Spatial Justice Matters – Designing and Running Urban Community Gardens for Older People’s Wellbeing’
By Marissa Lam, on 9 March 2022
Research has highlighted the importance of accessible community gardens in providing a space to protect and enhance older people’s wellbeing as they age. This is particularly pertinent in the context of UK’s ageing population as it is juxtaposed with other public spaces become increasingly exclusive, to the exclusion of older people. Through adopting a spatial justice perspective, it is discerned that whilst many community gardens across the UK are ostensibly open for everyone to enjoy, not everyone can equally access these coveted spaces. In particular, older people may face barriers to participation through accessibility issues such as spatial designs deficiencies that fail to address people with disabilities, which may be associated with ageing. By actively identifying who can access these spaces and in what ways different user groups can participate, community gardens can continue to move towards making these green spaces easily accessible to all social demographics to improve wellbeing.
Project Focus and Description of Fellowship
Through a dissertation fellowship with Marina Chang Chair of Calthorpe Community Garden (‘Calthorpe’) and my supervisor Liza Griffin, I examined the ‘Diversity and Inclusion of Community Gardens for the Wellbeing and Participation of Older People’. A case study of Calthorpe enabled me to explore the particular opportunities and barriers to diversity and inclusion that may impact upon older people’s wellbeing and participation in community gardens using a spatial justice lens. Situated within the Kings Cross ward in the London Borough of Camden, Calthorpe is a suitable site to study as it is easily accessible via public transport and has users both from the local community and those who travel in specifically to use this space. Furthermore, as acceptance and inclusiveness form part of Calthorpe’s values, this is a seemly site to explore how diversity and inclusion may impact older people’s wellbeing.
A community garden is a piece of land gardened by people individually or collectively. In the UK, community gardens are likely to have a duality of functions, such as providing open spaces whilst also offering plots for interested parties. Personally, when I think of ‘community gardens’, connotations of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ spring to mind as notions of ‘community’ and ‘gardens’ often instil tranquillity and evoke a sense of belongingness. However, exploring the diversity and inclusion of community gardens for the wellbeing and participation of older people through a spatial justice lens highlights unequal access to these green spaces. Employing a spatial justice lens allows us to scrutinise the different factors that may increase inclusion or inequalities within the space of community gardens and how to move towards achieving greater justice.
Whilst the theory of spatial justice is complex and multifaceted, simply put, it links the notions of social justice and space. Centrally, spatial justice encompasses the equal and equitable distribution of, and the ability to use, socially valued resources within a space (Soja, 2009:1). Adopting a spatial justice lens reveals the nuances of spatial injustice within a space. Within the context of community gardens, spatial justice considers the elements necessary to investigate hitherto overlooked barriers towards (re)producing a diverse and inclusive community garden for everyone as it comprises and considers both ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ space equally. It examines who can access different spaces within community gardens and how individuals can participate meaningfully in such spaces. For instance, the spatial design may not be inclusive for everyone, impeding the diversity of users as some cannot access the space. By way of illustration, despite aiming to be universally inclusive, Calthorpe remains inaccessible to certain older people, preventing them from enjoying the green spaces that community gardens offer. Whilst Calthorpe’s ‘wild garden’ provides gardening opportunities to improve wellbeing, it is hidden away. The secretive element makes this space attractive to children, but for older people, the paths to reach the ‘wild garden’ may present difficulties to exercising their right to use this space. Consequently, some less physically mobile people may feel excluded as the paths and gardening plots are not designed to enable wheelchair access. Additionally, whilst clear signage is desirable for all users, they are particularly useful for those with impaired sight. As Calthorpe’s existing signage is small and not always easily visible, this may reduce the engagement of visually impaired older users as they may not be able to navigate the space independently.
What can Community Gardens learn from taking a Spatial Justice Perspective to their Governance?
Spatial (in)justice manifests in various ways and for community gardens, there are some ‘easy fixes’ that can help them move towards achieving spatial justice. Through a spatial justice perspective, practical steps that community gardens can adopt include looking at how the benefits and burdens in society may impact diversity and inclusion and therefore have ramifications on users’ wellbeing and participation in these spaces. Taking a spatial justice approach to the unjust and uneven development of community gardens can both reveal how people’s experiences of the space can impact wellbeing, and consider the less tangible aspects of the spatial experience. Diversity and inclusion in community gardens manifest both tangibly, whether there are physical barriers to participating, but also intangibly, through the feeling of belonging. To demonstrate, a survey found that a ‘community feeling’ is fostered at Calthorpe. This survey also spotlighted a group of Latin American women who explained how gardening at Calthorpe provided them the opportunity to become more independent, learn to use London’s buses and expand their social circles. Additionally, the sense of belonging cultivated extends further than the Latin American group. A broader community appeal exists as most of the ‘family allotments’ at Calthorpe belong to local residents of various nationalities. Survey respondents expressed ‘feeling at home’ at Calthorpe and having a ‘strong sense of ownership’, cultivating good spatial justice and wellbeing.
A spatial justice framework can provide insights for community gardens when designing or planning their space, whether it be to increase the diversity of people able to access the space or to diversify the voices of those partaking in decision-making processes. By understanding how space relates to justice, community gardens can scrutinise the different facets that produce the space: for example, evaluating how spatial design, physical accessibility and cultural factors impacts the wellbeing and participation of people in community gardens.
Practical learning taken from this research on Calthorpe highlights the many ways in which a community garden can facilitate the (re)production of a diverse and inclusive space. By placing diversity and inclusion at the heart of its core values, Calthorpe emphasises the importance of providing a welcoming environment for all users by opening the space to everyone irrespective of background to enjoy its diversity and benefits. It also provides an office where people can ask questions. What’s more, the abundant greenery and benches throughout Calthorpe’s space fosters a tranquil environment for older users in particular. Community gardens can also enhance the engagement of visually impaired users by providing them with the ability to manoeuvre through the space autonomously. As aforementioned, having large and visible signage is also essential.
Offering opportunities for users to garden or participate in activities independently can increase both the diversity of users and increase their feeling of inclusion through fostering strong social bonds. Calthorpe offers numerous age-specific activities, such as ‘walking football for ages 55+’ and ‘meditation for ages 60+’. Such activities can encourage wellbeing and participation through the creation of an environment that allows older people to carry out a range of activities adapted to their specific requirements.
Moreover, requisites to establishing a community garden that feels welcoming includes both the construction of a positive culture and ensuring that the different spaces within and across it are physically accessible. Whilst a community garden may in theory be open for all, certain areas may remain inaccessible for some socio-demographic groups. For example, narrow and uneven paths without handrails may reduce navigability for those with reduced mobility, presenting difficulties for them to exercise their right to use the space.
Nonetheless, there are simple design modifications that can improve access. For instance, adapting spaces by raising container beds enables less physically mobile users to participate as fully as possible in gardening. Community gardens that foster environments where people can work with others can create a sense of belonging as collective gardening is said to build social capital and enhance community cohesiveness, thereby improving wellbeing overall. Research has highlighted that a sense of belonging can also be cultivated through the inclusion of users in the decision-making process. Whilst Calthorpe currently does not have a formal systematic procedure to facilitate the inclusion of users and for community groups to raise issues or voice relevant concerns, implementing procedures such as an anonymous suggestions box may enable participation and provide opportunities to include previously overlooked voices.
Nevertheless, extrinsic forces that should be considered in an analysis of spatial justice include the distributive injustices at play in the wider geographic area where a community garden is situated. For example, the monetisation of community gardens in the UK can negatively impact on their diversity and inclusion. As an illustration, Calthorpe is unable to extend their opening hours due to funding constraints from the local council, restricting access to this socially valued space. Whilst this may impede spatial justice, community gardens may be creative in finding solutions. For instance, community gardens could potentially capitalise on the surrounding population, drawing on volunteers to oversee the organisation and running of activities. By actively engaging with local communities, community gardens may be able to overcome some of the many constraints they face.
Soja, E.W. (2009). The city and spatial justice. Justice spatiale/Spatial justice, 1(1), pp.1-5.