I spent the first few weeks of the MOOC trying to 'fit' my day to day work into the framework provided. I then realised that I'd been missing the most obvious local good practice example of Civic Ecology in action; the Wild Cat Wilderness.
I'm fortunate to have known Philippe for the last 20+ years and his work with the Rushey Green Time Bank had led him to an abandoned space next to a member's allotment. A search for some initial funding also introduced horticultural therapist Maria to the space. The site, nestled between a cricket pitch and the river Pool, was overgrown with brambles which in turn hid decades of dumped rubbish and junk. Starting with existing Time Bank Volunteers and broadening this out to other interested members of the community, the site began to be cleared but not in a 'rip it up and start again' way, rather by slowly peeling back the layers and seeing what lay beneath. Trees freed from the brambles were found to grow plums and apples. The space became the wild garden that lots of local people didn't have. Exploration and discovery was encouraged.
Remembering that I'd used the space 18 months ago for a team building exercise for a group of EU project colleagues from Spain, France, Croatia and Portugal, it struck me that this was a great example of using a community resource focused on the natural environment that encapsulates what Civic Ecology is about.
Information and reflections on the ten civic ecology principles
1 & 2. A Broken Place:
The space, before it began to be transformed, was described by Philippe and Maria as 'an unloved rubbish dump' a 'place with no function'. On top of that, the area it's located in could hardly be described as one of London's more desirable postcodes (although things are definitely improving).
The area used to be allotments running along both sides of the river and before that it used to be known as the Vineries indicating an even grander purpose. Gradually over time vandalism, arson and neglect meant half the available allotments were simply left to return to nature.
As will happen in a space with no purpose, it quickly found a use as a dumping ground - household items, bits of engines, builders waste and lots of glass are found regularly. On my visit I had a look at the 'sculpture' made of objects found while clearing the garden, these included a telephone (old school), a toilet seat (pink) and a sign for a local taxi firm (possibly dumped there by a rival).
The initial ideas for the space came out of Philippe's love of place - he's been a resident in Lewisham borough for over 30 years. In conjunction with this (and as part of his desire to impact his local area) was his work with the local Time Bank, providing practical therapy and seeing the value of providing opportunities for people to experience a sense of community that may have been missing from their lives. The time bank was first piloted in the late 90s, it started in 2000, was constituted in 2003 and Philippe got involved in late 2006. It is still based at the GP practice - it's their link with health professionals - but is now becoming popular and more diverse. They've outgrown the original premises and expanded into other areas and other projects including taking a unit at Lewisham's groundbreaking Place Ladywell.
They first got on site at Wild Cat in 2012 but were overwhelmed (depressed) with the size of the task of removing so much rubbish (particularly with no direct access to the space) and cutting through the ever growing bramble. As well as the Time Bank members, some of the early users in 2014 included Young Offenders who were involved in the initial clearance of the site. And it was during this phase that an important decision was taken, shaping the space as it is today.
While the site could have been 'bulldozed' and returned to it's original allotment use it was decided that part of it's charm was it's wildness. It's incredibly rare to find an unused space of this size in London, and this value of finding wilderness in the inner city was added to a philosophy that the space should provide "a journey, not a beginning and end". The Wild Cat steering group has played an essential part in getting practically involved and committing time to the work come rain or shine. It helped provide a practical example of what was expected from the users: a team working together to enact a vision.
This was made obvious as people started to come and use the space for differing reasons and by taking different actions - seen most evidently in the paths that began to be bashed through the thick undergrowth. Sometimes these led somewhere and were used (and so maintained). Others were an individual's choice, and unless they came regularly and re-hacked the path, it quickly grew back to it's original state. The 'live' wilderness was beginning to find it's rationale.
3. Opportunities for Learning:
The Wilderness started out with the idea of providing a safe (yet wild) place for members of the Time Bank to do more than the traditional indoors activities. Time Bank's are really important in giving a structure to social activities - those who feel more vulnerable understand what is expected of them in order to give and receive Time Credits. The Rushey Green Time Bank had an additional uniqueness in that it was linked to (and for a while based in) a GP's Surgery. The idea that for some people good company and activity could be more effective than pills and prescriptions, seemed radical at the time, but has slowly gained credence.
I think a special mention has to go to Maria, the Wild Cat Wilderness' very own Horticultural Therapist. She has created an incredible variety of opportunities for people to learn and her hands on get stuck in approach has helped nurture this atmosphere. If you look at the Facebook page you will see people clearing paths, digging allotments, making borders, learning about nature, making coppice fencing, cooking the vegetables that have been grown, making jam using the wild fruit, bee keeping and honey making, singing, dancing, bbqing, being artistic and creative, joining others around the Community Campfire or simply finding a space to be alone. There are an amazing variety of things on offer for an amazing variety of people of all ages, and importantly for this diverse area of London, reflecting the demographic make up of our population.
There are regular group visits from 4 nursery schools (3-4 year olds), 2 Primary Schools (5-11) and the Wilderness is also used as a Forest School. A few weeks back the space was used as both a exhibition area and a workshop venue for the local Catford Arts Trail bringing in a host of new potential volunteers and participants. The overriding ethos of Wild Cat is one of 'try it and see', and for children it's 'run around and don't be afraid to get mucky' - it's hard to find a learning opportunity that hasn't or couldn't been offered.
One of the great things about nature in an urban setting is it's resilience. This is seen most obviously in the head high brambles, the still producing fruit trees and the variety of birds and animals that can be found. While urban foxes are a pretty normal sight in London, seeing them in a more natural setting isn't - there's a pair of them here. While I was conducting the interviews a curious magpie hopped around possibly with an eye on the crumbs of croissants we were dropping, Maria also mentioned a pair of nesting sparrow hawks who has returned for a second season. At the edge of the site the much improved river Pool will eventually provide a safe stream to include water as part of the experience.
4. Re-creating Place and Community:
A city can be a lonely place, the need for the Time Bank shows that adding health and mental health problems to the mix exacerbates this. Wild Cat Wilderness provides a space for people to meet. The 'rules' are simple; GET INVOLVED. There are plenty of opportunities (see above) ranging from practical tasks to arts and crafts. The space also provides permission to run around and get dirty.
A decision was made early on to open the use of the space wider than the ready made membership of the Time Bank and this has added a unique and constructive 'flavour' to the Wild Cat community. Adding to this the sessions for schools, scouts and their parents and teachers the space is fast becoming used and valued by a wider group of people, participating for their own reasons but joining and forming a new community.
5. Memories make Places and Communities:
There are two things which have really helped people find a place in this new community; food and fire.
Part of the Wilderness has been used for one of its past purposes, growing vegetables. When it comes to cooking these (communally of course) there is an opportunity for people to bring their knowledge and memories of how best to do this. Which herbs? Which cooking method? Should it be cut and fried or baked whole? Recipes that reflect the diversity of the group are swapped. Vegetables that may have never been eaten before are polished off with gusto as tried and tested hand-me-down family secrets are shared with the group. Relationships and friendships are formed over the simple yet profound act of sharing and eating together.
Fire has a transformative effect and nowhere more so than in the inner city where even a small backyard fire in a built up area is frowned on. The fact that the Wilderness is pretty remote and away from houses makes a large communal fire a special and much loved feature.
The fires and food are a key part of most days, whether on a cold dark winters afternoon or after a hot, sticky summers day they provide a focus for everyone involved to spend time together.
I specifically asked Philippe and Maria about the social-ecological memories and got some equally specific responses:
- the users with a rural Eastern European background were more than willing to get into the sometimes backbreaking work of clearing the site and digging over ground. The reason? It reminded them of life in their home villages, the physical work of farming and this in turn gave them a purpose and a chance to share something of what they used to have.
- those from an Afro-Caribbean background could share their knowledge of planting, tending and caring for plants. 'This is what we used to grow and this is how we did it', 'Here's a way you can prevent that pest using nature' and (most?) importantly 'This is how you cook it!'
- the fire also provides a natural theatre for storytelling, sometimes organised but more often than not, in the dark of the evening, an opportunity for anyone to tell their own story. As described to me this gave the participants a real sense of purpose.