Small parcels of land that are underutilized and surrounded by railways, from alleyways to forgotten slivers, are being redeveloped by community growers to increase biodiversity and wellbeing.
Ask for forgiveness rather than permission,” is Bríd Ruddy’s advice for starting a project like Belfast’s Wildflower Alley. In 2015, Ruddy (main picture, above) along with neighbours and student volunteers from nearby Queen’s University, turned the narrow alley behind her street into a garden. The space, once a scene of vandalism, fly-tipping and other mischief, is now a vibrant, plant-filled paradise.
UK community groups are taking over unloved areas and filling them up with fruit, vegetables, flowers. Every plot, regardless of how small, can make a difference, as nearly one fifth of the UK’s population lives in areas without green space. A Lancaster University study has shown that Britain could increase its vegetable and fruit production by using land that isn’t being used.
Although the idea of a community garden sounds idyllic, it can be difficult to get approval from local authorities and landowners. Ruddy drew on her experience in community development to bring the alley’s official owners – the department for infrastructure – on board. It still took four years of lobbying before gates were installed.
Ruddy was impressed by the amount and size of the space after she had put the gates in. Inspired by her childhood adventures in alleyways, Ruddy approached local authorities to discuss a garden. They didn’t share her vision. They persevered and began small.
“We painted our back doors bright colours, [each] bought a plant, brought out decorations from the house, old things we didn’t want or need,” Ruddy says. There were wildflower seeds donated from there. Grow Wild, the national outreach programme of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, and compost from Queen’s University, allowed the alley to blossom.
Many community groups take matters into themselves because they lack support from the local authorities. Incredible Edible, a network of more than 150 UK community gardens, is calling for a ‘right to grow’ law. Its members created plans to require local authorities to keep a registry of public land suitable to vegetable and fruit growing. Local groups could apply for access to the register in May 2022. The campaign has received support from across the political spectrum, including MPs. There are also calls for the government and parliament to include it in any levelling-up legislation.
Co-founder Pam Warhurst said at the time: “We’ve got to give people better health, wellbeing and access to good food. It’s really simple and we don’t have to invest millions – let’s just better use land that taxpayers are already paying for.”
Wildflower Alley is a great example of how a small area can make a big impact. As Ruddy says: “We didn’t realise it would create a green revolution in [Belfast].” Since 2015, the alley has grown not only in terms of planting, but in terms of its impact.
Ruddy explains: “People often feel outside of the democratic process: they feel powerless. When people go out their back door, clear up rubbish, plant greenery, grow food and talk to their neighbours, that’s like a revolutionary act.”
The gardening has also helped residents of the alley connect to international students and the Roma community. This has even helped to bridge the divide between loyalists or unionists. “We partner with people down in Donegal Pass, an area renowned for being loyalist,” says Ruddy. “We can go any time to their garden. They bring us produce, we bring them produce.”
Wildflower Alley is open to students and schoolchildren who pick strawberries or gooseberries. They also welcome volunteers from the university who help with maintenance. Other gardens have sprung up in Belfast’s alleys and Ruddy is also involved with a new larger project in nearby Horsey Hill. It’s a green space open to all, something locals believed impossible due to the risk of vandalism. Ruddy claims that there have been minor thefts but it has remained untouched for the most part.
When people plant greenery, grow food and talk to their neighbours, that’s like a revolutionary act
Alongside tubs of edibles and flowers, which members of the Roma community water, the space has a ‘chatty bench’ overlooking the River Lagan where people can stop for a natter. It was also home to a miniature version the Belfast Mela cultural diversity festival.
Beyond not letting officials dissuade you from your dream, Ruddy advises following the fun: “Recognise that people have a lot on,” she says. “They don’t need a lot more responsibility. Any time we do things, it’s with a cup of tea or barbecue, some music, some art. It’s about providing green spaces for people to enjoy.”
Main image: Elaine Hill