How to Make Friends in the City: Grow Vegetables Together
We asked this East Londoner how a pop-up garden brought his neighbourhood together and made friends out of strangers.
How to Make Friends in the City: Grow Vegetables Together
By Jasleena Grewal / yesmagazine.org

In East London’s Nomadic Community Garden, Bangladeshi families tend beds of eggplant, squash, and other seasonal vegetables alongside their non-Bangladeshi neighbors. The Garden is a gathering place in a densely populated neighborhood known as “Banglatown,” wheredifferent communities often struggle to get to know each other. With an event space, a public park, and more than 100 mobile garden beds, it’s one of the largest inner-city outdoor growing spaces in England—a hub that director James Wheale hopes can heal urban alienation by bringing people together.

Forming meaningful friendships can be difficult in cities, partly because many don’t have enough public spaces where people experience the “repeated spontaneous contact” required for making friends, according to Vox’s David Roberts. He cites sociologist Rebecca G. Adams’ three key ingredients for building strong relationships: “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.” But public spaces where “people regularly mingle [while] doing errands, walking their dogs, [and] playing in parks” can be difficult to find as urban land is commercialized.

Wheale, too, shares this concern. He started the mobile garden project not just to create a green space, but out of “a concern that we are living in a fragmented, atomized society.” He wanted to create a space where people could re-form social networks.

 

The Nomadic Community Gardens are chronicled in a short film by Ross Harrison featured on 10shorts.com.

The Garden opened in May last year when Londonewcastle, a property development company, leased an abandoned parcel of land to Wheale. All structures are portable, and the project is intended to eventually be moved to other cities—veggie beds, rain harvesters, and all. Both the on-site office and lightweight veggie beds can be transported by truck. “We can move them overnight so they’re ready, pop-up style,” Wheale said.

I talked to Wheale about his hope that the Garden can improve Londoners’ quality of life by helping growers lower their food bills, share skills, and build relationships. 

This interview has been lightly edited.

Jasleena Grewal: The gardens are hubs of both nature and of culture. Why is the sociocultural aspect important?

James Wheale: In a city, the social horizons can be very small because many people don’t really interact with neighbors, and instead [interact] with computers and TVs. The benefits of living in a community where people know your name and who you are are massively lacking.

For example, there’s a guy named Steve who has become an integral part of the garden. He’s a great volunteer who’s there almost every day. For the previous five years, before his contact with the garden, he kept to himself and didn’t talk to anybody. He got his dog a couple years back to start socializing with other dog-walkers, and came into contact with the project. It’s become the center of his social world now. He feels like his sense of humor has come back.

Grewal: The film shows lots of different kinds of people interacting. What’s the demographic like in the area?

Wheale: Traditionally, it was British working class. There was a Jewish settlement, and then the Huguenots came over from France. That’s the historic demographic, which there are still constituents of. More recently, since the second World War and the need to rebuild England, second- and third-generation Bangladeshi migrants populate the area. This is partly because Bangladeshi families are traditionally large, and they live together. This makes the population spike in the area.

Grewal: Do you see friendships forming among crowds of people who didn’t always interact with each other before?

Wheale: Yeah, definitely. Growing vegetables is a universal language. It’s an activity that everyone can partake in and everybody feels gratification doing. It’s something we’ve seen with the Bangladeshi residents who come from agrarian backgrounds, who are very confident growers and very green-fingered. They were teaching growing techniques to people from other cultures who lost touch with that [agrarian] tradition.

Also, that area of London is quite deprived. There’s a high level of homelessness and alcohol and substance abuse. Because the Bangladeshis come from a traditionally conservative society, their relationships to [people with drug and alcohol addictions] haven’t been very positive. But the Bangladeshis have seen them helping out, and now say hello to them. They’ve crossed that barrier.

Grewal: How did you create a safe space for different kinds of people to share?

Wheale: I think it has to do with the energy management of the space. One of our ground rules is that as long as you’re not a threat to yourself, crack on! We want to create a space local communities feel an ownership over—that it’s their space, it’s their garden that they get to use. We want to create a culture where people look after themselves, leave no trace, and respect themselves and the environment.

Grewal: I was struck by the mobile nature of the project. Why have the gardens move, instead of staying in place?

Wheale: I think that once you’ve created a resource somewhere, there’s a point where the novelty wears off. I think there’s a saturation point.Once that resource disappears, there’s a void that people are motivated to fill for themselves.

Once they see that this project was allowing them to co-create, they might think about joining a local group where they are able to fill that purpose for themselves. The resource we’ve created may go to another area and encourage a new group of people to create communities and teach them about the wonders of food-growing. The void it leaves behind can hopefully create an activism in the people it left behind. 


Jasleena Grewal wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Jasleena is an online reporting intern. Follow her on Twitter@JasleenaGrewal.

0.0 ·
0
What's Next
Trending Today
Have You Heard of The Great Forgetting? It Happened 10,000 Years Ago & Completely Affects Your Life
Daniel Quinn · 17,438 views today · (Excerpted from the book, The Story of B) With every audience and every individual, I have to begin by making them see that the cultural self-awareness we inherit from our...
The Myth of Positivity: Why Your Pain Holds a Mighty Purpose
umair haque · 13,447 views today · Of all the great myths of contemporary life, one of the most toxic is positivity. It says: there are negative and positive emotions, and only the positive ones are worth...
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 11,130 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
10 Stunning Images from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year People's Choice Award
Natural History Museum · 10,152 views today · These incredible images are a selection from of the 25 shortlisted by The Natural History Museum for the People's Choice Award from this year's Wildlife Photographer of the...
Seven Must-Have Skills for the 21st Century
Tommy Lehe · 6,176 views today · We live in a world that moves faster than we do. Trying to keep up can be an overwhelming task that at times feels hopeless, like we are falling further and further behind—but...
Forget Air Force One, Pentagon Wastes Billions and Billions Every Month
Nadia Prupis · 5,131 views today · President-elect Donald Trump's focus on single Boeing contract ignores enormous waste of bloated Pentagon budget
Stunning Summary of US Imperialism and Native Resistance... on MSNBC!
4 min · 3,299 views today · On The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC, Lawrence explains why a protest by Native Americans in North Dakota reminds us of the history American always tries to forget.
The Most Powerful Algorithm in the World
Joe Brewer · 2,206 views today · After the insanity of the U.S. election, a lot of people are blaming Facebook for its algorithms that parse us into ideological bubbles and spread “fake news” and other kinds...
DREAM: A Spoken Word Meditation For When Life Is Kicking Your Ass
4 min · 2,098 views today · If life is kicking your ass and the general un-coolness of everybody on planet erf is making you want to off yourself, TALK to someone: 800-273-8255 (national suicide...
Amanda Abbington Introduces iAnimal - 42 Days in the Life of Chickens
4 min · 1,686 views today · Shot undercover in British factory farms and slaughterhouses, this immersive 360° video gives you a birds-eye view of what happens to chicken from farm to plate.
Standing Rock Wisdom: How Sacred, Nonviolent Activism Has the Power to Succeed
Charles Eisenstein · 1,675 views today · I am told by Native American friends active at Standing Rock that the elders are counseling the Water Protectors to undertake each action prayerfully and to stay off the...
The Other Way of Knowing
Lilian Na’ia Alessa · 1,646 views today · Western science and Indigenous worldviews are often seen as incompatible, with the Indigenous view usually being far less valued by society at large. But an inside look at...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,408 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
How a White Supremacist Became a Civil Rights Activist
Araz Hachadourian · 1,361 views today · The story of a KKK leader’s transformation shows us that we need not live forever with the kind of violence we saw in Charleston this month.
Veterans at Standing Rock Ask Forgiveness for War Crimes Against Tribal Nations
Jen Hayden · 1,219 views today · Jon Eagle Sr., Tribal Historic Preservation Officer at Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has reported something wholly unexpected happened at the Standing Rock Reservation today. The...
Dear Activists, Maybe It's Time to Admit That We've Got It All Wrong
Mickey Z. · 1,198 views today · “The first step in the revolution is eye contact.” - Alicen Grey
Sean Carroll - The Meaning of Life
7 min · 1,162 views today · The world keeps happening in accordance with its rules; it's up to us to make sense of it and give it value. Sean Carroll Music: Moby - God Moving Over the Face of the Waters
Solar is Already Producing More Energy Than Oil, Says Major Scientific Review
Nafeez Ahmed · 1,055 views today · And is twice as powerful than previously thought
The 24-Hour Emergency Hotline for Syrian Refugees
7 min · 986 views today · Mohammed Abu Amar runs a makeshift 24-hour helpline from his flat in Hamburg, guiding scared refugees fleeing the violence in Syria across the water to Europe.  Despite losing...
Why People Cling to Old Beliefs
1 min · 905 views today · Cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist at McGill University, Daniel Levitin, explains why people can be so stubborn when it comes to false beliefs. This behavior is...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
How to Make Friends in the City: Grow Vegetables Together