After decades of social and economic decline, Hulme was regenerated in the 1990s with the demolition of problematic flats such as the Crescents and some improvements to social housing. However, the regeneration failed to create green spaces which were open to all so in 1998, four local residents came up with the idea of establishing a community garden centre. Richard Lockwood, Geraldine Wall, Andrew Stewart and Neil Francis got together to work on securing land for the garden and in April 2000 they opened Hulme Community Garden Centre on Old Birley Street just two miles from Manchester’s city centre. Whilst only one of the four founding members – Richard Lockwood – is still part of the project today, the ethos of sustainability and a belief in the role that green spaces can play in the well-being of the community still leads the organisation.
“What you have now is a very mature and established garden but originally it was a brownfield site – just a patch of wasteland,” explains Jamie Dickinson, the manager of the centre, as we sit in the garden. “The land is still council-owned and we basically pay a peppercorn rent because, in fairness, the council realise that we add value to the area and sees the benefit of what we do.” As well as selling cheap seeds and plants to green-fingered locals, the garden centre is a maze of trees, willow arches, allotments and classrooms where free workshops are held for local residents, school children and a wide range of socially excluded groups such as ex-drug users and those who have abused alcohol.
Jamie explains that the Centre has worked with over 200 organisations ranging from the usual green and environmentally focused groups to allotment societies, mental health agencies, housing associations and refugee support network. “What we’ve found is that access to green space and horticulture covers such a broad cross section of needs. On a basic level, there’s mental and physical well-being of just growing and planting… It can help people in so many ways, whether it’s exercise, being with nature, healthy living or even how it connects to people’s faith,” says Jamie.
A not-for-profit organisation, the Hulme Community Garden Centre employs ten members of staff and welcomes over 5,000 visitors every year, all of whom have access to free expert horticultural advice. “We get the yummy mummies of Chorlton, an 80-year old African Caribbean through to Iraqi refugees walking through our doors. It’s such a broad group of people and that’s the strength of what we do,” adds Jamie. “It’s not a passive space – I mean, yes, you can come here and just read a book or have a sandwich – but we actively work to help people and that’s what’s really important.”
As well its role in the wider community, the centre has become an education hub, promoting the importance of growing food and biodiversity and wildlife habitats. Schools and college groups visit the centre regularly and although Jamie states that they don’t focus on any age group in their community outreach, he admits that it’s important to get people into healthy living and sustainability sooner in their lives. “This centre was founded on principles of sustainability,” says Jamie. “I read the various documents that were submitted to funders before this place opened and what you see all the way through it is the principle of sustainability, maybe not in those terms but you see the three Rs again and again… Recycle, compost, growing organic- all these things are now what we would class as sustainability and they were the ethos at the centre of this place which we still follow.” In fact, on my way in to find Jamie I witness a local resident quiz the staff (who seemed very knowledgeable) on everything from the best organic feeds to the best season to grow your own ginger.
When I ask Jamie if he thinks growing our own food in an urban landscape is important, he replies, “Well, I don’t mean to sound dramatic but it’s a matter of life and death. Growing food and being green is a big part of what we’re about and people are going to have to learn how to do it because otherwise they ain’t going to eat! In terms of sustainability, local food is going to be the only food and so we want to skill as many people to do that as we possible can. It’s not that we bully or hector people about this – we don’t feel that’s our role or how we will educate and improve people’s lives – we’ve just have to show and explain.”
Indeed, the garden centre was recently granted permission to take over a council-owned car park right next door, again on a peppercorn rate on a ten-year lease, to expand the garden. On May 15th 2011, a community discussion and design day was held to gather ideas about what to do with the acre of land they have acquired. “We invited all the community and I mean ALL the community – we leafleted every house and flat, we contacted every organisation we work with, we told everyone – so that the local community could come in and say ‘well, this is what we want’,” says Jamie.
The main requests put forward by the locals includes things like renewable energy generation, wind turbines, community allotments, a performance space and green workshop where they could make things out of wood without using any energy. Many gardeners also pointed out that they would like more space for growing food. “We are a community organisation, and we need people to give us our mandate to go forward,” explains Jamie, “At the end of the community design day we had a clear idea of what people want to see and the nice part was that it was what we thought should be there in the first place, which means that we’re getting something right!”
Looking into the future, the Hulme Community Garden Centre faces the same problem that many voluntary organisations are now struggling with: funding. Or to be more precise, long-term funding which allows an organisation to plan ahead, develop and exist without the threat of financial ruin. “We’ve been lucky because we did get a pot of funding for five years in 2007 which has been a springboard and helped us get from 3 staff to ten and do stuff like put up the green roof, refit the classroom and the staffroom and plan to eco-retrofit the shop,” says Jamie. “We’ve also done what lots of other organisations do, which is build our resilience by selling things…We sell plants and seeds and that, hopefully, means we’ll always have something to fall back on to help keep this community garden open.”