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How a Community Garden Can Be A Catalyst that Can Change A City

This website is a repository of exemplary initiatives in cities all over the world and technical solutions for various environmental and social problems. While these form a great resource they only form part of the road to sustainability.

If only it were just a matter of a city authority taking such an example and saying, right, let's implement that. Besides the economic hurdle to be overcome there is an even greater one: the cultural hurdle.

How do you change the mindsets and attitudes of officials who, in some cases, have been working for the authority for decades, and have their own fixed ways of doing things which were set in stone when they themselves were trained?

And how do you get a community that is not used to thinking for itself to take responsibility for developments in its own neighbourhood? 

Aren't these the greatest challenges to sustainability?

Let's take an example that I know well because it is my closest city: Swansea in Wales. Swansea has been chosen by the Welsh government as an exemplar local authority in Wales for charting a path towards sustainability, even if at times that same government doesn't make it easy for Swansea's sustainability officer to achieve her goals.

Vetch Veg is a successful project in a part of the city where a community has come together to grow vegetables on a previously disused footbal pitch that was going to be developed as an industrial site.

Aerial view of the site as it was:

Aerial view of Vetch Veg

Plan for the site drawn up by the community (click for a larger version):

Plan of Vetch Veg site, Swansea 

Initially these garden plots were going to be a temporary development, but with the recession, nobody had the money to build on the site and so the growers have stayed. This is what it was like the other day:

Open Day on Vetch Veg site, Swansea

A vibrant and valuable community asset.

Councillor Sybil Crouch is Swansea Council's first — and Wales's only — cabinet member for sustainability, and a great believer in local food and growing projects as they tick so many boxes in terms of community resilience. She sees Vetch Veg as a flagship project because it served to open up the eyes of many people within the Council as well as in the community. It is a grassroots initiative that brought the community together around something positive.

Sybil has a vision for Swansea to be sustainable in food in 50 years time, but this kind of long-term thinking is alien to many council officials and indeed even some politicians. "We need to look at what happens when food transport costs go up and look at what we can source locally. It will give Swansea a really competitive edge," she is on record as saying.

That is the kind of language that she feels is effective in changing mindsets.

Officials are used to setting targets for one year's time or perhaps three, but not beyond that. For cities thinking in terms of resilience and sustainability this is a short-term thinking. Timeframes of 10, 20, 30 and 40 years are necessary to be able to focus people's minds on a vision that cuts across departmental boundaries and silo mentalities.

The council is now beginning to think in this way. A few years ago the city's cabinet appointed a Sustainable Development Team Leader, Tanya Nash. As an official at a high level she has the authority to implement policies and cut across departments.

But, like local authorities everywhere, budgets are being cut and a new challenge has arisen: to persuade communities to see that being offered the chance take over a resource previously run by the council as an opportunity instead of a loss – especially when local meetings are typically only frequented by people who wish to complain that the council is not doing enough to fix roads, broken pavements, mow the lawns and kill the weeds.

It's not just officials' attitudes that have to change; the community itself has to develop a 'can do' attitude, something especially challenging in areas with a high student or transient population.

A new initiative – an ideas and innovation hub – is being developed in Swansea for council officials to brainstorm how they will deal with the challenges ahead. But even this approach is not necessarily straightforward because often officials are reluctant to admit their agendas.

(We all have encountered situations where a department has developed a plan for an area and then operates a consultation process where it goes through the motions of soliciting the opinions of others, eventually plumping for the original option.)

Short-term solutions tend to be easier for the human mind to grapple with. Say a plot of land becomes available, you can get a developer to come in, build something and in return provide a relief road or a park. Job done. But this outcome is not necessarily in the interests of the community where the building is situated, and the community will continue to have the impression that things are done to them rather than with them. Nor is it likely to be a sustainable solution to the requirements of that community.

It's getting this kind of attitude to change that is perhaps the hardest challenge of all to those of us working to make our cities more sustainable.