Community Gardening, Creativity and Everyday Culture

This is a new research project being funded by the AHRC as part of the continuation funding for its Connected Communities programme. We have been awarded a grant of £79,588, of which about 10% goes towards my salary and travel costs to do my part of the work. I’m really looking forward to it—it involves working with colleagues from the Universities of Brighton and Manchester, and with three community gardening projects in London, Manchester and Sussex. So: academics (from different disciplines), community gardeners, allotmenteers and city farmers, people from local communities, and artists and health workers, all coming together to do, plant, make and write some interesting things over the next year. Great! Here is some detail from the application’s case for support:

This project builds on four current Connected Communities Programme (CCP) projects. It seeks to demonstrate the potential, challenges and capacity of innovative shared creative activities for developing community connections and identities through transformative experiences. It does so in the context of the everyday cultural practice of community farming and gardening. The four current CCP projects were represented at the 2011 CCP Summit, at which three of the applicants were also present…. These projects have already created new knowledge on how communal acts of creativity can contribute significantly to transformative experiences for communities and individuals and portray the personal and communal significance of involvement in food growing, community farming and gardening. They have involved three communities in the production of social media, community film-making, exhibitions at a community farm and a community centre, and the creation of an innovative ‘talking’ quilt stitched by community members that contains interactive audio elements of personal narratives about food. The new project will continue the work with these three communities that are involved in communal food growing in Sussex, Manchester, and inner London. The community collaborators themselves also wish to continue and deepen the engagement with each other, the academic collaborators and other shared interest communities….

The proposed project will … also demonstrate the role of arts-based creative activity for connecting communities, researchers and other stakeholders. In order to ensure the proposed project develops a broad view of community creativity and how communities relate to university researchers it will also draw on two other current CCP projects that have been reviewing related areas of research: one on the spaces and processes of community cultures (PI: McKay) and the other on how university research contributes to the emergence of community cohesion and resilience (PI: Hart). McKay’s expertise is doubly relevant: as well as the current CCP work on community music, his latest book, Radical Gardening (2011), explores the history, cultural and political significance of the garden.

There are a number of theoretical and empirical reasons for continuing the focus on communities involved in communal food growing and the community farm and garden movement. Food growing both communally and individually is a rapidly increasing socio-cultural phenomenon where new capacities, identities, connectivities and politics are emerging and whose empirical and theoretical significance is not yet fully understood. The number of community gardens in England in 2010 was four times greater than in 2005 (Milbourne 2011) and a number of public bodies have funded new communal gardens. The allotment movement more widely thrives in Britain today (McKay 2011). The CCP project on health and community gardening (PI: Church) has used longitudinal data to show that food growing has become increasingly popular in western Europe in the last decade with the fastest national rates of growth found in the UK, where the proportion of the population involved has risen from 4% to 14% in the short period between 2003 and 2007. Gardening and food preparation are everyday cultural practices which can also involve highly creative activities that are fundamental to self, identity and personal well-being (Cooper 2006). Individuals can experience such creativity as meaningful even if they feel their financial resources, skills and knowledge constrain their practices (Bhatti and Church 2001). Also, as one of the Co-Is has shown, communal gardening spaces can enable transformative and radical activities that question the structures of contemporary society and human-nature relations (McKay 2011).

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