A community orchard provides roots for regeneration
by Mark Patterson
Residents of Sneinton adopted apple trees as part of Neville Gabie’s innovative Orchard project, credit: Jonathan Casciani and Neville Gabie
Urban regeneration is often shorthand for new shops, flats and plazas but a scheme in Nottingham is using apples as well as architecture to try to give a run-down inner-city area a new lease of life.
Sneinton, a deprived neighbourhood just outside Nottingham’s city centre, has suffered from a “century-long tradition of concentrating social problems in the area” as an official local authority document puts it. As part of efforts to turn this situation around, Sneinton’s market square is being redeveloped in a £6.8 million scheme and Neville Gabie, who until recently was artist-in-residence at the Olympic Park in London, was commissioned by Nottingham City Council to create artwork for the space. Rather than sculptures or murals, Gabie decided on a living composition of apple trees.
This is an urban orchard with a difference though. Rather than being restricted to the eleven specimens planted in Sneinton Market Square, it has exuberantly spread its roots through the area’s parks, playgrounds and private gardens, thanks to what Gabie has called the Apple Tree Adoption Network. More than 100 trees of different varieties were given away for free to local people, schools and community groups in December to plant in their own gardens or in pots to create a dispersed and diverse urban orchard spanning the east side of the city. All of the trees were heritage varieties from the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale Farm in Kent and so the project is also helping to preserve traditional British apple varieties.
“I really wanted to get as many different types as possible. If you go to a supermarket there are usually about half a dozen apple varieties while the National Fruit Collection has about 2,000 – and we got 108 of those,” said Gabie.
Gabie was inspired to create the orchard partly to reflect the square’s history as a fruit and vegetable market, but also to engage the community in local, urban food production. “Ideally people will look after these trees and over the next 15 to 20 years they will develop into a small orchard for the area,” said Gabie.
The budding orchard, along with art inspired by the project, was exhibited at a local gallery where people could pick out the tree they wanted to adopt. Advisers helped with variety selection and growing tips and each participant was given a certificate of adoption. The opportunities to learn more about successful apple growing will continue this year with workshops and demonstrations.
Gabie also established the orchard to reflect and connect with the other thriving urban food-growing schemes in this part of Nottingham. St Ann’s Allotments are grade II*-listed and, covering 75 acres, are the largest area of Victorian detached town gardens in Britain. It has its own community orchard, with 80 trees, and hosts a food-growing group called Ecoworks which promotes organic gardening and local food production. There’s also a busy but cash-starved city farm, which has a productive vegetable garden (and sells much-needed manure to local people) and last, but not least, there’s Sowing Sneinton, a group that plants and maintains small areas of previously neglected land in the neighbourhood.
Working together for the past 18 months, Suzannah Bedford and Donya Coward have planted wooded areas, flower beds, fruit trees and bushes including damsons, figs, kiwis and blackcurrants in disused spaces in the area. The fruit is free for anybody to take. Their ethos is that the plants can help beautify the area and also invoke a sense of ownership and responsibility towards a neighbourhood that can look scruffy and run-down. On top of that, local people get access to some fresh local fruit.
“Sneinton is a classic area of deprivation with a very diverse community,” said Suzannah Bedford. “Unfortunately it’s prone to landlords who are more interested in having properties of multi-occupancy than developing a sense of community, which reinforces the problem that some people don’t have any sense of ownership over the area where they live.”
Despite the enthusiasm for food-growing in the area, the small orchard in Sneinton Market Square has proved to be surprisingly controversial. Gabie feels the planting could, and should, have gone further. As well as the apple trees, he had envisaged planting beds and lines of poetry inscribed on the concrete. Neither feature was included in the authority’s final design. Indeed, Gabie says it was a struggle to persuade the council even to allow the apple trees to be planted. Why? The authority and some local businesses had feared that the fruit would be used as weapons. One local business was even concerned that drug users would sell the apples to make money to buy drugs.
Gabie also expresses exasperation that the authority wouldn’t install planting beds in case they became a dumping ground for used syringes and insisted that benches had to have raised areas incorporated into them to prevent use by skateboarders. Gabie said that working with the council had ended up being a “very difficult process”. Of the final approved market design, he said: “It ends up being about keeping people out rather than bringing them in. Personally, I’d rather see skateboarders using the square instead of a clean area that is empty of people.”
Sowing Sneinton sympathise with Gabie’s frustrations. But they also see the other side of the problem. “We live in Sneinton, it’s a classic area of deprivation and the authority is under-resourced so it looks for ways to ‘design out’ problems before they even start,” said Suzannah Bedford. Her sowing partner Donya Coward believes that the apple trees’ presence in the square should inculcate a sense of common ownership of the square – and an interest in the potential for food to be grown in public spaces. “There are going to be apple days and the Apple Tree Adoption Network will give advice on apple varieties and how to look after apple trees,” she said.
But does the council have good grounds to fear that the fruit from the Sneinton Market Square trees will become weapons? Sowing Sneinton’s experience suggests not. Suzannah and Donya say the worst that has happened to their public planting schemes so far is that a tree was dug up by a utility company. Nobody, so far as they know, has been attacked with free figs and damsons.