“You are free, you breathe fresh air, you see your creation”

Photo of hand holding ripening tomatoes. Photo by Lewis Wilson on Unsplash.

As part of the culmination of the CoSIE Project, we applied our learnings to a test site in Athens, Greece. The Greek test site activities were planned with the aim of enhancing the engagement of individuals and families with low incomes, or who are unemployed, in a local allotment programme in Agios Dimitrios, a suburb of Athens. The gardens, launched in 2011, were designed to provide food for the socially vulnerable while enhancing environmental values, and reintroducing contact with nature in the city. The plot-holders can harvest, eat, and share their produce as they see fit, and they are encouraged to donate surplus to a social grocery shop where it can be sold at an affordable price. Based on the learnings and impact indicators from CoSIE’s nine pilot projects in Poland, Estonia, Spain, Hungary, The Netherlands, Italy, the UK, Sweden and Finland, the project partners intention was to test out the Community Reporting methodology within the community gardens in order to gain insight into the programme, spark dialogue between stakeholders, and allow reflection on the various different aspects of the programme. This article highlights some of the themes that emerged.

A very important moral satisfaction” – The benefits of growing one’s own produce

One of the predominant themes to emerge from the stories was focused around the various benefits of growing one’s own produce, with almost all of the storytellers mentioning it in some capacity – be it in terms of health, finances, helping others, or simply a sense of fulfilment. One woman tells how she likes the idea of cultivating and producing her own vegetables, particularly summer produce such as tomatoes, while another takes pleasure in seeing her produce grow: “I get bored at home, while here when you come, you are free, you breathe fresh air, you see your creation, you make your own stuff, you watch them grow and that’s beautiful.” Another woman also reflects on the knowledge-building process that goes into growing: “I come here and feel free, but I also learn stuff. For example, if one time you don’t plant the lettuces correctly, you learn how to do it, what to do, when to water them.” These reflections suggest that even just the act of getting outdoors, planting and growing can give a boost to mental health by giving a sense of positivity in doing something constructive and learning something new.

Other participants took this further, amplifying the benefits for themselves and their families through being able to eatthe vegetables grown at the allotment. One man says, “My love for nature and for cultivation was an important motivation [to get involved], but also my will for self-sufficiency, to learn how to produce my food.” This desire for independence, for the means to provide without reliance on anyone else is something the garden offers that delivers a sense of pride to the people who work in it. Another man adds, “What we eat is ecological [organic] and comes from our own production.” He also adds that what he grows covers half of the dietary needs of his four-person family, alluding to the financial benefits linked to reducing the overall family grocery bill. Other participants elaborate on this, linking the health benefits (often across generations) and financial benefits, demonstrating how important both are to them. One woman says, “We eat organic products, the kids, my grandchildren, and we get assistance [financial].” One of the men, meanwhile, says he likes the opportunity to “eat some good organic products.” He also mentions that the scheme allows his family to know what they eat, contrary to when they buy processed foods from a supermarket. He also added that although they could produce more, they manage to cover their own needs and give part of the produce to other family members, including their grandchildren, so that they eat healthily as well. Comments such as these demonstrate that eating healthily is a priority for people, but is something that is not necessarily easy on a low income. Removing some pressure from shopping bills, and giving people the capacity to produce their own food, has allowed people to eat more vegetables as part of their diet. Another key point raised is the desire to care for others by helping them eat healthily. It is telling that both of these participants talk about being able to provide their grandchildren with healthy food because they can produce more than they need themselves. It gives a sense of pride to be able to provide for others with something they have cultivated. Other storytellers take this further again, telling how they help the wider community beyond their own families. One man says, “Social offering is important, a significant part of our product is given to the social grocery shop and this is for me personally a very important moral satisfaction.” Another man adds to this by saying, “It is very important that some of these products are available to some vulnerable groups [via the social grocery shop].” A woman, meanwhile, states that she would actually like a larger plot as then she could assist more people, because the goods she produces not only feed her own family, but other families as well through the local social grocery shop.  These comments demonstrate how the scheme is not only widening participation in healthy eating by making it affordable to low-income families and individuals, but also undoing consumer habits that lead to food wastage, by encouraging the sharing of surplus produce. The themes here all suggest positive mental and physical impacts in terms of health, which is something we’ll look into further in the next section.

“We see that it helps us very much psychologically” – Physical and mental health benefits

For many of the participants, a prominent benefit to the community garden scheme was the positive impact on their mental and physical wellbeing. One woman who has participated for six years says, “I like it because it is like psychotherapy, I come here and I forget all the other [problems],” while another woman  using striking similar language says, “I come here for many hours, it helps me a lot, I get out from home…I do psychotherapy.” One man describes the programme as an opportunity for psychological support especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, while another talks about the psychological impact because he has the opportunity to escape from everyday problems. If the language in the stories appears similar, it is likely because there is a somewhat universal mental health benefit to the fresh air and greenspace provided by the garden, as well as the physical activity afforded by tending crops and harvesting.

In fact, this link between the mental and the physical is picked up by more than one participant. “We see that it [physical activity] helps us very much psychologically,” says one man. Another describes how the contact with nature has a critical psychological impact for him personally, moreover because he has faced serious health problems in the past. He goes so far as to share his belief that contact with nature could be therapeutic for all people with health problems, and suggests that the community gardens should be accessible also to people with physical disabilities, something which is not currently the case. Other participants also make note of the physical benefits of the allotment, with one man saying, “My time passes here, I feel happy. I do my physical exercise and we produce some nice products,” and another, a pensioner, adds “here I do stuff and don’t sit [at home].” The gardens, then, have something of a cyclical effect on health and wellbeing. They promote mental wellbeing through encouraging people to spend time outdoors in the fresh air, working on their plot. This in turn provides physical activity and exercise which helps boost physical wellbeing and, in turn mental wellbeing. The boost to mental wellbeing encourages people to take part more regularly, and so the cycle continues. The links between mental and physical health are well documented, however, in this context the physical exertion comes from work in the garden, rather than regimented exercise (and, as the previous section demonstrates, this, in turn, promotes healthier eating habits), without the cost barriers often associated with most fitness regimes (gym memberships, appropriate shoes and clothes etc.). It suggests that ways should be found to encourage and promote physical exercise for low-income and vulnerable families in order to offer this boost to both fitness and mental health to more people. In many of the stories, it is apparent that the gardens fulfil an aspect of life that many participants feel is missing from life in Athens, however, and it is this which we will address next.

“In every city we could fill all of the fields” – An escape to nature

The word “escape” comes up several times in the stories, often linked with the idea getting away from the normalities of existence in the urban environment of Athens, and escaping into nature. This is often, it seems, due to a perceived lack of greenspace within the city. One woman says, “I liked the idea of the community gardens very much from the very beginning. I was born and raised in the city, so I had no particular contact with nature and vegetables. That is why, when I heard about the community gardens, I was excited.” She goes on to add, “The community gardens are an escape, it relaxes you from all the stress that you might have from the entire day.” Another man describes the positive psychological impact the gardens have had on him, because they give him the opportunity to escape the speed of the city. Yet another points out, “It is an important escape in the hard-built environment of Athens.” It is apparent from these stories in particular that the gardens are seen as a “getaway” from the mundanities, stresses and fast-pace of everyday life in a major city, a chance to step back, have a break and take stock. It also provides a chance to enjoy nature, something that is not always easy to do in a built-up environment.

There is a suggestion throughout most of the stories that participants would like to see more done with the gardens, and this includes expanding the concept throughout Agios Dimitrios and beyond into the wider city and country. One man says, “Generally I like very much to be involved with nature. In Athens this is not easy, but here it is easy to be close [to nature] and grab the earth, to be able to have your own production without chemicals.” His main vision is to see other similar community garden initiatives to take place in all Greek cities. He would like to see more pieces of disused land being planted in Agios Dimitrios as well. “In every city we could fill all of the fields. There are many abandoned fields and houses.” The creation of more gardens, even just in the local area, would widen the impacts reported so far, and allow for more people to benefit from both working the land and consuming its produce. This call for greenspaces, for the rural to be found within the urban, demonstrates a need for those who live in city environments to be able to experience nature for the sense of peace and serenity it can bring, the feeling of escapism. It would be beneficial, then, for other municipalities within Athens to look at ways of expanding greenspace through further community garden projects.

Conclusion

There's no doubt that the beneficiaries of the community gardens get a lot from the scheme, physically, mentally and financially. We are able to draw several conclusions from their insights:

  • The act of cultivating produce and being able to provide for others creates a sense of pride and fulfilment for beneficiaries.
  • The gardens allow people to eat healthily in a way they would not necessarily be able to do if relying on their regular food budget.
  • There are boosts to mental health stemming from being outdoors and the physical exercise involved in tending the garden, suggesting other means of affordable exercise should be made available to citizens.
  • The access to nature and greenspace offers an escape from the bustle and stress of city life, suggesting an opportunity for the municipality to cocreate further gardens and greenspaces within urban areas.

While some beneficiaries have some grievances with the project, overall, the positives appear to outweigh the negatives and the majority of participants have found themselves happier and healthier as a result. There are opportunities for cocreation unearthed in the stories that could further the benefits of the gardens and extend them to others.

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