"Men are beginning to realize that they are not individuals but persons in society, that man alone is weak and adrift, that he must seek strength in common action." - Dorothy Day
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gardenatmargins1A Garden at the Margins: building social inclusion through urban agriculture

Amé Pocklington

 

Bachelor of Health Science and Social Work (Honours)

Monash University 

 

Setting the scene

 

Growing Together is a community-based garden project within Ashburton that aims to build community harmony, support the development of social inclusion and enable local residents to participate in environmentally sustainable practices. The gardening group consists of both public housing tenants and private housing residents, all of whom come together each Wednesday morning to work in the Ashburton Community Garden. Shau Teo is a community development worker at the Craig Family Centre and is the facilitator of this project.

 

This article provides an overview of the context out of which Growing Together emerged and will apply a range of community development principles to this project. By harnessing the values and principles of community development, Growing Together has been able to challenge existing social, economic and political structures that perpetuate disadvantage and marginalisation (Tesoriero 2010).

 

Political context

 

The establishment of the Growing Together project occurred against the backdrop of two major government programs. Between 2003 and 2011, the Ashburton, Ashwood and Chadstone Neighborhood Renewal project was implemented as part of the State Government’s initiative to revitalise regions containing significant areas of public housing. This neighborhood renewal process eventuated in the establishment of the Ashburton Community Garden in 2008, created to facilitate interactions between public housing tenants and non-public housing residents. To ensure access to the garden for those experiencing financial stress, 20% of the plots were committed to low-income individuals. However, over time it became apparent that these plots were being underutilized due to a range of financial and social barriers faced by this group.

 

In addition to Neighborhood Renewal, the Victorian Government provided funding for the Sustainable Neighbourhoods Project, which was implemented between 2010 and 2012. As an environmental community development initiative, the objectives of this program were to build connections between government agencies, local service providers and low-income households within Ashburton to enhance environmental sustainability through the facilitation of community-based activities (Teo 2012).

 

As part of the Sustainable Neighbourhoods Project, the Ashburton Environmental Sustainability Study was conducted to explore strategies to enable low-income households to become more environmentally sustainable (Teo 2012). The report found that there was widespread community interest in gardening and consequently recommended that the Craig Family Centre develop a gardening program to address local food insecurity and community safety issues (Teo 2012).

 

Socio-economic context

 

Whilst the City of Boroondara is one of Melbourne’s most affluent local government areas, pockets of significant poverty and marginalisation continue to exist within this region. Twenty per cent of the Ashburton population consists of public housing tenants, many of whom are amongst the most highly economically and socially disadvantaged individuals within the municipality (Bunn 2012). In 2008 there were a total of 506 people living in public housing, including many sole parent families and older single people (Department of Human Services 2008). As such, the Ashburton Environmental Sustainability Study found that financial stress was a considerable barrier preventing low-income individuals from engaging in sustainable living practices (Teo 2012).

 

Whilst many efforts had been made to improve the local community through Neighbourhood Renewal and the Sustainable Neighbourhoods Project, fragmentation and conflict continued to have a negative effect on local people. Those living in Ashburton were more likely to feel unsafe compared to those living in surrounding areas (Bunn 2012). In particular, the residents of the Markham Avenue public housing estate in Ashburton were exposed to a range of anti-social and aggressive incidents that threatened to undermine social cohesion and harmony. These occurrences also jeopardized the relationships that had been forged within the Ashburton Community Garden (Bunn 2012).   

 

Something needed to be done

 

As was previously mentioned, the Ashburton Environmental Sustainability Study found that many socially and economically marginalised individuals within Ashburton were interested in contributing to environmental sustainability (Teo 2012); however, the report also identified a range of barriers that prevented low-income individuals from contributing to environmental initiatives and recommended that the Craig Family Centre establish a communal garden program to address these challenges (Teo 2012). Thus, the Craig Family Centre facilitated the development of the Growing Together program.


Growing Together is a community garden project aiming to foster social inclusion and community harmony within both the Ashburton Community Garden and the broader Ashburton precinct. The garden is based upon a cooperative model and enables community members to participate in the management of ten garden plots that had originally been allocated to low-income individuals. As an environmental community development initiative, Growing Together seeks to create a welcoming and safe space for both public and private house residents, increase access to the Ashburton Community Garden for disadvantaged community members, promote social harmony and grow local produce for consumption (Walsh 2013).     

 

In the early days of the project, a permaculture designer was commissioned to design the layout of the garden to ensure that it would be communal in nature. Today, pathways thread through the ten garden beds to encourage interaction and engagement between gardeners. Each Wednesday morning a diverse group of public housing tenants and individuals from the broader community can be seen tending to the garden, nurturing young plants and harvesting produce.

 

Social inclusion and building a sense of community

 

Community gardening is an activity that is associated with the development and maintenance of a sense of community and social connection (Nettle 2010). Whilst horticultural production is an important aspect of community gardening, it is often the social outcomes that lie at the heart of these projects (Nettle, 2010). Through the development of a communal-based plot system, Growing Together is responding to issues of social exclusion and community volatility within Ashburton. Issues such as these have been particularly problematic for individuals living in the local public housing estates. In response to this, Growing Together is building a socially cooperative and socially cohesive culture within which mutual respect and positive values are practiced between public and private housing residents.

 

Social action and change below

 

It has been claimed that community gardening is a mechanism through which groups of people act together to work towards shared goals and to engender grassroots social change through ‘rebuilding neighborhood community and restoring ecology to the inner-city’ (Hymes 1996 in Nettle 2010:26). In response to the erosion of community safety and trust within Ashburton, the Growing Together project has enabled local people to gather together and build a space that consists of positive relationships and interactions. Each gardening session provides participants with opportunities for collaboration and cooperation, both of which contribute to the fostering of community social wellbeing and cohesion. Growing Together is about more than just plants and soil; it is about enabling new modalities and patterns of relationship to exist within the community.  

 

Authentic change from below cannot occur without valuing the local knowledge and skills of those with whom community development work is undertaken (Tesoriero 2010). Growing Together is founded on the constant exchange of ideas and skills between all members of the group and the facilitator takes great care to acknowledge and implement the ideas and suggestions of community participants. Community members with horticultural knowledge readily share their expertise with others in the group, thereby demonstrating the notion that the community knows best (Holland and Blackburn 1998 in Tesoriero 2010). At the conclusion of each Wednesday session, the group convenes together over tea and biscuits to discuss the garden and to determine future plans for the project.

 

Participation and empowerment

 

In the words of the Growing Together facilitator, the project aims to build a team environment within which each individual is empowered and is able to participate in its development. As such, Kenny (2011) purports that one of the key defining characteristics of community development is its bottom-up approach, through which community participation provides individuals with ownership over a program or project. As such, Growing Together has enabled greater community participation within the life of the community, particularly for those who are experiencing disadvantage and social isolation. Consequently, participants are able to gain a sense of ownership and self-determination both within the project and in the broader community.  

 

Tesoriero (2010:240) asserts that empowerment occurs when people have access to ‘resources, opportunities, vocabulary, knowledge and skills to increase their capacity to determine their own future and to participate in and affect the life of their community’. The Growing Together project utilises an informal mechanism for decision-making, whereby each session concludes with a group discussion about issues relating to the plots. This provides individuals with an opportunity to be involved in decisions relating to the management and maintenance of the communal plots. Beyond the Growing Together project, the participation of community members in this initiative further contributes to the broader life of the community by fostering harmony within the social fabric of Ashburton.     

 

Conclusion

 

As a response to social marginalisation and fragmentation within the local community in Ashburton, Growing Together provides a space within which new connections and relationships are able to flourish between individuals who might otherwise not interact. The communal aspect of the project allows participants to come together as equals working collaboratively together to build community harmony and peace. Growing Together is a microcosm of the broader community and as the soil in the plots continues to bring forth produce to sustain the community, so too will the relationships forged within the garden continue to flourish.  

 

References

 

Bunn, S 2012, Community safety grant funding application, Craig Family Centre, Ashburton.

Department of Human Services, 2008 Neighbourhood renewal Ashburton action plan 2000, State Government of Victoria, Melbourne.

Kenny, S 2011, Developing communities for the future, 4th ed., Cengage Learning, South Melbourne.

Nettle, C 2010, Community gardening as social action: the Australian community gardening movement and repertoires for change, University of Adelaide, Adelaide.

Tesoriero, F 2010, Community Development: community-based alternatives in an age of globalisation, 4th ed., Pearson Australia, Frenchs Forest.  

Teo, S 2012, The Ashburton environmental sustainability study, Craig Family Centre, Ashburton.

Walsh, J 2013, Growing Together Project, Craig Family Centre, Ashburton.