From Grey to Green: Adventures in Radical Urban Gardening

by Drucilla James

Nigel Dunnett and Ron Finley in Love Square

For many of us gardening may be a hobby or a chore, but for the speakers at this autumn’s greening the city conference in Sheffield, it is a life-saving necessity. From Professor Nigel Dunnett ‘s aesthetic ecology transforming urban drabness to Ron Finley’s horticultural antidote to the deadly fast food habits of the developed world, this event was full of ideas to make our towns and cities more uplifting, healthier and communal places to live.

Nigel Dunnett, Professor of Planting Design and Urban Horticulture, Department of Landscape, Sheffield University

Nigel Dunnett kicked off the debate describing how in the modern city we have lost the plants which would clear the air; the soil to soak up the water; and the contact with nature which would sustain and enrich us. As a consequence, we have serious flooding, poor air quality, polluted water, bad health and bad food.

Problems like these are not going to be solved by adding a few green areas to the city; nothing less than a transformation is required – changing the most inauspicious urban spaces – car parks, pavements, walls and rooftops – into places so beautiful that the city dweller is left asking for more.

Over the last twenty years, Nigel Dunnett has been evolving what he calls an ‘aesthetic ecology ‘. His ‘Pictorial Meadows’, developed in tandem with Sheffield City Council in the no-go areas of the City, enrich the street and the shopping centre. For many their apogee came in the planting of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford.

These meadows, with their sustained flowering, relatively low maintenance and spectacular visual effect he considers to be more inspiring than the most artful works of garden designers.

“What’s really great is they work on a huge scale, on a field scale- beautiful. You can also get down to the smallest scale like a jewel box,” he adds.

What’s more, planted as they are with careful use of colour and colour combinations, they evoke the kind of strong emotional response, Dunnett recalls from his childhood.

“When I was a child, playing across meadows made me feel so uplifted and joyful, that I still try to capture that in my adult life. I believe strongly that it is inside everyone to respond in this way.”

Building on this approach, Dunnett now has two new projects to transform neglected sites in Sheffield which he hopes will lead the way and revolutionise the approach to bringing nature into the city elsewhere.

The first of these is Love Square – the conversion of a former derelict tram station to a new kind of eco-park filled with a meadow of wild flowers. This heart-shaped area of scrubland, which pedestrians currently walk through without a second glance, is to be transformed into a stay-in, eye-catching site with moveable, interchangeable modules for flowers and edible plants and a community café made from shipping containers with living walls and green roof. There will be art works too.

The project has been shortlisted as one of five potential flagship sites around the country to receive Grow Wild funding to support its implementation.

The aim is “a leadership project, so people around the country, people around the world are going to say this is what we want. We are not going to do it just by bringing nature and wildness into the city, it has to be artful. We want to show people you can think differently about working with nature in the city. What we are doing is bringing out art, and colour and vibrancy and funkiness; we want this to be in style magazines. We want this to be a style statement”

The second project – one deemed to be the most ambitious scheme in the country and which will “put Sheffield on the international map” – is to make a linear green corridor of a redundant dual carriageway, transforming asphalt into a vibrantly planted route for pedestrians and cyclists. The first stage is planned for completion in November 2015.

love square detail px

Love Park detail courtesy of Sheffield University

 John Little: Grass Roof Company

Working on the Clapton Park Estate Hackney, now known as a result of his efforts as the Poppy Estate, John Little has turned boring mown grass into productive allotments and flower displays and rejuvenated the community as a result. He explained how a genuine dialogue with residents and making changes responsive to their needs are the keys to the transformation of inner city housing estates.

The Clapton Park story began with John sowing annuals instead of spraying with pesticides, the edges next to railings, As he says, “Railings are my favourite things; railings are brilliant. They give you an edge -a boundary; they support plants and people don’t just walk over them.”

When he checked out the response of the local residents to the display, he found that in an environment planted with evergreens with no seasonality, people simply loved the new splashes of colour. He expanded by leaving weeds to flower and distributing flower seed for use in gardens.

His most important initiative for bringing people together, however was the food- growing – this connected residents to the outside, to their neighbourhood and to their neighbours.

The inspiration behind this was a visit to a rose bed – usually anathema to John in their dull and predictable rectangles. However this particular rose bed boasted coriander planted by Fatima who had nowhere else to garden. John removed the roses to give Fatima more scope and soon found many other residents following her lead.

Simple raised beds followed – made of four pieces of wood and a bit of soil. These were the first of the allotments and John became obsessed with finding space to create more. There are now forty five plots with forty five happy growers and funding to create another fifteen.

There was more food growing once pyracantha and mahonia shrubs were replaced with gooseberry bushes, red currants and grapevines-the latter grown from plant cuttings from the local Turkish community who use the vine leaves in cooking. As John says the planting was designed to “make sense to the people who lived there.”

Similarly for the large Afro-Caribbean community, they planted apples and pears followed by figs, almonds, apricots and grapefruits and ten herb beds were established open for anyone to use.

For the future, John Little suggests changes to local authority maintenance contract tendering to help to encourage and embed this kind of work he does, elsewhere.

David white design px

Image courtesy of David White Design

Richard Reynolds,

Richard Reynolds’ talk described the work of guerrilla gardeners reclaiming land neglected or misused to grow food and beautify the city and his intention “to turn these radicals into mainstream”

With a love of gardening developed as a child in Devon, his own guerrilla gardening  began with the public land outside his house at Elephant and Castle, “I wanted to garden and to me the simplest thing to do was to just go out there and do it. Ten years ago I went out at 2.00 in the morning to garden and it’s all gone very well.”

Gardening in a busy area next to four bus stops, tube stations and with lots of pedestrians walking past, he blogged about his experiences, was picked up by the media and soon had other people joining in and “so for a decade now my aim is to normalise this to make the people particularly those who own the land, who might want to put a stop to it, to feel relaxed.”

Consequently he has gone on to establish longer-term projects like the Guerrilla Gardening Lavender Field where he met and proposed to his wife and which was also visited by the Duchess of Cornwall. He has also created mobile community gardens in “meanwhile spaces” allocated by developers – the current version is in a derelict petrol station and has three mini-allotments in recycled containers.

He went on to describe his experiences of other radical gardeners equally successful in turning temporary gardening forays into established sites. These included Adam one of the original guerrilla gardeners in 1973 New York whose plot is now an official community garden, who taught him, “it can take a very long time to make your night time raids into something really secure.”

Other examples showed how radical gardeners have secured territory around the globe – like blind gardener, Shaun Canavan’s tree pit crevices sown with hollyhocks and irises -his work so effective that Camden Council have now lifted paving slabs for his planting; Todmorden Incredible Edibles – “creating a global movement .. in a relatively deprived mill town”; food growers on scrubland in Botswana, and “amazing” guerrilla gardeners in Tbilisi and Moscow.

Incredible edible px

Image courtesy of David Hodgson

Ron Finley: South Central Los Angeles

Closing speaker, celebrated guerrilla gardener Ron Finley provided the  final inspirational flourish, in speaking of how he transformed the public parkway outside his home into a productive and beautiful garden. He described his neighbourhood as a space where it is “hell” to find an organic apple, “I live in an area basically designed to kill me and everyone else in the neighbourhood. I tried to change that.”

Instead he wanted to replace this with the kind of aesthetic ecology which began this conference – to grow flowers and food in the public spaces “to beautify my community -to bring beauty and to inspire people to do it themselves. You should beautify your own neighbourhood. “

What he does he describes not as gardening but as art, “I’m a fashion designer, not a gardener.” When asked,” How do you go from designing clothes to growing your own food?” He replies, “It’s still imagination, it’s still creativity – it’s just another canvas.”

And as a result of his taking a strip of land that was basically horrible and making it beautiful came:

“You get things you don’t expect to get- conversations happened. It changed lives and my life included. It’s amazing what you can do when you put a seed into the ground.”

Perhaps something we all can try.

Ron Finley 2 px

Ron Finley in Love Square

One Response to “From Grey to Green: Adventures in Radical Urban Gardening”

  1. London gardening

    Very good post. thanks.

Leave a Reply