Green Gyms: a new club sprouting locally near you?
Nesta Fellow, Charles Leadbeater finds himself spreading mulch for three hours to repair a footpath in order to explore how Green Gyms (backed by Nesta) are helping thousands of people up and down the country to manage their long term conditions, find companionship and help green their local community at the same time.
Sitting in the sun, eating home-made banana cake and drinking much needed tea, I am talking to Les and Jeremy about the best places to drink super-strength lagers in public without being moved on by the police.
The three of us have only just met but for the last couple of hours we have been working as part of a group of people spreading a mound of mulch over a water-logged footpath in Walthamstow’s lovely Lloyd Park.
Now we have half an hour to relax and Les and Jeremy are keen to chat.
Les is an alcoholic and a participant in the Turning Point project, who now only drinks in the evenings and in a controlled way. Most of his time is spent running errands for his house bound, agoraphobic partner.
Jeremy has spent most of the last year at home, hardly seeing a soul. Both of them used to drink during the day, in the open air, because that was the only way they could think of filling the hours. 'When you’re an alcoholic you drink for any reason at all. If there are clouds in the sky you drink because it’s grey; if it’s clear blue sky you drink because it’s sunny,' Les explains.
They cheerfully compare lagers and ciders as if they are old friends; strategies for acquiring drink before breakfast time are analysed and tips on how to drink outside without being moved on by the police are dispensed. The worst thing is when the police come along and simply pour away your drink in front of you, without moving you on. Les confided in me that;
'It is vital to find a place to sit where there is a good tree where you can have a pee once you are on your second can.'
Now both of them have come to a remarkable little project – Green Gym – which gives them a series of stepping stones into the world at large, to conversation and to work. The first Green Gym was created in 1998 at Sonning Common, in Oxfordshire by William Bird, a visionary and entrepreneurial GP. Since then it has spread to more than 100 sites.
Green Gyms are local groups of volunteers who undertake about four hours conservation work a week – in parks, nature reserves, along walks and cycle lanes – to improve the local environment.
When a Green Gym gets started it will be run for two years by a member of staff working three days a week paid for by, The Conservation Volunteers, the parent organisation, known to all and sundry as TCV.
Once a Gym is well established, with regular volunteers trained up to run it, it becomes self-sustaining: the volunteers lead and plan the sessions, handle all the paper work, liase with local referral agencies and the local authority who might provide some funding. TCV then moves its member of staff to set up another Gym elsewhere.
It is a powerful model of localised, sustained voluntary and social action at scale. TCV provides a backbone of services and support but most of the scaling depends on each Green Gym mobilising local resources to sustain it. With the help of funders including Nesta and the Cabinet Office the plan is to expand from about 100 Green Gyms in 2015 to more than 600 in 2020, serving around 15,500 people.
The main benefit Green Gym creates, however, is not environmental conservation but social interaction. It is a way to get people out of the house and doing active work without others, and not just people like Les and Jeremy who have been referred by local alcohol dependency and mental health charities.
About 15 other people are braving the biting January cold that morning, testimony to the Green Gym’s pulling power and they come from all walks of life.
Kate is a recent graduate and trained as an ecological monitor: she surveys development sites to establish which species will be affected. She has not been able to find work for the last three months, so she is volunteering with Green Gym to keep her active and engaged rather than spending her time in the Job Centre.
Gavin, left university last year with a degree in zoology and is thanklessly trawling through jobs on websites and sending off his CV. Gavin is training to become a Green Gym volunteer officer, a proven stepping stone into full-time employment with TCV. Gareth, the Walthamstow team-leader started as a volunteer: everyone who trained with him to become a volunteer officer now works for TCV.
Still others in the group have come because they are local residents keen to volunteer to do something useful in their local park and meet other like minded residents. For them it’s a way to give, physically and socially, rather than just through texting a donation.
So off we set picks and shovels, wheel barrows and rakes in hand to move our mulch, led by joking Gareth who playfully gets us running around in a circle waving our hands in the air to warm up. In no time early inhibitions and shyness fade away; everyone gets stuck into their chosen task and a crisp division of labour emerges to coordinate shovelling, wheel barrowing, raking and stomping.
Everyone likes being outside. They like the physical labour and the sense of achievement that comes from seeing the mound quickly reduce and the path become neatly covered. No one stands on ceremony. Everyone is wearing clothes they are happy to get a bit muddy. It does not take long for people start to smiling and chatting as Gareth does a passable impersonation of a civil society sergeant major. Simon, shovelling away on the mound, cheerfully talks to Deborah, about his mental health issues, his sense of isolation, why his girlfriend is so much more sociable and why the Victoria and Albert is the best museum in London. Danny, a regular volunteer, takes Jeremy in hand to show him the ropes.
How many people grow depressed and isolated, listless and unhealthy because they miss the simple communion and routine that comes with decent, physical rewarding work? What sense does it make for a society to deny that experience to so many people who feel so helpless and useless?
Green Gyms grow like a kind of plant known as a radicant – like a strawberry bush or ivy – which puts down roots as it grows, drawing resources locally, rather than relying on a central root system for nutrition. TCV can plant the seed but the local community has to make sure it grows. Watch out there might be one sprouting near you soon.