Creation of The UP Garden
In summer 2021, a local resident - Suz - had the idea to create a community space to allow for open play and social gardening on a housing estate in Forest Gate, East London. This was in response to the closure of various community spaces culminating in the planned redevelopment to decimate Forest Gate's biggest community centre, Durning Hall. Despite having no gardening or DIY knowledge, her involvement in the local community had convinced her there was a real need for such a space, and that they could and would provide the plethora of skills required. She approached the London Borough of Newham and Swan Housing Association, who own and manage the estate respectively. After agreeing upon the unused laundry yard in Eric Close as the site, together they successfully applied for and were awarded a grant in December 2021 to create The UP Garden, which Suz would project manage.
Eric Close was the largest of several unused yards in the housing estate. According to previous and current estate residents, it was built (along with the rest of the estate) in the 1950s. It has always been a laundry yard with washing lines at one end (that still remain) but originally also contained a play space and was fully accessible to the whole estate. After some time, tennis court lines were drawn on the play space and it was mostly enclosed in chicken wire. By the 1990s, it was used for football kick-abouts but these presumably resulted in resident complaints because one entrance was fully bricked across and the other entrance had gates installed that were locked.
Only the residents of one housing block continued to have access, but over the decades it became so overgrown with tall weeds and spiky bramble that even they could not safely reach the washing lines to use them. Although the gates appeared to be locked, at some point the lock was breached. When Suz and the London Borough of Newham first scoped out the site in summer 2021, they found the gates shut but unlocked, and evidence of drug-taking and fly-tipping.
Eric Close was chosen as its generous size (900m2) allows the community to enjoy it in different ways at the same time, and the location makes it accessible to those who are most subject to health, environmental and financial inequalities: the area's flood risk is quite high, both heat risk and overall climate risk are very high; it has a high scale of need for access to public open space; and is in amongst the top 20% neighbourhoods for low income and high crime, the top 10% for barriers to housing and services, and the 20% most deprived neighbourhoods in the country.
In December 2021, the GLA awarded funding to create The UP Garden, an open-access community space that would be designed to accommodate:
community gardening - with a focus on edible plants. Eating more fresh food is healthier and reduces the impact on other services from obesity and diet-related illnesses, whilst gardening provides gentle exercise;
workshops - responding to community interest such as ‘building planters' and 'balcony gardening’;
socialisation - to help those at risk of isolation and mental health issues, and strengthen local neighbourhood networks; and
play - but to encourage open-ended imaginative play, unlike the prescribed play dictated by typical playgrounds.
Encouraging more local food-growing reduces transport miles and pollution, as does upcycling materials from local businesses. Increasing green cover and providing shade would shrink this urban heat island and lead to a reduction in energy use, cooling costs, and heat-related illnesses in hot weather.
Steering and Working groups
In January 2022, the Steering and Working groups were formed:
The Steering Group comprised stakeholders with an interest in the long-term success of the project, who oversaw its delivery, being representatives from various teams at the London Borough of Newham, Swan Housing Association, Little Diamonds nursery, and four local residents (Suz as the project manager, a resident from a bordering street who had previously founded another community garden, and two estate residents);
The Working Group comprised a rolling membership of local residents who covered a wealth of skills and experience, prioritising those who live in the immediate vicinity and from typically under-represented backgrounds, and managed the delivery of the project on the frontline.
Layout and groundworks
Using feedback and ideas gathered from Suz's pre-application community consultation survey, the Steering and Working groups agreed a proposed layout based on key aims and prospective quotes.
Unfortunately, actual quoted costs and logistics meant the lumpy asphalt could not be re-tarmacked to provide smooth and more accessible pathways, whilst the discovery of a large infestation of Japanese Knotweed meant we had to completely re-strategise. Not only did we lose a 60m2 area, which had to be fenced off to contain the Japanese Knotweed, but we were also advised not to plant in-ground within a certain distance.
This ended our plans to provide shade through mature trees with large canopies, install raised beds, and have a more natural and organic shape to the layout. Instead, plans for shade had to be shelved until alternative funding could be found (the GLA would not fund structures, even green ones), and we had to replace raised beds with planters which require more materials, more labour, and 10 times more watering as the plants have no access to ground moisture. They also made our layout much more right-angled than intended! On the bright side, there were some costs savings which we redirected to increasing the asphalt excavation and installation of a new urban wildflower meadow to 160m2.
The groundworks (clearing the site, enclosing and commencing treatment of the Japanese Knotweed, installing the turf and two gravel drainage channels, and diverting rainwater downpipes to water butts) took place over February to April 2022.
Between April and October 2022, we held:
community consultation events to gather feedback on our evolving layout;
community upcycling workshops to build planters and furniture;
community planting workshops to form different gardening areas; and
lots of volunteering sessions to create everything else in The UP Garden!
Local residents gave their time and energy to these events, boosted by visits from GoodGym Newham and giving-back-days from J. Murphy & Sons Limited. They also donated pretty much all of the tables, seating and the wooden shed!
Local businesses came out in force to show their community spirit. Boss Scaffolding, Strikeforce Scaffolding, Forest Recycling Project, Kingsway Stairs, Chambers Timber and The Holly Tree donated or discounted wood for our planters, mural and stumpery. J. Murphy & Sons Limited loaned fencing to help us store these and other materials. L&M Tyres donated tyres for our planter maze. Connole Brothers donated multiple items including our metal shed and vintage phone box (for our future street library!). Lowden Roofing & Building Supplies also donated multiple items and transported the phone box using their grab lorry. Seafood Supermarket loaned their pallet trolley and Essex & London Construction provided the muscle to get the phone box on site, which was no mean feat! The Forest Tavern and The Can Club donated tables. Sustainable Wine Solutions donated water tanks. Dulux Decorator Centre discounted paint. You Call We Clear discounted waste removal. LuLin Teas not only helped to rebuild the metal shed, a giant tetris puzzle, but made journeys almost every other week to collect and unload donations! C Scerri Architects donated administrative services for our events, and OK TO Colour discounted signage. Co-op donated refreshments for our launch event, and offered the same for future events. The UP Garden is very much a community project!
Further afield, Lowaters Nursery, Garden Beauty and Thompson & Morgan donated lots of lovely plants, whilst Beacon CRM gave us access to an operating platform which makes maintaining our mailing lists and running our events through our website a much easier task! Other organisations reached out to help us in the future, such as providing more volunteer help through corporate giving-back-days.
We were heartened by so much generosity. It kept us going whenever we hit obstacles (and there were many!).
We were honoured to be invited by the GLA to be on its East London Nature Trail, and used its inaugural weekend as a practice run to see how the public would use our space. Over the August bank holiday weekend, we temporarily opened our gates and welcomed 50-65 visitors each day to our urban nature family-friendly activity workshops.
We then shut our gates again and the race was on to deliver the remaining elements of The UP Garden before launch!
On 30 October 2022, The UP Garden was launched! Although the set-up volunteers got drenched, the weather dried up in time for our visitors... all 165 of them! It was incredible to see so much of the community turn up to support the opening, and The UP Garden teeming with activity... exactly as a community space should be! We hosted our family-friendly activity workshop, since re-named "In Touch With Nature", to introduce children to urban nature through crafts and activities. We also hosted a community planting workshop so that they could put the most important finishing touches in place: our plants! We unveiled our incredible and vibrant mural, donated by local artist Andy MacManus. And we were blessed with a beautiful soundtrack from local musicians Tom Newell and David Delarre.
Our GLA funding deadline ended in January 2023 so, following the launch, we formed a Committee of local residents covering a range of skills and experience to oversee its long-term self-sustainability. The Steering and Working Groups handed over management of The UP Garden during this period.
The Committee is excited to take The UP Garden forward as a place for everyone to learn about gardening, biodiversity and eco-sustainability in a social environment, and to showcase the local talent we have within our community!