part of the local economy and rather than a nice to have, would encourage people to think about how the flow of money could be regenerative as well as the gardens themselves. Suggested practical steps to support this included; better connections between community gardens and market gardens, procurement considerations through statutory organisations and levering investment through private developers who benefit from a vibrant community. The perceived need for greater trust from Government and Local Authorities was also identified to support this process.

Community gardens reconnect us with our histories as well as each other, and several speakers gave examples of this. Inverclyde Shed reminded us of what can be lost in term of our food culture, using the word ‘kaleyards’ – a reference to the widespread access people used to have to a small patch of land close to where they lived for growing cabbage, kale and other brassicas predominantly. The importance of being able to benefit from a place that has a positive identity, culture and history, was also highlighted by Zanne Domoney-Lyttle from SURF – Girvan Alliance for Action, who gave a great example of how those connections can be reinvigorated through celebrating local food and the many creative ways in which the Girvan Tattie Fest hooked in locals and tourists.

Storyteller Daniel Serridge, who rounded off the conference, wove the tale of a landowner who on his own felt the weight of family history and struggled to imagine the future, so set about having a sunflower competition to choose a successor. Community gardens are so often fertile spaces for collective imagination and moral of the story was reflected by many of the contributors in reminded us that by growing together we gain so much more than pursuing our own tallest sunflower.

Community food growing is a theme which has emerged in several of the project towns, when considering how strategies and plans could impact on a place. The Conference provided the opportunity to learn from a diverse and rich range of approaches and experiences which can be shared with our partners through the Programme. It also resonates with the wider work of the Community Link Leads in each town to highlight the opportunities and benefits of partnership working with the third sector, and the contribution of grassroots organisations to a richer understanding of our places.

For more information about the work of the Shaping Places for Wellbeing Programme, visit our webpages here and our Programme Summary which can be read here

This blog is the eighth in a series of follow on blogs from the SURF Annual Conference. Read the next blog from Martin Gerrish of Grown Food Grow Dunoon HERE