Common Ground

The Secret Garden provides the focal point for the Connecting Communities led engagement and cohesion project bringing people together to improve their environment.

Our story

By Kevin Douglas, Connecting Communities, Sunderland City Council

The Secret Garden has been developed as part of the Common Ground community gardening scheme we set up with our partners in Sunderland.

I am Lead Liaison and Engagement Officer in the MHCLG (Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government) funded and Sunderland City Council led 'Connecting Communities' Project.

Our aims are to promote community cohesion by strengthening the support network for vulnerable groups, helping them to feel more part of that community by giving them the opportunity to get involved.

Bringing people of all backgrounds together around shared interests and activities gives them a chance to meet, talk, share their individual life experiences and learn more about each other. When we begin to talk and listen, we increase our mutual understanding and appreciation of each other, and strangers from very different cultural backgrounds can hopefully become friends.

Gardening is one of those shared interests and activities enjoyed by people around the world so where better place to start? To begin, we enlisted VCS partners led by David Banks from the NALCG (Northern Allotment, Leisure and Community Gardens) to provide help and guidance of horticultural project management, and FODI (Friends of the Drop-in for Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Sunderland) to identify possible sites and help with volunteer recruitment and training.

Now after the inevitable disruption to our lives caused by COVID we are now on-site, with shovels in the common ground of the Secret Garden. Surrounded by houses, the former allotment has become a community garden for all to enjoy, an oasis of calm and relaxation in a busy suburban neighbourhood.

Volunteers directed by David from the NALCG from our VCS, local business and youth project partners continue to tend the land, with the land and new buildings now further transformed with the help of Connecting Communities funding.

Our aim is for the Secret Garden to become the environmental template for others to follow, encouraging other VCS groups to come forward and develop other community gardening projects at sites already identified in the city.

This work will help the City Council towards achieving another priority in carbon reduction with people of all ages engaged and enthused in the process. Tree planting, rewilding and restoring wherever possible the natural habitat for wildlife at the Secret Garden and elsewhere are all part of the wider, long-term strategy.

Now that we've become established, the focus is on increasing the wider community and school engagement element of the community gardening based projects.

Schools and youth groups can use the Secret Garden as an outdoor classroom, public health practitioners can point towards the benefits of outdoor activities, and those VCS groups helping the most vulnerable people and groups in our community can extol the virtues of projects such as these in tackling social exclusion.

Our advice

Our Connecting Communities project improves community cohesion, though engagement with vulnerable groups. When looking at how to achieve this, we considered which shared interests may bring people together.

We worked with VCS partners who help the council provide support to these groups. By speaking to them and the people they meet daily, we identified gardening and horticulture as shared interests, so the idea of 'Common Ground' was established.

We then looked for similar existing projects working with asylum seekers and refugees and identified and visited the Comfrey Project in Gateshead.

We learned about their work and challenges faced, which Common Ground may also face. We then looked at which VCS partners could meet those challenges and formed an initial project board. This included colleagues from NALCG (Northern Allotment, Leisure and Community Gardens) to provide guidance on how to establish and maintain sites, and from sustainable food and cookery CIC, Social Chef, on promoting health and nutrition through using fresh produce.

We identified a community site in Roker with available land and buildings, and already widely used by our target groups. Next, we spoke to VCS partners including FODI (Friends of the Drop in for Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Sunderland) and Fightback about recruiting volunteers and arranging dates for sessions and meeting transport and travel costs.

Unfortunately, COVID then put plans on hold.

Post-COVID, partners inevitably changed and with the original 'starter' site no longer available/appropriate, we worked to find a new site. This was identified as an underused allotment surrounded by housing which became known as the 'Secret Garden'. This will provide the working model for any future Common Ground community gardening projects.

Connecting Communities provided funding to grass areas and create social spaces, help provide storage buildings for gardening equipment and further landscape the allotment site to enable it to host other activities such as arts and nature conservation. Volunteers from FODI, a local energy company, and city centre-based youth projects now regularly visit and use the site.

Its success has attracted interest from other partners who will use the Secret Garden for school/community engagement to promote environmental work as a means to carbon reduction, outdoor spaces and gardening as good for mental health and well-being, and a way of reducing social isolation.

Visitors also included local environmental charities, training providers and heritage/cultural preservation agencies interested in becoming part of the overall community gardening project and replicating the Secret Garden at other locations in the city.

Advice would be to establish the funding available to project partners from the outset to keep them engaged throughout the planning stage, and set a budget for the kind of specific events and activities that you want to organise alongside the community gardening element.

Our metrics

  • Number of volunteers regularly using sites and engaging in activities centred around gardening.
  • Amount of fresh produce being cultivated.
  • Area made available for tree planting, re-wilding and other horticultural activities.
  • Level of community engagement.

Read more: https://www.sunderlandpartnership.org.uk/

Sunderland Common Ground project.
Sunderland Common Ground project.
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