The Vacant Lot project appropriated and occupied vacant and neglected spaces on hard-standing surfaces or grassed areas surrounding deprived inner city housing estates in London and redeveloped them into community gardens and allotments. The spaces were made accessible and useable for growing food, socialising and play through simple adjustments such as bespoke raised bed timber planters and using bulk bags as growing containers. Vacant Lot was an area-based initiative targeted at local residents of any age or background from a particular estate with the threefold aim of providing outside space, a place to grow food and a place to socialise. Local residents were offered the opportunity to claim a new plot and to be involved in the process of creating the community growing space. According to its founders the Vacant Lot gardens have become ‘a place to meet neighbours, sit in the outdoors, and to enjoy growing fruit, vegetables, salads and other plants in individual allotment plots… plot holders of different age groups and backgrounds meet, exchange food, seeds and gardening advice’. The project objective is to use the physical environment as a shared resource in order to promote cohesion, communication and interaction. It provides an opportunity to establish a ‘shared endeavour’ for different interests. It also improves the quality of the urban environment benefitting a range of interests. Established in 2009 as a partnership between What if: projects Ltd, Groundwork London and Social Housing Providers and Tenants Organisations in the London boroughs of Islington, Camden, Hackney and Haringey it was funded primarily by the Big Lottery’s Local Food Programme as a three year project with other support coming from London Waste, King’s Cross Construction Skills Centre (Carillon), Camden Jobtrain, Elba, Moneybookers, UBS and construction supported by Hackney College, Furniture Group.
The project was implemented at 21 sites across London and while the initiative itself has been completed the sites remain in use. The Haringey site was Mildura Court, a block of 38 flats on Church Lane in the Hornsey district of the borough, where a plot for each tenant was developed as part of a new garden for the residents. The space was redeveloped in 2012 after the Homes for Haringey site was selected to be part of the Vacant Lot programme. With support from residents, the Mildura Court Residents Association and Groundwork London and implemented by the Vacant Lot team, £5,000 (€6,225) funding from Big Lottery and Homes for Haringey was used to create a garden that all residents could enjoy. The initiative was celebrated by the local councillor and cabinet member for housing for ‘bringing residents together and encouraging children to get involved…’ with the hope being that the garden will ‘develop food growing and gardening skills for tenants, help build community cohesion as well as improve and maintain the outdoor environment of the flats’ (Haringey Independent, 2012).
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
The concept of ‘diversity’ was not an integral feature of the project. However, given the demography of the city, the focus on deprived urban areas of London resulted in input and involvement at each site from residents from a wide range of ethno-cultural, socio-economic and demographic backgrounds including those from different BME communities, tenants and homeowners and users from 6-70 years old. Project organisers typically noted a scarcity of gardens and open spaces in these areas and sought to address this by transforming various sites into community spaces in the form of allotment gardens in order to strengthen social cohesion. In doing so the urban environment becomes a focus for the construction of new forms of engagement encouraging a sense of ownership that transcends community differences.
Main factors influencing success or failure
The project would not have been possible without the agreement of the various site owners. The ‘temporary’ nature of the intervention was crucial to its success as, in order to ease landowners fears that site users would seek to claim legal ownership of the land, assurances were given (via signed ownership agreements) that everything could be easily removed and the land redeveloped at any time if required. In parallel with these assurances it was equally important to achieve a degree of support from local residents by providing door-to-door information and holding exploratory meetings. Locals are also encouraged to act as volunteers in the construction of the sites and participate in green skills workshops and the establishment of ‘garden groups’ to formalise their activities and enable them to apply for funding independently. Some sites were more successful than others in establishing garden groups as many users were hesitant to commit beyond their own use of the space due to time pressure. Others struggled to achieve full use of available plots due to lack of interest. Nevertheless, the importance of a finely balanced sense of ‘ownership’ of the space appears to have been an important factor in gaining local residents and site owners support. Having achieved this balance in most cases the project was very popular and attracted a lot of positive press which led to visits from local councillors and ultimately more funding and sustained support gained as a result.
Possibly the most interesting reflection on the value of community engagement for the success of the project related to the resourcefulness or ‘capital’ of the site users. One Vacant Lot organiser commented:
“The government’s Big Society idea of ‘everyone clubbing together’ works in Hampstead where people are resourceful but it doesn’t work in other areas where people are less resourceful… it isn’t about being clever or not clever… you have a different outlook on what is possible … running these groups requires people who are confident and that needs a little bit of help, showing the ropes and encouragement”.
The need for groups to be supported, ideally by their housing association or local authority, was highlighted as a significant challenge to overcome, particularly as our respondents noted that this kind of support and facilitation is often not a typical function for these types of organisations. Ideally organisers believe each site needs a person or persons who “likes gardening, is organised, works well with people and is good at paperwork” in order to effectively sustain the activities of the site.
The involvement of a wide variety of different private, public, non-profit and grassroots organisations able to work together effectively and enthusiastically and offer their own particular specialisms to the project was another notable success factor. However working with this number of organisations also presented some challenges. For example, project organisers described their frustration at high staff turnover, internal politics of the organisations and the fact that two thirds of project funding went towards administrative costs, limiting how effective and site specific each intervention could be. The rigidity of expectations for delivery and funding requirements were also noted as frustrations yet the project would not have been funded in the way it was without the various organisations on board.
The greatest strength of this project is the way that it reclaims and redevelops land which had no purpose or use in order to strengthen cohesion for the local community. Surveys conducted by organisers after the completion of each site found that residents commented positively on the opportunity the gardens gave them to meet their neighbours, particularly those from different cultures. In the future What if: Projects Ltd are keen for housing associations to take more risks to develop vacant spaces in the most deprived areas. At present they believe there is a tendency among local authorities and housing associations to focus more on areas with fewer social problems where there is less risk that the initiative will be effective but also less to gain once it is. They are also considering expanding the Vacant Lot idea to disused community centres to challenge councils and housing associations to be more reflexive around the accessibility and management of their community facilities.
 Architecture practice based in Hackney focused on sustainable urban environments
 Environment regeneration charity
 Black and Minority Ethnic
 For example training in horticulture, food growing, bio-diversity, bee-keeping, energy saving, smarter travelling.