Latest news on the CLEVER Cities project
8 April 2020
Thamesmead – the future ‘Garden of London’
8 April 2020
Interview with Kat Wojnar, Gardener in Residence, CLEVER Cities London
CLEVER Cities is all about harnessing the potential of local communities to bring nature back into urban spaces and our everyday lives. But how are the front-runner cities making this happen on the ground? In London, CLEVER Cities partners, the Greater London Authority, Peabody and Groundwork London, have hired Gardener in Residence, Kat Wojnar, to help create and maintain high-quality green spaces for the locals of Thamesmead to enjoy. Kat told us about her new role, and as it turns out, she does a lot more than just gardening.
What does your role involve?
Apart from ‘green-keeping’ in the traditional sense, I also work with Thamesmead’s residents to create opportunities so they can get involved in all aspects of horticulture: From gardening, growing and sharing food to composting, protecting wild habitats and supporting wildlife. I support families and community groups of all ages to work together and give them hands-on gardening experiences. By engaging people in creative workshops, harvest celebrations and increasing knowledge of food production, the aim is to create a greater sense of wellbeing, confidence and pride for individuals, as well as the whole community.
What does an average day look like for you?
There’s no average day in this role. Some days I have drop-in sessions with residents, on others I’m in the office planning future activities or spending the day planting and gardening either on my own or with Peabody’s Ground Maintenance teams.
How do you get locals involved?
I encourage residents to attend gardening drop-in sessions and to sign up for the Nature Forum newsletter. The drop-in sessions are advertised with posters and on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram), as well on our website: www.thamesmeadnow.org.uk. We have also started getting in touch with local schools to develop projects together.
Good old word-of-mouth still works miracles - I take any opportunity I can to chat with residents when I’m out and about in Thamesmead. That’s how one resident, Richard, became my ‘gardening champion’! He is always happy to help with all gardening activities and gladly passes on information to other residents.
What types of people do you work with?
All sorts. In Thamesmead my time is split between working with Peabody’s Landscape Activation team, the Estate Services team and residents. For example, I’m supporting a community gardens project by holding drop-in sessions and helping them with propagating seeds and other ad hoc gardening activities.
We’re currently working on putting together different types of gardening kits for residents. The kits will have gardening tools, seeds and soil. So regardless of their garden experience, they will have the right tools to help them grow something - be it on their window sill, balcony or allotment space. When we donate the kits to residents, we hope to connect with them so they can tell us about what’s growing well, the condition of the soil, how much produce they are getting from the plants, as well as the friendships they have made with other residents.
One fantastic group I work with - composed of mainly African women - sew together and cook for community events. They also want to do gardening and used to rent a plot in a different part of Thamesmead quite far away. We’re working with them to build a little garden which is closer to where they meet so they can get to the garden more regularly.
What plants do you work with?
A whole range. From food, ornamental and medicinal plants to those supporting pollinators – people have so many diverse interests and want to support so many different aspects of biodiversity! I particularly encourage ‘companion planting’ – putting certain plants next to other because they grow well together. For example, tomatoes, chives and basil often flourish when planted next to each other, while cabbages and tomatoes have the opposite effect so it’s best to avoid that combination. I also like to work with themes - like pizza toppings or pasta sauce ingredients – this especially motivates children.
With the women’s group, we used herbs and essential oils for making candles while discussing ideas of making soap and ointments too. The ladies loved it.
How has the response been so far from residents?
Mostly very positive. When parents see their children enjoying school holiday activities, they ask how they can get involved themselves. Many residents have great ideas about how to green up their spaces, grow food and get others involved.
What have you learned about Thamesmead since taking on this role?
Thamesmead is incredible – it has so much blue and green space! Through my countless talks with residents on local history, in particular with the ‘first generation’- the first inhabitants of Thamesmead from the 1960s - I learned that they were very proud of living there; it was a fantastic community. But I’ve also heard the stories about the 1980s and 1990s, which were turbulent times for this community. Yet despite all of the social challenges from that time and more recently, there are many wonderful people here, who love the place they live in! Together, we want to work with local residents so they can enjoy and continue to be proud of Thamesmead.
I can heartily recommend “Town of Tomorrow. 50 years of Thamesmead” as background reading.
What challenges are you facing?
The biggest challenges are the sheer size of Thamesmead and engaging with young people. I have two teenagers myself - both know a lot about permaculture and growing plants. I would personally really like to give back to the teenagers of the area through this project. I know it will be a slow process, but I can offer something interesting to the young people of Thamesmead.
Another challenge at the moment is Coronavirus. To help reduce the spread of Coronavirus, we are continuing to follow government advice and have cancelled events such as our Nature Forums and drop-in gardening sessions. It’s a shame because we have so many people who are interested in taking part but we’re using this as an opportunity to think creatively about how we can still engage with people at home through social media.
We’re also using this time to plan ahead and we hope to reschedule many of our gardening activities and events when we can. I am also looking forward to the time when I can work with the 80 volunteers that have signed up from among Peabody’s staff (one of London’s oldest housing associations) to help with my gardening projects.
What is your vision for the future of Thamesmead?
I see a future where Thamesmead is known as the ‘Garden of London’- a kind of horticultural hub for all Londoners - where people can come to improve their gardening skills, participate in nature-based events and workshops, and enjoy local produce, art and cuisine. Thamesmead is a huge educational resource.
I would also like to see the utopian idea that the original designers had planned. They envisioned ‘palaces in the gardens’ or ‘towers in the forests’. It is not just about seeing green spaces come into bloom, but also about building an environment that encourages a creative approach to local produce as well as being a haven for wildlife - harmoniously coexisting with the community.
Images: Kat Wojnar Gardener in Residence/ Nicola Murphy-Evans; Volunteers/Kat Wojnar; Thamesmead/Nicola Murphy-Evans