Community garden set to wow south west

by Alice Wright

Luke Berkeley (right) with volunteers at Newquay Community Orchard

A large-scale community growing space in Cornwall aims to provide a model for urban biodiversity. Alice Wright finds out more.

On a cold spring morning a few hardy volunteers are out on a blustery stretch of land in the Cornish town of Newquay, planting trees for an ambitious new community growing space. Several hundred saplings have already gone in and rows of tree guards stretch into the distance. They give a taste of the lush vegetation that is to come – and an idea of the time and effort that will go into transforming this seven acre site into a vibrant communal hub of growing and learning.

Newquay has become known as a party venue by the sea, gaining a reputation for binge-drinking teenagers and raucous stag and hen nights. But beyond the nightlife and beaches, the town is home to one of the most poorly educated populations in the UK, with unemployment at over 20 per cent. Development activity here is also intense. So Luke Berkeley, Managing Director of community interest company Urban Biodiversity, says it is the perfect place to showcase the benefits that green spaces can bring to the whole community.

“Newquay is subject to widespread deprivation and also possesses a reputation that doesn’t really fit,” he says. “It’s a beautiful town and deserves more than it’s getting. There’s also widespread development here removing much of our green space, so there is a need to preserve and enhance what we’ve got.”

Urban Biodiversity was set up to increase wildlife habitats in urban spaces, alongside providing research into biodiversity management and encouraging community involvement. Newquay Community Orchard is its first major project and plans for the site include a traditional Cornish orchard, a cob-walled kitchen garden, an events amphitheatre with space for around 1,000 spectators, a sensory garden, an educational amphitheatre and a community building with a classroom, cafe and events space. Luke hopes the orchard will be the first of a series of similar sites across Cornwall, and the South West, providing education and training, mental health services and social hubs for the whole community.

Newquay Community Orchard map

“Green spaces are the beating hearts of urban areas,” he says.“Without them we lose the essence of nature. They are important in so many ways; they not only harbour wildlife but provide us with vital recreational and relaxation space. They reduce the symptoms of mental health and stress, and can improve health and well-being across all age groups.

“More importantly, if local communities are part of the process of constructing a site like ours, they gain a sense of ownership and pride in it.”

It was for this reason that the team decided to use crowdfunding to cover initial costs, involving the public right from the start by giving them a stake in the project. They worked with Cornwall-based Crowdfunder (whose managing director is also a director of Newquay Community Orchard), launching a campaign to raise £30,000. Individuals and local businesses made monetary pledges in return for rewards such as planting and naming their own tree, and discounted entry to events. By the end of the 28-day campaign the orchard had raised £66,337 – more than twice its target – a ringing endorsement from its community

With this initial funding secured, work could begin on the ambitious project. As well as planting all those trees, construction of one of the amphitheatres is under way and some local students have been creating a smaller seating area for educational workshops. Next will be the cob-walled growing space, then the creation of the sensory garden and wildlife patches.

Newquay Community Orchard's young volunteers

Young volunteers at Newquay Community Orchard

The site has been carefully planned to showcase what can be achieved in a limited space. As well as growing food and boosting biodiversity, the orchard will provide education opportunities and create jobs. By bringing people together in a natural environment and encouraging them to get involved in planting and growing it also hopes to foster social inclusion and improve health and well-being.

Planting methods that help to increase biodiversity have been chosen, such as companion planting and  forest gardening  – where predominantly edible perennials are planted together to echo the layers of a young woodland. The multi-layered structure, from canopy trees to shrubs and bushes, right down to the underground level of root crops, maximises space and increases productivity. Once established, forest gardens are low-maintenance and provide their own nutrient requirements, through leaf fall and nitrogen-fixing plants and trees, reducing the need for chemicals and fertilizers. And they provide a wealth of habitats for wildlife.

Luke says: “The idea of mimicking the forest structure to provide food and materials for the local community is a no-brainer to me, and the beauty of the system is that it can be done in very small spaces. It is relatively low maintenance because everything should (if planned well) take care of itself. Imagine all roadside verges planted like this, how much could we produce in our urban areas?”

The orchard team, which includes horticulturalists, ecologists and a foraging expert, is keen to share its knowledge and experience. Its horticulturalists are offering training to volunteers during the construction phase, and education will be central to the project as it progresses. Urban Biodiversity and Cornwall College will provide educational and vocational courses and workshops, with employment opportunities and apprenticeships becoming available as the site develops.

Newquay Community Orchard's Luke Berkeley with a volunteer

Luke Berkeley (left) planting a tree with a volunteer

Talks from experts such as the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, RSPB and the Eden Project are also planned, and schools will be invited to take part in activities and workshops, from growing your own food to gardening for wildlife.

The walled community growing space will be somewhere that anyone can contribute to – providing a place for local people to get to get to know one another and learn new skills. A Social Prescription Scheme is also being introduced, where local NHS patients can be referred to the site for mental and physical recuperation, and the site will offer respite and day care for users of local mental health care services.

“It will allow people of all ages to mix – from those who are 80 to five-year-olds,” says Luke. “It’s about breaking down barriers, particularly with mental health.”

By providing a welcoming, healthy environment for people from all backgrounds, the vision is for a space where community spirit will thrive. A programme of artistic and cultural events will boost interaction further.

For now, those rows of sheltered saplings give just a glimpse of what is to come. But as Luke describes how each area of the site will be transformed, his passion and commitment to this vision of biodiversity and social interaction brings the project to life.

He also points to rolling fields to the east of the town, where a development of more than 3,000 homes is planned. With Newquay set to expand so rapidly it becomes clearer than ever how vital it is to preserve a green space for the benefit of the whole community, and provide a model that could be replicated in towns around the country.

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