It may appear untimely to be writing about the importance of urban green space at a time when we are all forced to stay indoors, but over the past couple of weeks we have all begun to see the true value of outdoor green space. Having a garden, a park or nature reserve nearby, where we can get fresh air and enjoy our one daily allowance of exercise, is unprecedentedly important for our physical and mental health. This is especially so in urban deprived areas, where access to green space can be limited. I want to discuss the importance of urban green space and community growing spaces for people seeking asylum and with refugee status.
In the summer of 2017 I carried out 15 weeks of ethnographic fieldwork in an urban allotment provided by a charity that supports refugee and asylum seekers in the North West. I engaged in the same activities as the allotment gardeners, from planting seedlings inside the greenhouse to watering crops and harvesting fruit and vegetables. I was particularly interested in understanding participants’ embodied and sensory experiences in the allotment and would have informal conversations with participants as we gardened. I also carried out a number of supplementary interviews. Findings from my time spent in the allotment found different ways the allotment improved the wellbeing of the allotment tenders for a number of reasons that all related to sensory and embodied experiences.
Embodied social interaction
“I don’t always like to talk. I can just do my watering, but it doesn’t matter if I’m not talking to anyone. Just being here with everyone means that I am not alone.” (Aster)
Experiencing social isolation and loneliness is common in people seeking asylum and being in the allotment with others helped to alleviate these feelings. Interestingly the allotment appeared to tackle feelings of loneliness, and therefore improve wellbeing, without the need for verbal interaction but through the proximity and presence of others whilst engaging with their environment. Another participant, Solomon, said: “We just need to be doing our jobs. We don’t always have to be chatting. You know, that’s why people like it here. They can just get on.”
It was clear that the physical presence of others was enough to create a sense of togetherness and therefore tackle social isolation and loneliness without the need for social interaction.
Embodied physical activity
“I don’t have to think about my problems. I am distracted because I am working. I like to keep active.” (Fred)
Allotment tenders would consistently tell me that the allotment was a place to keep active and busy. People seeking asylum are not permitted to work while they wait for the outcome of their claim, and unemployment rates are high in refugees for a number of reasons including language barriers. Therefore working in the allotment was a way to be active that improved physical wellbeing, but participants also pointed to the way that physical activity also had the potential to improve their mental wellbeing. The physical act of gardening momentarily distracted the mind from internal stress and participants were able to think about the task at hand.
Many people seeking asylum come from a background in subsistence living so the allotment was a place to engage in familiar and enjoyable activities. However, participants would often tell me that the produce here in the UK differed from the produce in Africa and this was often related to sensory experiences.
“Basil smells so much stronger in Africa than in the UK. My family used to grow it,” said Solomon.
Allotment tenders would all join in with reminiscing and being nostalgic for former ways of life and this conversation was often sparked by having a sensory experience with a crop. Nostalgia and collective memory can assist in creating a healthy continuity between past and present selves and can give people confidence to explore new surroundings.
A metaphor to nurture the self
“You know that the plants need water to survive just as much as we do.” (Fred)
Throughout my time in the allotment participants would humanise the plants. Nurturing a plant from seed to bearing fruit can act as a metaphor for nurturing oneself. The nurturing of plants and the participants was also extended to nurturing of others – the allotment was a place of mutual understanding and care. Furthermore, participants would discuss how seeing crops sprout and grow tall symbolised regrowth and this gave them hope for their own futures.
This research demonstrated a range of unique ways that an allotment project had the potential to improve the wellbeing of people seeking asylum through their sensory and embodied engagement with the natural environment and with each other. People seeking asylum in the UK experience a range of daily struggles and often mental health issues, therefore having access to an allotment that has the ability to improve wellbeing is extremely important. Allotments are currently protected by statutory law and councils must provide allotment plots for communities. However, waiting lists for a plot can in some areas be over 40 years. And there is a cost associated with an allotment, which reduces the accessibility for many marginalised groups. So I ask: why don’t we just have more open community growing spaces? And Why don’t we just ensure that it is a requirement for local councils to provide such spaces.
Under Covid-19 guidelines people can still spend time on an allotment as a form of exercise, with members of the same household, if they behave responsibly to maintain social distancing. If we were to have more access to open community growing spaces, these spaces would have the potential to be extremely beneficial for the mental and physical wellbeing of people seeking asylum, and other members of the local community, in unprecedented times of need.
Jo Biglin is a researcher in social sciences at Manchester University