Gaia’s Garden: What a Central London Community Garden can Tell us About Activism and Reclaiming the City

Marcus Clay explores how Gaia’s Garden reflects a wider movement reclaiming public space for community engagement. Have we arrived at a turning point for post-lockdown activism?

WORDS Marcus Clay

PHOTOGRAPHY Ed Peacock

Activism and community engagement comes in many forms – on the day that I visited Gaia’s Garden, I witnessed a rare, coincidental coming together of distinct actions to achieve environmental justice. Nestled amongst the concrete and steel facades of the towering offices of Holborn Viaduct in Central London, the community built-and-run Garden offered a platform for celebrations of sustainability and environmental action. Makeshift wooden walls sheltered a stage and a smattering of wooden benches amongst an ethereal meadow of planters, streaming banners, and artworks. On the stage, Joycelyn Longdon of Climate in Colour, an online platform for climate education that rose to prominence on Instagram in 2020, led its first in-person event: a lunch and workshop exploring how to find community in the climate crisis, and the internal learning and reflection that needs to take place to dismantle the structures that are at the root of its causes.

Spilling over the walls – in contrast to the intimate gathering within – the clamouring, rancorous chants of an Animal Rebellion protest saw an outpouring of anger, hope, and desperation melded in a raging tide of outraged bodies. It was a very different physical manifestation of the desire for change. Nourishing discussions in community spaces and direct action on the streets; work undertaken on the self, and work undertaken out in the world; an online platform making its first debut in a physical space  –  the many faces of environmental action both tangible and intangible turned to look at one another, each distinct yet sharing the same body. The illusion of a fractured movement was, if only momentarily, shattered to pieces. After a year where many forms of community organising, engagement, and activism had been forced to move online, this colliding of actions-on-the-ground seemed draped in symbolism: now more than ever there is a clamouring for change, and physical spaces must play a front-and-centre role in making that happen.

After a year where many forms of community organising, engagement, and activism had been forced to move online, this colliding of actions-on-the-ground seemed draped in symbolism: now more than ever there is a clamouring for change, and physical spaces must play a front-and-centre role in making that happen.

In this context, the timing of Gaia’s Garden was not coincidental. The vision for the space was clear – changing society to achieve a more sustainable way of living is an ambition that is of existential importance to everybody, yet, as a movement, environmentalism has been deeply exclusionary. The project was conceptualised by a  multidisciplinary group of five female creatives, who had grown frustrated by the lack of inclusivity in the environmental and sustainability movements: Ramiza Jawara, Tina Wetshi, Eleanor Grace Hann, Ananya Panwar, and Andrea Siso. As the name suggests, Gaia’s Garden was underpinned by a radical conceptualisation of sustainability in celebration of the concept of ‘Gaia’, the Earth goddess, and centred events that encouraged personal learning and reflection on our anxieties, hopes, and actions that can contribute to change in wider society – and do so in a space that celebrates a diversity of voices. 200 volunteers from youth movements, community centres, and student groups came together to construct the temporary space on a site cleared for development into flats – a brief respite from London’s relentless cycle of construction and deconstruction for profit.

The Garden was in itself a community space open and freely accessible to all. A small sandwich board invited passers-by inside – offering a place to sit, eat, commune, and simply exist. While intrinsically valuable to the public good in itself, it was the series of events hosted at the Garden that saw it transformed into a site of community engagement. Over the span of a month between August and September, Gaia’s Garden was host to dance workshops from Boy Blue; open seminars on subjects ranging from sustainable fashion hosted by Kaan Amjad, to art and sensuality from Jahnavi Sharma; workshops were held on screen printing, oat-milk making, and fruit soda brewing; mediative sessions were held focussing on restorative breathing. While the activities provided structure and focus, it was the conversations that were encouraged and facilitated to take place between participants where the transformative work took place – where connections were built for future engagement and action.

Climate in Colour’s event was an example of how the Garden enabled community building. The premise was simple: an allotment lunch around which conversations would be prompted about topics on the climate crisis: from what makes us anxious about the climate crisis, to whether or not humans should settle on other planets. The meal, prepared by Tallawah Ali, was a beautiful and nourishing demonstration of putting sustainable and just agricultural work into practice. I was struck by the generosity with which perspectives were shared and listened to. After the lunch, everybody came together to share the conversations that they had – people from all walks of life, of all ages and backgrounds, bonded over their shared experiences, and offering empathy and sympathy where it was needed. Most entered the Garden as strangers, but all left with a sense of connection. 

Returning to the pervasive symbolism of the day, it seems fitting that Climate in Colour’s first in-person event should have taken place in the Garden. Discussions about online activism and direct action in the form of demonstrations often focus on their impact on the external world. Platforms such as Climate in Colour are lauded for their capacity to instantaneously reach an audience at scale – yet, what is often lost in these discussions is that this mass outreach is atomised and individualistic. In an instant, a person can be plugged into a dizzying array of discussions, podcasts, reading lists, infographics, and online panels, but a post shared to a story or a comment left under a post is often the extent of communal engagement that social media platforms provide. Social media offers a platform for mass engagement, but for the individual that engagement is restricted by design to be isolated. Highlighting why community spaces are so important, the Garden provided a space wherein that individualistic engagement could be transformed into a collective engagement, a communal exchanging of reflections, perspectives, and connections, free from the expectation of turning a profit or maximising online engagement metrics.

So why now, of all times, is there now such a tangible pivot towards creating new community spaces in our cities? Such spaces that facilitate radical discussions focussing on the environment and the self are not new, but the desire for a space like the Garden to come now is a reflection of wider movements to reclaim public space in our cities. Community spaces have been under attack for decades, from the relentless erosion of public housing, to the subtle capturing and enclosing of public spaces in cities. While resistance to these forces has been present for decades, it’s been catalysed by the pandemic. During the national lockdown, concepts such as mutual aid were brought to the forefront of public consciousness, with mutual aid groups becoming commonplace across the country. At the same time, popular engagement with Black Lives Matter, Kill The Bill, rallies following Sarah Everard’s murder by a police officer represent a pivotal turn towards a wider, mass engagement with issues of social justice. The reclamation of public space, for the longest time a fringe issue in the context of UK activism, has also been swept up in this wave: Nijjormanush’s campaign to save the Truman Brewery from development, Sister Midnight’s drive to buy a pub and convert into a community music venue, and Tonic Housing’s radical community-led model for the delivery of housing for older LGBTQIA+ people are all clear examples of efforts to reclaim a right to the public realm that has for so long been eroded. It seems inevitable that such efforts should intersect with activism in the climate crisis. As well as building a space for marginalised voices supporting sustainability, the Garden contributed to the tide of community resistance against the capturing of our cities by capital interests.

We are experiencing a watershed moment, not only in terms of the reclaiming of public space for community engagement, but in the recognition that collective change must be built from collective engagement.

Gaia’s Garden is just one example of the carving out of new spaces to platform such engagement. We are experiencing a watershed moment, not only in terms of the reclaiming of public space for community engagement, but in the recognition that collective change must be built from collective engagement. My experience at Gaia’s Garden left me feeling hopeful for the future, not only of the climate but of community activism more broadly. Community building has not only survived a cataclysmic loss of physical spaces, but has returned with a drive and ambition the likes of which I have not seen before in my lifetime.

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