Reclaiming space for community: anti-social behaviour
In the narrow strip of grass in front of Gibbings House in SE1, a new community garden has grown. Planters stretch along the railings of St James Street, overflowing with flowers, fruit and vegetables. Previously an empty strip of grass, locked and inaccessible to the flats which overlooked it, today the garden is a community hub where neighbours come together and children play.
In 2018, the story was very different. The block is a low-rise development of 15 flats. Empty spaces in the stairwells, unseen from the street, had become a hot spot for drug users, with anti-social behaviour and the intimidation of residents taking place. It got to the point where some residents were scared to go out at night. It was these challenging circumstances which brought neighbours together to find a way to reclaim their space.
Fight back with plants
One of the residents happened to attend the community gardening conference at Walworth Garden which led to the setting up of Walworth Community Garden Network. Fired up by this, and supported by some new friends from the fledgling network, she proposed that the block fight back with plants. “We wanted to re-occupy the space and show that our block was cared for, so we started out by adding new planters to the stairwells,” she said. Four large planters were provided by Better Bankside and filled by residents with shade-tolerant perennials.
Emboldened by this first step, the new group set out to transform the lawn in front of their flats. Surrounded by low fencing this space had previously been locked and inaccessible. Debbie Mitchener, then of Garden Organic, came to give Gibbings House and their neighbours workshops about planting Winter vegetables. “These were the first plants growing in the space and inspired us to dream about what we could achieve”. In the Spring of 2019 Debbie returned to give the gardening group a workshop on seed sowing. The group leafleted each flat to ask which plants people would like to grow in a new community garden. They gathered support from local gardening groups and charitable and business organisations and applied for a Cleaner Greener Safer grant. Funding was awarded in January 2019 and volunteers, including several local police officers, joined forces to construct and fill the 32 planters. One resident’s carpentry skills proved invaluable. Plants were sourced from the RHS Shows re-use scheme and from other Walworth Community Garden Network gardeners and, by the end of June 2019, the new garden was built. In March 2020 they were given some drum planters by WeareWaterloo, and friends from Balin House (WCGN) and Good Gym helped fill and plant them up to help discourage fly-tipping and littering in front of Gibbings House and its neighbour across the street, Stopher House.
Slowly but surely, as activity grew, the anti-social behaviour that had been plaguing the estate began to drop away. “ Demonstrating the estate was loved and cared for really helped us to discourage these opportunists from using our space in this way,” said Sam.
In times of Covid-19, the new garden offers an essential space for neighbours to meet safely and for children to play. It’s also a welcome green space for the street, in a built-up urban area.
The group has worked with a Garden Organic Master Gardener, Walworth Community Garden Network and local charity BOST to run workshops for residents to learn gardening skills. Families have grown herbs and vegetables in pots and children, given their own watering cans, have enthusiastically embraced the role of water monitor. While the numbers of residents gardening started out small, more and more are now using the space. “It has connected us.” says one resident, “Neighbours who lived next door to each other for years but had never spoken. It feels like it’s ours now. It’s supported us all through a very difficult year.”
Project dimensions: 3.6 x 33metres
Project capital cost: Approximately £8,000
Plants sourced from: RHS Shows Re-use scheme, other Community Gardens and grown from seed.
Support in kind: The garden is a member of the Walworth Community Garden Network , which provides advice and support to community gardens in the Walworth and Elephant and Castle area. Gibbings House has also received support, in the form of advice, grants, materials or community workshops from CGS, Community Southwark, Better Bankside, Team London Bridge and WeareWaterloo.