Getting to the Root of the Community Garden Conflict
The community garden saga continues!
In this post, I share more of what I have been learning as I put my permaculture studies into action and begin the process of creating an urban permaculture design appropriate for my beloved community garden, ¡Esta es Una Plaza!, in the centre of Madrid.
Using some permaculture techniques such as stakeholder questionnaires, interviews, and a good old fashioned chat over tea and cake, I try to get to the bottom of some of the problems that have been plaguing the community for many years.
Beginning with a quick overview of the first steps in process of permaculture design, I go on to share some of the revelations and reflections that have come out of my investigations thus far!
Imagine you have a garden or a piece of land that isn’t much to look at. Maybe it’s a big, patchy lawn and nothing else, or perhaps land that has been degraded over time, empty of life. Right now it looks uninspiring, void of any remnants of the thriving ecosystem it once was. The ground is hard, the soil unfertile, the ecosystem fractured.
From this place of lifelessness, would you be able to dream something different? And if so, how would you go about creating it?
Without the tools and the know-how, these questions can seem at best fanciful and at worst depressing. Yet, as I progress with my permaculture studies, I can see that creating amazing beauty and abundance in our lives is not a fanciful idea but a real possibility.
For me, permaculture design provides us with the tools and knowledge we need to reimagine our world, our communities, and our back gardens.
It can be used to transform our sad-looking lawn and transform it into a haven for wildlife, birds and insects, abundant with food, edible plants and medicinal herbs and still provide that sunny spot to chill out in. Equally, it can be used to regenerate urban areas and create supportive communities, as I wrote about in my previous posts about the community garden ¡Esta es Una Plaza! in Madrid.
So how does one go about creating a permaculture design?
According to one of my permaculture teachers, Heather Jo Flores, whether you are in the city or the countryside, or you are designing a vegetable garden for your family or a community garden for your neighbourhood, the first step is always to ask some fundamental questions: what is here already? Who is here already? And what is working and what isn’t?
It is important that we ask these questions, rather than simply rush in and impose our desires on the space and its people. Without the necessary observation and careful investigation, the design that we come up with may not fit the needs of the people involved or the space itself.
For example, maybe you would love a cactus garden but your land often gets waterlogged when it rains. Without the right amount of careful observation, your dream of a beautiful cactus garden, if realised, would be destined for disappointment and failure, and perhaps even damage the existing ecosystem.
Or maybe you love cactuses but your family hates them. This could cause conflict within these relationships and create frustrations for those who don’t share your tastes, all of which go against the ethics of permaculture (as I have seen from my experiences in the community garden!).
Each to Their Own
The good thing about permaculture design is that it is not a one-size-fits-all model. Maybe you see the value in a bit of lawn for the kids to play on, or perhaps you prefer ornamental flowers rather than raised beds. This kind of diversity of tastes, needs, values and preferences are all taken into account during the design process, which is vital to create a design that is appropriate for the space itself and all those involved.
And that is the challenge that I face as I try to create an adequate design for my community garden in the centre of Madrid.
As part of my Permaculture Design Certificate course, I have to create a land-based design based on a real place. Living in the city, I have no land or garden space of my own, but I do have the community garden not too far from my house.
Designing for the Community Garden
My community garden of choice is ¡Esta es Una Plaza! and it is as much a social hub as it is a garden. As I outlined previously, community and social transformation are key cornerstones of the garden’s philosophy. This means that in order to create an adequate design for the space, it is not just a case of me coming in and deciding that I want it this way or that way. Collaboration is integral to the project and my design needs to reflect that.
But with over 100 people who collaborate and volunteer in the space, this is quite an overwhelming task! How am I going to cater for all the needs of all of these people in my design? Am I going to try and speak to all of them to find out their likes and dislikes? And if so, how would I go about it?
I decided to simply throw out my net and see what I could catch.
The first step I took, after formally introducing myself and my permaculture project to the community in one of the monthly assemblies, was to create what is called a ‘stakeholder questionnaire’. This, as well as stakeholder interviews, is used to collect information about the needs, values and perspectives of those involved.
Considering the coronavirus restrictions and the freak snowstorm we experienced at the beginning of the year, closing the garden for a while, I opted to send out the questionnaire to the group email, along with a description of my project and what I was trying to do.
Over the space of a few months, I got a number of returned questionnaires. Whilst it was far less than 100, I was pleased to see that most were from the main group of volunteers, including some of the most long-standing members. Whilst not a perfect cross-section (for example, families- the most frequent users of the space- were under-represented), it did reveal some interesting patterns and also shed light on the root cause of some underlying conflicts that have plagued the collective for many years.
The Great Cactus Divide Revisited
As I described in my last post, the cactus garden has been a bone of contempt for some people for many years. Just like marmite, some people love it and others hate it. And the questionnaires revealed this rift more clearly.
For some people, the cactus garden is their main reason for visiting the garden and they very much enjoy spending time there. As one person wrote: “The cactus garden is very unique, easy to maintain, consumes little, and is very educational and attractive”.
Many would disagree with him, as the results later showed! Yet, I would have to say that from what I have seen so far, this person has a point. Often I see parents showing the cactuses to their children, or people taking a walk through the winding paths and stopping to admire the different variety of cactuses. There is no doubt that for many people who visit, the cactus garden is a real attraction.
However, those on the other side of the debate have other ideas. When asked what they would change about the space, one person diplomatically commented: “I don’t think that the cactus garden should grow any bigger”, whilst another said that if given the choice, they would put a garden for autonomous plants in place of the cactuses. For this group of people, the cactuses are too “gardened” and go against the principles of the space because they are not indigenous to the area (or Spain).
Interestingly, whilst it would appear that in general, the cactus garden is not very popular amongst some members of the community, it was the third most popular area of the garden when people were asked what their favourite area was. In first place was the vegetable garden, followed by the social spaces.
After hearing so many people in the community express their anti-cactus sentiment, I was surprised to see that for others it was their favourite area of the garden. Clearly, there is a lot of diversity of tastes and preferences, which I will have to take into account once I start on my design.
The other conflict of tastes is the wild garden area. When asked “what you would change about the community garden if you could, one person wrote: “The wild garden. I don’t think anyone understands it”, something which I have heard on more than one occasion from more than one person.
It seems that for some people, the wild garden looks like an unloved and abandoned area that gives a bad impression to visitors. Whilst admittedly it looks great in spring, full of wildflowers and greenery, come summer it becomes a brown and yellow patch of dead plants. However, for others, this space is a revindication of wild nature and they argue the importance of having an ‘ungardened’ area where they can connect to nature and her cycles.
As one person wrote: “For me, it is very important that there are spaces that have not been ‘domesticated’, and that we can observe their development without ‘dominating’ them.”
Another put: “I like wild and low maintenance gardens because of their sustainability and coherence with the project”.
Incongruences of Perspectives?
Indeed, many people shared the same perspective. When asked about their favourite style of a garden, ‘wild garden’ was the second most popular option after ‘vegetable gardens’, closely followed by ‘low maintenance gardens’ and ‘edible herb gardens’. ‘Cactus gardens’ came in last and ‘decorative gardens’ didn’t even get a look in! This seemed strange since, as I have already mentioned, many who completed the questionnaire said that the cactus garden was one of their main motives for visiting.
I also found this to be curious because whilst ‘wild gardens’ were one of the most popular styles of garden, the wild garden that we have currently have didn’t feature high on the list of ‘favourite areas’. Could this be a linguistic mistake on my part as the one who made the questionnaire or does this show an incongruence within the perspectives of the people that they themselves don’t even realise?
I wonder whether this incongruence could be because the wild garden area is by the entrance of the space, and consequently, people walk right past it without paying much attention to it. It isn’t a space that people use or interact with and maybe this accounts for this apparent contradiction. It is clear that people value the wild garden yet they don’t come to the garden with the sole intention of visiting it.
I should also mention that most of the people in favour of the wild garden are the ones that are critical of the cactus garden. They are also the people who have been involved in the project for a long time and participate regularly. In contrast, those who spoke highly of the cactus garden, in general, participated less and had been involved in La Plaza for less time.
Could this mean that these ‘newbies’ don’t have the original principles of La Plaza as clear as those who have been involved from the beginning? Considering that some of the staunchest cactus defenders were some of those directly involved in the conflict that I wrote about in my previous post, I feel like this could be the case.
Either way, it is clear that there is a wide gap between the needs, values and tastes of some people in the community and those of others.
As one person wisely said: “I am aware that it may be that the different group projects that exist are not always coherent because the diversity of different points of view doesn’t allow it”
The preference for low maintenance spaces perhaps is also reflective of the amount of time people are able/ willing to dedicate to the upkeep of the space. When asked how much time they would like to dedicate to it in the future, many people said “the same as now”, whilst others said “less than now”.
But how much time is that exactly?
This ranged from person to person, with one person putting in a massive 3-4 hours each day of physical work; for another, it was 7 hours a week, whilst some said 2 hours a week. Some people wrote as little as 1-2 hours a month or less.
It was interesting to note that those who tended to put in the most amount of hours, were our cactus friends that I wrote about in the last post, who had a strong work ethic but little time for theory and principles, much to the annoyance of everyone else.
Now I could understand their original complaints that “nobody works” and that everyone was “all talk and no action”. Maybe they had a point after all?
Yet there is another aspect of the work that often goes unaccounted for by those who are more inclined to do the physical, hands-on work: the bureaucratic side of maintaining a community garden.
This involves organising grants, attending to emails, coordinating with the council and other associations, organising meetings and assemblies, writing up the minutes of meetings, managing the petitions for events, maintaining the blog etc. No small task!
Yet for most people, the answer was the same: they dedicate ‘little or no” time to it.
Only a few people on the other hand do. Out of these few, one person said that they put in “11 hours a week”; another said “quite a lot”, someone else said, “every day I do a little but other times I do an enormous amount”.
And then there is the psychological and emotional type of work involved in this community garden. For example, one person said that they don’t contribute much to the upkeep of the space, but they do contribute a lot to the team spirit of the community.
Clearly, there is a lot more going on in this space than some people think. It was interesting to see that those people who were complaining about the little amount of hands-on work people do, said that they didn’t do any admin type work at all. So maybe there are more people working to maintain the space than initially meets the eye.
In fact, it would seem from the results of the questionnaire that people are either involved in the physical upkeep and maintenance, or the admin side, and that this can sometimes be a cause of friction and misunderstandings.
I wonder whether there is a way to bridge this gap and raise awareness of the different types of work that people do and if this would help improve relations between people.
We often enjoy the fruits of others peoples labour, without always appreciating the amount of effort that has gone into it, usually just because we are unaware. Is it possible to reverse this trend or is it just an inevitable part of human life, I wonder. Maybe I will find more answers as I continue with my permaculture studies.
Airing the Dirty Laundry
One of the final sections of the questionnaire dealt with the invisible structures in the garden and the relationships between the people involved. After so much previous conflict, this was an opportunity for everyone to voice their feelings and people didn’t hold back!
One common theme was people’s dislike of, what one person called “testosterone-filled conflict” and when people think they are the boss of the space. Another wrote they didn’t like the “territorialism, ego and hate” that they had often witnessed and peoples’ lack of ability to communicate with tact and diplomacy. Another common complaint was related to people disregarding the norms and principles of the garden and ignoring the decisions made by the collective.
When asked what they thought were some of the biggest problems facing the community garden, another problem surfaced: the lack of people involved in the project and the need to get more people participating. One person shared that the small group who are the real motor of the project are getting older and there isn’t anyone to replace them when their motivation begins to wane.
As one person wrote: “¡Esta es Una Plaza! has gone from being an alternative, experimental and self-governed public space to a place for leisure only, where there are less and less people involved its management”.
Indeed, this has been another observation over the last seven years since I first started to get involved in the project. In the beginning, it felt more alternative and many people were there every weekend helping out. However, when I returned after a few years of not being so involved, I was surprised to see that suddenly the public who visit the garden had changed.
Now there are many children and families that use the space daily, more young people who come to have a picnic with friends, and people who come to take their dog out for a walk. As the community garden has evolved into a more gardened space, it seems to have become more popular and well known as a place to hang out or take children to play. This is a great success for La Plaza, after all, why create a beautiful space if not for people to use?
The problem is though that most of the people who use the space don’t help or collaborate in any way. Some even leave rubbish behind, as if it was just another public park that is maintained by the council.
Luckily, this situation has improved with the lifting of the covid restrictions and more people have come down to get involved. Families have started to become more active and more parents have started coming to the monthly assemblies. We have also started a workgroup specifically to help raise awareness of the philosophy of the space and so far we have had some success. Maybe with time, we can reverse this trend, and ¡Esta es Una Plaza! can recover its original spirit.
The Community Garden of your Dreams
For the final question on the questionnaire, I was interested to know what peoples’ dream community garden would look like. What kinds of components or features would it have? What activities would be on offer? I asked people to dream big and not to hold back, even if it wouldn’t really be feasible. After all, it costs nothing to dream, right?
Letting their imaginations loose, people came up with all sorts of ideas: “A beehive”, wrote one person. “A pond with water plants”, said another. “I would love to have chickens!”, another commented. Other ideas included: “a place to lie down on the grass”, “a place reserved only for discussion and debate (a ‘charlódromo’), “more aromatic and medicinal herbs”, “a garden for autochthonous plants”, “less rectangular shaped raised beds”, “more hidden places areas to sit”, “more meeting places”.
People also commented on things they would like to have more of: “more workshops for shared learning”, “more workshops focusing on interpersonal relationships”, “more spirit of collaboration”, “more presence of the principles of the space”, “relationships that are distinct from those we are used to in society”, “more workshops for children”.
Some people, after being involved in the project for so long, said that they found it difficult to imagine it any different, whereas others said they like it just as it is.
It was inspiring to hear so many different ideas and see so much enthusiasm to co-create together. Who knows, maybe some ideas are possible to include in my final design! I will have to see how it unfolds as I do more observation.
Tea and Cake
As a final end to the ‘stakeholder questionnaire’ part of the design process and as a way to give back to the collective, I wrote up all the results in a document and sent it out on the group email for people to read. The response was great and I proposed that we have, what we called an ‘encuentro permacultural’, or ‘permaculture get-together’, where we could all come together and share our reflections about the results.
Of course, being British and in line with the multi-cultural ethos of the project, I invited people to tea and cake, because as we all know, everything is better and easier to talk about with tea and cake!
It was a great turn out and it was fantastic to be together and share food. It made me realise how necessary and healing it is for people to eat together. It is like a magic glue that draws people together and helps create bonds.
I made an effort to make the cake just before the get-together to make sure it was fresh, and luckily, it went down a treat! (vegan banana cake- I highly recommend it!). One person even exclaimed, “wow, it’s still warm!”.
Previous to this I had never hosted an event like this before and never made a cake for so many people, so it was heart-warming to hear that people liked it. It also made me think about the permaculture ethic ‘people care’. The details are important and in this case, having homemade food and tea for people seemed to make it even more special and everyone was very grateful.
During the get-together, people discussed their reasons for visiting the garden and shared their concerns. In the end, it became less about the results of the questionnaire and more about holding an open space for sharing, listening and enquiring. Different ideas came out of the discussion, such as experimenting with different ways to organise the assemblies and the need for better conflict resolution techniques.
As a final comment, one person who is also from a different country said how much she loved visiting the garden because it felt like a family to her. She appreciated always seeing a friendly face and feel a sense of community. It was a beautiful end to a productive session.
I held a second ‘permaculture get-together’ with cake and tea for those that couldn’t make it the first time around, with equal success. This time there were fewer people but this allowed for a more intimate feeling. One of the pioneers of the garden came along and it was interesting to hear more about how the garden has changed and evolved over the years from someone who had seen it all.
He agreed that the garden was in need of some change and explained how everything seems to move in different cycles. He said that first there was the construction phase, where everyone was involved in the building of space. Next game the ‘convivencía’ stage, the part where everyone had to learn to get along. He thought that now we are in the ‘rebuilding stage’, where we need to evolve and regenerate.
It was an interesting perspective; I wonder if this pattern could be extrapolated to describe society too. I’m not sure we have ever mastered the ‘convivencía’ stage but it seems to me that we are in a critical situation and the time is now to start rebuilding and reimagining the world we want to live in.
Need for Evolution
One thing that has come out of this investigation is that it is very clear that as beautiful as the community garden is, it is in need of a new lease of life. After a difficult period of quarantine, snowstorms and internal crisis, it’s now time for some regeneration and renewal.
As one person wrote: “For a long time the project has been stuck. It hasn’t changed, it hasn’t evolved, it hasn’t transformed; something which was one of the founding ideas of the project. A project like this should always be in movement, and never stale be socially or physically. We need something new and innovative, which is why your permaculture project has come just at the right moment”.
Whilst I am not sure if my project is the thing that this going to make a difference, what I have seen is that my permaculture investigations have definitely created some movement and allowed some of that stuck energy to circulate a bit more.
It’s interesting how one small urban garden can involve so many dynamics and complexities. It also gives us all the opportunity to evolve and grow together. This observation process has certainly given me a lot of food for thought and taken me far out of my comfort zone.
I was very uncomfortable putting myself and my project out there in the beginning. I was nervous about host the permaculture get-together and was crossing my fingers that people would come. I almost even cancelled the second one, thinking that maybe no one would! Yet, in the end, it was great and the people that came really enjoyed it.
If I hadn’t stepped up to the plate and put myself out there then not only would I have missed out on a great opportunity to do something new, but other people would have also been denied the chance to participate. I was also very touched that so many of the community came out to support me; some brought tea, others brought cups, another took notes for me and others helped organise places for everyone to sit.
It just goes to show that when in doubt whether to take that next step or not, it always pays to give it a try. Maybe it will be beyond what you ever expected!
And if not, at least you can say you tried, right?
It is in this spirit that I continue on this journey. Fulfilling my dream of living close to the earth in permaculture paradise is going to take courage, but it would hardly be a journey worth taking if it didn’t, would it? The interest is in the challenge and the joy is in the adventure.
You only live once after all, don’t you?
Let’s not put off those next steps any longer and go in the direction of our dreams, co-creating a more beautiful world as we go.