Communities are built from common experiences and common goals. When Jane Riddiford founded Global Generation, an educational London-based charity with a strong environmental focus, she recognised that a strong community required a connection to the natural world, as well as people. Since 2004 Jane and her team have worked with local young people, businesses, residents and families in Camden, Islington and Southwark to create healthy, integrated and environmentally responsible communities. Here, Jane recounts her journey to Global Generation and the philosophies behind it.
The roots of my work in London with Global Generation, began over 20 years ago in Auckland, New Zealand. I lived beside a busy motorway. When it was being constructed, three acres between Newton Central Primary school and the motorway were stripped bare of trees. I used to sit having breakfast, looking across the motorway to the naked hillside, wondering what the land would be like if it were once more returned to the dark green mantle of the New Zealand bush.
At the time I was studying sustainable land management and so a friend, Maurice Puckett, and I, took on regenerating the area into a forest. Over the next few years, the whole school and wider community became involved in planting the forest. Ten years later, I returned to the ‘Inner City Forest’ beside the motorway. I heard birdsong and saw the climax trees beginning to poke through the canopy. Since then I have paid attention to the connecting and collaborative rhythms and patterns of nature. I feel they are guidelines for how to grow community, both within an organisation and beyond.
It was the experience of re-visiting ‘The Inner City Forest’ that inspired the start of Global Generation in 2004. A few months later some friends and I took a group of young people from Camden on a trip to Pertwood Organic Farm in Wiltshire. Very quickly the young people stopped saying ‘I’m bored … what are we going to do now Miss?’ They connected to the movements in the land under their feet, the stars above their heads and all the life in between. We were curious what this experience might bring to the middle of the city.
In time we found an opportunity to involve a group of teenagers in creating a living bio-diverse roof on an office building in London’s King’s Cross. However, we also wanted to involve the office workers in caring for the roof and so it was an obvious next step to begin to grow food; things like strawberries, squash, basil, tomatoes, potatoes and beans. The receptionist soon took on the watering and before too long we had installed a grey water and rainwater harvesting system.
The living roof garden provided excuses for making meaningful connections within the wider community. For example, local young people were allowed to enter a previously inaccessible office building. The teenagers taught business people about seasonality and how the soil works. Over time, as we developed other food growing spaces around the city, young people took the produce to sell to the chefs at smart restaurants and the canteens of large corporations like The Guardian and Eurostar. In this way, food became a vehicle to join previously separate parts of the community.
As populations shift and an increasing number of people are moving to cities, how do we make that a creative, positive thing? The area where I feel we can all contribute are the public spaces in the growing number of urban regeneration schemes. They might be privately owned, but young people and the wider community can work together to imagine, create and care for them.
The King’s Cross Skip Garden and our newly established Paper Garden in Canada Water – are urban sanctuaries, distinct from the straight-lined precision of the surrounding glass and steel buildings. However, their magic Is in their connection and juxtaposition with the intensity of the city. They are places, where everyone involved, helps to make the life that is beneath the concrete a little more visible. It is particularly heartening to see children and young people connect to nature and their own creativity. This is what gives me hope for the future.
Jane co-founded Global Generation in 2004. She has more than 25 years of experience in delivering environmental, arts & vocational training projects in New Zealand & the UK.
She managed a City Farm for Framework Trust and developed an Inner City Forest in Auckland as a learning resource for the Dept of Education, set up and ran an NVQ Horticulture programme for Camden Job Train and co-ordinated Camden’s Environmental Education Network. She also managed Rise Phoenix a community arts organisation that worked with children and young people in the war torn areas of the Balkans, in Tanzania and in London.