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Meanwhile at Groundwork...

Posted on 12 February 2014

Above: the Grow-In Brought-On project

Dean Young explains how a temporary green project can have a permanent impact

The need for good quality, accessible green space is moving up the political, health and social agendas and the arguments in favour are becoming louder and more persuasive.

National and local government now talks of Green Infrastructure and greater significance is attributed to a green space when viewed as part of a wider network. Furthermore, green spaces are expressly viewed as assets delivering a service.

At a local level, this attention has always been present, active and vocal. Groundwork has been working with communities across the UK for more than 30 years to create and improve local green spaces and build confident, cohesive communities to ensure they are sustainable. Our projects are always born of local attention, local voices, needs and desires.

And as the national argument finally becomes aligned with the long-held local belief in the power of green space, communities are finding the confidence to demand a greater share of the maximum potential of their bits of the Green Infrastructure. Nowhere is this more evident than in the rise of local food growing. A 'grow your own' revolution is taking place.

At Groundwork, we see this in the ever increasing number of project inquires we receive for food growing initiatives and community food growing schemes. Food prices are rising and people want to know the provenance of their food. Our partners and stakeholders see this too and initiatives such as Transform in the six London 2012 host boroughs are helping to deliver community food growing projects and other socially valuable schemes.

But where to grow all this food, particularly if you live in a dense urban area and have no garden? Getting a plot on a traditional allotment site is often practically impossible. Waiting lists can be prohibitively long and in many cases you have to wait until a plot holder dies before you can even get on to a waiting list. Those sites with vacant plots may not be within a reasonable travelling distance of where you live. Furthermore, many people don't want the pressure of keeping a traditional allotment. They may want to use it less frequently, or for just one or two growing seasons. They may not have the confidence in their growing skills to take their place among expert amateur growers.

Designated parks and community gardens are also often unsuitable locations. Food growing is not a standard activity within a traditional park setting and restricted site access and security issues discourage potential food growers. New spaces are needed; spaces that are both local and flexible, where community groups can take the lead and skills and confidence can be nurtured.

Newly designated green space is rarely created, so attention is drawn to local vacant land where development appears to be stalled. This kind of land is present, if not abundant, in most communities. Community groups approach us with suggestions of land in their area that could be a community asset.

Between us we seek to find out who owns the land, why development has stalled and when it might realistically start up again. We can then assess whether the land is suitable for short-term community use, consider legal liabilities, planning, and other issues such as access to water and site security. Conversely, we may be asked by the landowner to encourage custodianship of their land while they await the development process to kick start.

The alternative use of land in this way, before its ultimate function is achieved, is regularly referred to as 'meanwhile… land, space, project or garden'.

In 2009, the former Development Trusts Association described the concept of meanwhile space as "The temporary use of vacant buildings and land for a socially beneficial purpose until such a time that they can be brought back into commercial use again. It makes practical use of the ‘pauses’ in property processes.”

Meanwhile land projects may take many forms; biomass production, temporary community parks or any number of socially, environmentally or economically useful functions. But we have found that food growing is the most popular and viable project in a local context.

A vital component of any meanwhile project is the full commitment of all those involved to the temporary use of the site in question. When the time is right, all parties must agree to return land and liabilities to the landowner or developer. Often, an exit strategy includes the identification of future sites, thus ensuring the project continues, albeit at another address. However, a meanwhile project may run for many years on the same site.

Groundwork is rolling out the concept all over the country. In Salford, the former site of two 11-storey tower blocks became the home of community food growing project Grow-in Brought-on. Group members grew fruit and vegetables in modified agricultural bulk containers and planted an orchard in builder’s merchant tonne sacks. After only one growing season the developers brought their housing plans forward for the site and the whole project moved 500 metres around the corner to another vacant plot.

Groundwork demonstrated the concept of meanwhile gardens and showcased some of our meanwhile projects with our award winning meanwhile garden at the 2013 RHS Chelsea Flower Show (pictured above). Designed by one of our Landscape Architects, the garden presented the elements of a typical 'meanwhile story':

• A cleared site waiting for its development potential
• An active community who spot an alternative green potential
• A flourishing and productive local green asset ready to move when required.

Whatever form a meanwhile project may take, as a land use category it offers an innovative way to create locally driven community green space. At its core, it can be both flexible and responsive to specific local land use issues. Functional barriers can be overcome and expectations can be realistically managed through an understanding of the temporary relationship between project and site.

The project may be short-lived but the impact can be long-lasting.

Dean Young is a landscape architect at Groundwork Hertfordshire