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
10 Provocative Quotes from Ivan Illich's "Deschooling Society"
Daniel Lattier · 10,607 views today · Ivan Illich’s groundbreaking book Deschooling Society (1971) offers a radical critique of the institutionalization of education within modern societies. Illich believed that we...
This Text Message Exchange Between a Mother and Daughter is Pure Gold
Belinda Hankins · 10,198 views today · When Belinda Hankins got a text message from her 13-year-old daughter, who was shopping for period products, it started an exchange that will resonate with women everywhere. Enjoy.
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 4,283 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...
Welcome to Marinaleda: The Spanish Anti-Capitalist Town With Equal Wage Full Employment and $19 Housing
Jade Small · 3,890 views today · With virtually no police, crime or unemployment, meet the Spanish town described as a democratic, socialist utopia. Unemployment is non-existent in Marinaleda, an Andalusian...
When You Kill Ten Million Africans You Aren't Called 'Hitler'
Liam O'Ceallaigh · 3,062 views today · Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is? Most people haven’t heard of him. But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in...
Superblocks: How Barcelona Is Taking City Streets Back From Cars
5 min · 2,477 views today · Modern cities are designed for cars. But the city of Barcelona is testing out an urban design trick that can give cities back to pedestrians.
What You Might Notice If You Forgot Your Phone For a Day
2 min · 2,323 views today · There is a moment happening right in front of you, right this second, and you just might be missing it
Ikigai - Finding Your Reason for Being
Chip Richards · 2,093 views today · What Gets You Out of Bed in the Morning? When asked what is the single most powerful contributing factor to one’s health and vitality, integrative medical...
11 Traits of People With High Emotional Intelligence
Raven Fon · 1,876 views today · Lately, new ways to describe human interactions, social behaviours, and many facets of psychology have emerged on the social network scene. One of those descriptions is “high...
Who Are You? Watching This Breathtaking Video Could Be the Moment You Change Your Life
2 min · 1,723 views today · "Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can...
93 Documentaries to Expand Your Consciousness
Films For Action · 1,585 views today · There are over 800 documentaries now cataloged in our library of social change films. That's probably way too many for any mortal to ever watch in a lifetime, let alone a few...
Throw (2016)
10 min · 1,422 views today · The first installment of Invisible Thread, an ongoing ELM passion project series, Throw tells the story of an outsider from East Baltimore, an area challenged by gang violence...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,264 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 942 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Forest Man
16 min · 717 views today · Since the 1970's Majuli islander Jadav Payeng has been planting trees in order to save his island. To date he has single handedly planted a forest larger than Central Park NYC...
Real Change in Democracy Comes Not in the Voting Booth but Activism at the Grass-Roots
Ilze Peterson · 706 views today · Many years ago, the late Judy Guay, a low-income woman from Bangor, founded the Maine Association of Interdependent Neighborhoods in order to advocate for the neediest in our...
Doctors Response to Daily Mail Bigotry is Beautiful
Neil Tiwari · 646 views today · A poetic open letter to the Daily Mail newspaper from Dr. Neil Tiwari, in response to a bigoted attack on his colleagues, is going viral and it's beautiful.
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 634 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Fighting Trump - Residents Opposing Donald Trump's Scottish Golf Resort
14 min · 629 views today · Documentary on the residents protesting against Donald Trump's golf development on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Directed and Presented by James Trosh.
How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently
Maria Popova · 577 views today · “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
How to Make Friends in the City: Grow Vegetables Together