Interactive Activity: Notes from our ‘Parks to Farms’ webinar

Spitalfields City Farm in Tower Hamlets, London, UK

As Doug Saunders notes in Arrival City, successful arrival cities are always making room for “the other”. Inclusion and a sense of belonging are key underpinnings to immigrant success in the city, where connections into a new community reveal economic opportunities and social supports.

Our recent webinar, presented by Cities of Migration and the Centre for City Ecology as a special interactive element of the City Builder Book Club, explored how two arrival city neighbourhoods are fostering such a sense of belonging and building community, to ultimately enhance the quality of life for new immigrants. “Parks to Farms: Urban Migration and Community Development in Tower Hamlets and Thorncliffe Park”, brought together over 80 participants from across the globe for a dialogue about how community-led initiatives can reduce barriers to participation in arrival city neighbourhoods. (Full webinar recording available here).

The speakers represented two unique yet complementary cases: that of Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee in Toronto, Canada and the Spitalfields City Farm in Tower Hamlets, London. Both initiatives are using public space as a focal point for community-building, responding to the unique makeup, needs, and aspirations of their own neighbourhoods.

Sabina Ali, Chair of the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee shared her experience in convening and developing a women-led initiative to transform a public park in the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood of Toronto. Thorncliffe Park is a diverse, densely populated neighbourhood of 30,000 residents, who live mostly in high- and low-rise apartments in a mere 2.2km area. 68% of the population is represented by immigrants, many recent arrivals, and 37% of families are considered low-income.

Sabina and her colleagues gathered together around a simple but powerful vision: to transform and animate the public space in the heart of Thorncliffe Park as a place in which to build community. They began by inviting children in the surrounding apartments to use the park as their playground, introducing new programming over time. Arts workshops, parks cleanups, and ravine walks were introduced to create an initial sense of belonging and ownership over the park.

The group developed a regular market program that provided a platform for immigrant women to sell their food and crafts and connect with their fellow community-members. Over time, the market has developed into a powerful springboard for locally-run small food businesses, and a vendor incubator program has helped some businesses to expand to other markets in the city. The Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee successfully advocated to have an outdoor tandoor oven installed in their local park, the first of its kind in North America. The success of these community-led initiatives in Thorncliffe Park demonstrate the power of food as a tool for economic and community development.

Sabina believes that much of the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee’s success in activating and improving their local park has been the product of strong partnerships with the City of Toronto and other Toronto-based community organizations. These partnerships helped to position the activity in Thorncliffe Park as part of a broader move towards strong, sustainable urban parks as centres of community and culture. The sense of belonging fostered by the programming in the park inspire residents to passionately give back to their community, in a cycle of betterment.

From Tower Hamlets, Mhairi Weir shared her experience as Manager of Spitalfields City Farm. Tower Hamlets is one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in London and a place of stark inequality. To address these issues, Spitalfields City Farm was a established as a community farm in which skills, knowledge, and food were shared amongst local residents, fostering community well-being in the neighbourhood.

From its original intent to maintain green space and create a series of farm allotments, Spitalfields City Farm has grown and changed along with the surrounding community. The Coriander Club began as a program to grow Bengali vegetables at Spitalfields City Farm and grew into an extensive project to connect residents to one another, provide opportunities to learn about and grow vegetables, and to demonstrate the possibilities of sustainable inner city living. The program has a strong community focus and is responsive to changing needs within the community. But at its core, it provides a safe space to experience community, grow food, and share produce.

As in Thorncliffe Park, Spitalfields City Farms uses the power of food to bring diverse populations to the table. Volunteer feasts invite different cultural groups to showcase the produce and recipes traditional to their homelands, building a sense of togetherness around food. According to Mhairi, the ingredients for success at Spitalfields City Farm include “deep fried friendliness” and “willingness soup”. She is reminded to “amend the menu daily if it gets stale”, referring to the need to be responsive to changing needs and desires within the community.

Both of these examples point to the power of sharing to foster a sense of belonging and community. In both Thorncliffe Park and Spitalfields City Farm, the simple act of occupying public space together, growing and sharing food, and developing a shared sense of responsibility for a place is helping immigrant populations to embed themselves into their community and their new country. The connections developed in these shared spaces – whether in a park or an urban farm – help residents to feel more deeply connected to and supported by their neighbourhoods, and can even lead to economic opportunity.

As we continue to read Arrival City together in the coming weeks, it would be interesting to look for other examples like these where the simple act of sharing makes a profound impact on the sense of community in an arrival city neighbourhood. Are there similar instances where public space is being used intentionally as an equalizing site to empower community members? Or where food is being used as a tool to bring together residents from diverse cultural backgrounds to develop a shared sense of place? We hope you’ll share your stories and insights with us.

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