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7 Sep 2018

Growing communities with gardens

Some communities are less likely to have access to green spaces, depriving them of the physical, mental and social benefits that nature brings. But the Community Greening Program is changing that, one garden at a time. Since 2000, it has established 765 community and youth-led gardens across NSW, transforming the lives of almost 160,000 people.

From little things, big things grow

The Community Greening program is run by the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney in partnership with NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FACS). It is also supported by Bloomberg, the John T Reid Charitable Trusts, The Neilson Foundation, Eucalypt Australia, the Australian Government Department of Social Services and many generous individuals. This successful collaboration has helped improve the health and wellbeing of urban deprived populations, disadvantaged social groups, minority ethnic groups, disabled people, youth and the elderly.

It is believed these groups of people are all less likely to visit green spaces due to poor maintenance of public spaces, inadequate facilities and fears over safety. It started off with just a few trial gardens in Sydney in 2000. After 18 years, there are now over 765 gardens across regional areas as far as Bourke, Taree, Albury and Walgett - transforming the lives of over 160,000 participants.

Growing a community

Phil Pettitt has been a Community Greening Coordinator for the last six years and features in the Branch Out podcast episode about Community Greening in the lead up to R U OK day.

“Trends towards urbanisation and loss of green space have sparked concerns about population health and well-being,” Phil said.

“The program empowers vulnerable communities while providing a broad range of health, training, economic and social benefits,” said Phil.

While learning how to create a garden and grow food or plants is a key component of the Community Greening Program, building community cohesion, reducing anti-social behaviour and improving mental health are also integral.

“While populations boom and we find ourselves living closer and closer together – our sense of community is disappearing,” Phil said.

“For 18 years we have strived to promote social cohesion and help communities tackle adversity through the joy of gardening – all while creating future advocates for the environment,” Phil said.

Coordinators Brenden Moore (left) and Phil Pettitt (right) at a Community Greening garden in Sydney.

No two gardens are the same

No Community Greening garden is the same because every community, and the individuals who are part of it, are unique.

“At some places we provide mentoring and support for participants, deliver horticulture and Indigenous education or generate opportunities for disadvantaged youth,” said Phil.

“The model also includes 'outreach horticulture' through hands-on learning and capacity building with Community Greening horticulturalists and educators,” Phil said.

In 2017, the program was recognised with three honours: The Community Program of the Year from Parks and Leisure Australia, the Australian Institute of Horticulture Award of Merit, and the Community Environment Achievement Award from Keep NSW Beautiful.

The science is in: gardening is good for you

Associate Professor Tonia Gray from Western Sydney University boarded a flight in 2012 and found herself sitting next to Phil Pettitt. What started off with a polite conversation between two strangers travelling to the same destination ended up becoming a highly successful collaboration lasting over six years.

Associate Professor Tonia Gray, Dr Son Truong, Associate Professor Danielle Tracey and Dr Kumara Ward performed an independent evaluation to explore the Community Greening program’s impact on new participants and communities in social housing by tracking six new garden sites in 2017.

With a growing body of research that shows access to green spaces results in stress reduction, improved mood, accelerated healing, attention restoration, productivity and heightened imagination and creativity – the researchers weren’t surprised by their findings.

How gardening changed participants satisfaction with aspects of their life from the Western Sydney University research report (Truong et al., 2018, p.4).  

More results 

Dr Son Truong is a Senior Lecturer, specialising in Health and Physical Education, and is a member of the Sustainability Research Team in the Centre for Educational Research at Western Sydney University.

Dr Truong features in this Branch Out podcast episode about Community Greening and discusses the findings of the study.

“Around 85% of participants stated the program had a positive effect on their health and 91% said it benefited their community,” Dr Truong said. 

“73% also said they were exercising more and 61% were eating better. One participant even said engaging in the program helped them quit smoking.

These insights have advanced our understanding of how community gardening improves the mental and physical health of Australians living in social housing communities in our cities.
Dr Son Truong.
Community Greening changed Norbert’s life

Norbert has lived in a social housing property managed by Bridge Housing in Surry Hill for over 19 years. He shares his Community Greening journey at his residence in this Branch Out podcast episode.

Norbert has been taking part in the Community Greening Program for the last year and a half and it has transformed his life and the entire look and feel of his community.

“Before we started the Community Greening Program, our entire backyard area was overgrown and unused,” said Norbert.

“Now we have several veggie gardens, a greenhouse, worm farms and somewhere to actually sit and enjoy the area.

“Living in a one-bedroom apartment, caring for the garden gives me that outdoor experience and exercise.

“The program also gives me respite from caring for my parents, who are both very ill,” said Norbert.

Creating more than just a garden

In previous years within some social housing communities, it was commonplace for residents to simply stay inside their units without interacting with anyone. The same was true for Norbert.

“Despite all the residents living in close quarters, before the Community Greening program no one really interacted and there was quite a bit of tension,” said Norbert.

“Now we have someone who will come down and water the garden every second day, some people come down and harvest and someone sweeps – it’s slowly built a functional community,” said Norbert.

The study by Western Sydney University also found that additional improvements in social health included a genuine enthusiasm for working with other community members, and increased co-operation and social cohesion between staff and tenants in social housing sites.

“It’s also really helped to change the public’s perception of social housing, we’re not just an area that has crime and mental health issues,” Norbert said.  

Listen and subscribe to Branch Out

Listen to Phil, Dr Truong and Norbert talk about the program, the research and the real experience in the episode of our Branch Out podcast below. Subscribe to Branch Out on your iOS or Android app to receive fortnightly science and horticulture episodes. If you like the show, please leave a five-star rating and a positive review, it helps more people find us. 
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