Some of you may not be aware that hidden away behind a fence along Shaw’s Passage, at the back of The Warehouse, Digbeth has a Community Garden! Some of our older readers may remember there used to be a large, derelict Victorian warehouse on the site, which was finally pulled down due to health and safety fears in the 1980s. The area was then fenced off and forgotten about by Birmingham City Council. Over time the disused industrial site became overgrown and strewn with litter.
It would have stayed this way had it not been for the efforts of a small band of volunteers in 1998, who decided to tidy the site up and hold a party there to celebrate the 21st anniversary of Birmingham Friends of the Earth. Access was granted by the Council on the back of a gentleman’s agreement and Birmingham Friends of the Earth has used the space ever since.
It has been used as a composting area for both the kitchen and the Warehouse Café, a bike storage area for users of the building, a popular nesting site for birds in the heart of the city centre and a social space. However, following a chat in the pub last year between campaigners, it was agreed that the site had the potential to be so much more. We became inspired by the dream of creating a true Community Garden in the heart of the concrete jungle. A space for local people to grow food, to learn about sustainable crafts and skills, to socialise and to commune with nature: Digbeth Community Garden was born!
A small band of willing volunteers began organising regular Saturday work days to make the dream a reality. The first job was the major task of tackling the overgrown vegetation – we estimated that the site was at this point 50% buddleia, which was blocking light and crowding out other plants and pathways. However it was decided early on to leave a substantial amount of area to nature, buddleia and all. In the middle of the garden there was a stand of self-set silver birch, (which are perhaps 15 years old), whitebeam, hazel, hawthorn and cherry laurel, which provides a rich habitat for invertebrates, not to mention some of the largest spiders you would ever wish to find in the British Isles!
The group was keen to start growing some fruit and veg, with a desire for the garden to follow the principles of the Permaculture movement. Permaculture, a name combing agriculture and permanent, is based on the belief that complimentary plant assemblies, working with nature to cycle nutrients and rainwater can produce food in a sustainable and non-polluting way. However, we soon discovered we had a problem – the site as disused industrial land was already polluted with traces of lead, arsenic, copper and zinc!
Nobody wants arsenic in their spuds or a hint of lead in their parsnips so we decided to make use of some of the pallets lying around and create some raised beds for growing food. We were able to source some top soil for free and thus the contamination challenge became a design feature!
Proper paths were made using donated slabs and gravel while a patio for the social area was constructed out of the huge pile of bricks recovered from the original Victorian warehouse. Eco-Urbanism is about making cities more sustainable, almost all of the materials used in the garden are salvaged or recycled.
In May 2014 volunteers were beginning work on the pond and wetland area, ready for the official opening as a community garden in the summer, when we received a bombshell. We were notified by a local resident that Birmingham City Council were preparing to put the land up for sale and planning permission was being drawn up to build a car park.
Our first thought was, just what Digbeth needs; more car parks! Our second thought was disbelief and shock. The project has brought people together and forged new friendships; it’s introduced people to Friends of the Earth who would perhaps not relish Monday night meetings but love getting involved in practical hands-on projects; it’s providing much needed green lungs in the city centre; it will also help relieve the Urban Heat island effect in the years to come. Most importantly it promises to be an inspirational community space.
We cannot allow the Council to rob Birmingham of this Community Asset. It would be ironic in the year that Birmingham has been awarded the title of the UK’s first Biophilic1 City if the Council forcibly evicted the only community garden in the heart of the city. A Biophilic City is defined as “cities that contain abundant nature; they are cities that care about, seek to protect, restore and grow this nature, and that strive to foster deep connections and daily contact with the natural world. Nature is not something optional, but absolutely essential to living a happy, healthy and meaningful life; these cities put nature at the heart of their decision making.”
Birmingham Friends of the Earth is calling on all of our friends and supporters to help get behind us in fighting off this threat. Perhaps you would consider writing to Sir Albert Bore, (the Leader of the Council) or Councillor Lisa Tricket, (Cabinet Member for Green, Smart and Sustainable City) or to the local paper to voice your objection. You would be most welcome to come along to help out at one of our work days or open days. We are also planning a big party in July so keep your eye on our website, Facebook and Twitter pages for more information.
This situation perfectly illustrates where our society is going wrong; putting profits before planet, cars before trees, greed before community. This is our chance to stand up for our values and be the change that we want to see in the world.
1) To suggest an instinctive bond between humans and other living systems.