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December 19, 2012

Guerrillas under attack

The idea of guerrilla gardeners secretly tending patches of previously uncared for land, often under the cover of darkness, seems like the sort of public spirited, selfless acts that we need more of.  Not apparently, if you’re the Council officer in charge of parks and public planting. For five weeks a group of locals had lovingly nurtured a small area on the banks of the Union Canal.  The Council had previously zoned the area for wild flowers. No prizes for guessing what happened next.


Just three weeks ago, a community looked on in horror as a garden they had collectively built from scratch was destroyed without warning.
The ‘guerrilla garden’, which had popped up on the banks of the Union Canal, was nurtured over a five-week period by friends, acquaintances and strangers.
But their project was cut short by the City of Edinburgh Council, who said the disused spot of land in Shandon had been slated for wildflowers and a bench.
Now a similar project based in the nearby Fountainbridge area aims to appropriate empty space to engage community members, build local relationships and, of course, create a garden.
But in a bid to avoid a similar fate to that of their neighbours, founders of ‘The Grove’ have come up with a novel solution.
“We realised that the garden needs to be mobile, an idea we really struggled with in the beginning,” said Susanne Müeller, a member of The Grove’s four-person steering group.
“We know how community gardening works but we haven’t seen people mobilise their garden.
“We came up with the idea that the whole garden could live on palettes – the idea of moving something on palettes has been quite well researched so we thought it can’t be that hard.
“It could be quite a unique thing and I think that could be an asset to have something that is that niche. You can always find someone who can borrow a forklift to move it and this way the garden’s not at risk.”
Over recent years Fountainbridge has been characterised by gaping building sites and construction work taking place in the area, namely caused by the demolition of the Scottish and Newcastle brewery.
Part of the former Scottish and Newcastle site at Fountainbridge.
Two years ago, the Fountainbridge Canalside Initiative (FCI) was established to ensure that a viable and sustainable community-focused solution was developed in the area.
Now The Grove’s steering group, in association with FCI, are bidding to transform just a tiny corner of the plot, adding to work already carried out to improve the area.
The proposed area, located next to the 600-home Springside initiative which has been built on part of the Scottish and Newcastle site, would be available to community gardeners until developers Grosvenor decided to use the plot, at which point they would transport the garden to another place.
“Together with the FCI we identified the open land and started talking to Grosvenor, who said they would be happy to use as a meantime development,” said Susanne.
“I don’t think the community feels a negative impact from Grosvenor’s work, but the fact that it doesn’t have any impact isn’t good either. Sometimes people are confused by seeing a lot of open land; you can’t make anything with it.
“We want to turn the area into something the community can embrace.”
Unlike Shandon’s Trees Not Trash, which was based on a neighbourhood beautification scheme run in Brooklyn in New York and was created without permission from the council, The Grove will be made in partnership with Grosvenor.
The Grove’s steering committee say the property group, which is responsible for the 140,000 sq ft development, has already promised to provide the ground works and fencing required, as well as supporting the purchase of planting, storage, security and shelter.
“Obviously we are speaking to the developers, we couldn’t work with them without getting the right permission,” added Susanne.
“But I live in Harrison Park and I saw the impact of the guerrilla garden. It was like a magnet for kids, they would come over from the playground and just sit there and get involved – you don’t normally see that.”
Now Susanne, a social scientist who moved here from Germany three years ago and works for a renewable energy company, will join with the steering group to collect ideas from the community in a special meeting on December 10.
The event is aimed to shape the future of the garden, what it would include, and the way in which it would be used.
“I’ve always been interested in bringing communities together and seeing through sustainable practicing,” added Susanne.
“I realised this could be amazing, there’s nothing like this in the area. We said we want to make sure it’s inclusive and also to make sure the surrounding community is kept informed about what’s actually happening on the site. At least this is one development that they can actually engage with.
“People are extremely interested but we really want them to decide what they actually think. The most important thing now is to get the community to sit in the meeting to see if it still resonates – the most important thing is to meet the people.”
Pat Bowie, chair of the FCI, is also on The Grove’s steering group, and thinks that the initiative could be developed elsewhere in the city.
“We’re hoping it will be a great development in Edinburgh. Grosvenor is putting money into it as well, so it’s nice to actually have them on side,” she said.
“We want to be the body that keeps the links of communication between what’s going to be on that site and our community, so we can keep people up to date and they can have a say.
“I think there is a genuine willingness to work together on this, hopefully we got together at the right time.”
Robin Blacklock, from Grosvenor, who has been working with members of the public on proposals for a mobile garden, added: “It’s an exciting opportunity that we are investigating and we hope to be able to do something. We’re encouraged by the support the community have for it and we’re hoping to facilitate it in due course.”