Lambeth, in South London, is a highly built up, inner-city borough, where buildings jostle for space with roads, bridges and railway lines. It is also an area of high inequality, where some residents enjoy private gardens and leafy park views, and others live in high rises and concrete estates.
On the surface, it is not an easy place to establish green space, despite the many people who would stand to benefit from it. But Ed Rosen was not deterred. In 2013, in partnership with healthcare professionals, he established the Lambeth GP Food Co-op, which is now a network of eight sites across the borough that offer welcoming, thriving, food growing spaces to support those with long-term health conditions. These include raised beds in an alleyway at the back of a GP surgery; a wheelchair accessible garden for inpatients recovering from brain injuries and strokes; a large allotment on a disused plot at King’s College Hospital; and a large garden behind a vegetarian restaurant, which is shared with local refugees and asylum seekers.
Some patients are referred to gardening sessions by their GPs, others have been ‘recruited’ during diabetes clinics or via text messages from their surgeries. The inpatients at the Pulross Centre are taken into the garden on warm days by their occupational therapists. Each service user has varied needs, but the welcoming space and raised beds at each site ensure that those living with arthritis, depression, anxiety, diabetes and more can all contribute to and benefit from these spaces in equal measure. Those who have been discharged after hospital stays are invited back to help in the gardens, and when activities were paused during the Covid-19 lockdown, a buddy system was set up. Patients received regular phone calls and were sent seed packets and tools to ensure they could continue to grow food at home and did not feel abandoned.
The cooperative model does not just extend to the GPs; everyone who participates in the gardens has a say in how they are run including when the sessions pause over winter, what to grow, and a chance to share their existing gardening knowledge with others. The outdoor exercise and option to socialise – with a purpose – has brought clear results; anecdotally, patients report needing less pain medication after gardening sessions, and feeling much calmer. GP Raj Mitra, one of the co-op’s founding members at the Lambeth Walk GP Surgery, says, “the patients who come to the gardening group – we don’t see them in the surgery.” These tiny green spaces, tucked into alleyways and forgotten corners in Lambeth, have had a truly oversized impact.