What if we Thought About Localities the Way we Think About Gardens?

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“Out of a history so much ruled by the motto Think Big, we have come to a place and a need that require us to think little. Instead of ostentation, we have undertaken modesty, instead of haste, patience; for the discipline of generalisations we have begun to substitute the discipline of details.”

Wendell Berry

Brockwell Park in the London Borough of Lambeth is the home to a community greenhouse experiment. A haven for wildlife, it makes space for local adults and children to get involved in gardening – growing fruit and vegetables – alongside music, yoga and cooking classes. In my village of Hawkhurst, Kent, a charity, Hands of Hope, has taken ownership of an old walled garden. As it works out how best to use this space, it is bringing together volunteers to create growing kits for local families and harvest vegetables for local food banks. In the Lake District National Park, the National Trust is restoring a sheep farm in Borrowdale to its natural habitat to explore whether tree planning can prevent flooding downstream in Keswick and Cockermouth. These are just three of thousands of experimental projects across the country where parks managers, ecologists, volunteers, gardeners and farmers are finding new ways to use open spaces and natural land.

'Life shows us a different way to understand how change happens.'

Working with nature, we are not controlling, we are ‘caretakers, guardians and facilitators.’ We cannot force wild creatures and plants to do what we want, but we can find the conditions that enable them to flourish. Gardens, parks, waterway plantings, woodlands and farms all emerge through an ever-changing dance between the needs of the humans shaping them and the climate, soil, seeds and pollinators.

Gardeners seldom start with a business plan. We spend our time observing the seasons and the cycles that life moves in. We attract wildlife to do the work of maintaining equilibrium. We encourage diversity. We begin by creating a rich soil. Life wants to grow, and, through trial and error, it finds many different, quirky ways to do so. We learn to work with this, not to override it.

The possibilities are endless. Solutions are not found in isolation; everything participates in the evolution of its neighbours. The rules for life are simple, a move through experiment and mess towards order.

'Life self-organises. Networks, patterns and structures emerge without external imposition or direction.'

Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers

If this is how it is with animals and plants, how much more is it with people? Why then, do governments and councils struggle so hard to force top-down solutions? Why do we create a blueprint instead of learning first from the front line? Why don’t we notice how change organically happens? The same principles apply when humans get together to create something: a play, a piece of music, a scientific experiment, a vaccine. We start with a spark, a clue, and then mess around until something emerges.


Sue Goss

Sue is a writer, consultant and a gardener, living in rural Kent.