“We’ve always wanted a giant cheque!” says Hannah Garcia. And cheques don’t come much bigger than the £460,808 of Lottery funds awarded to Green Squirrel, the Cardiff-based environmental organisation she founded with Becca Clark. Ben Woolhead spoke to Hannah to find out more about the project.
How did Green Squirrel and the Railway Gardens project come about?
Hannah Garcia: Becca and I met in 2012 during a chance encounter involving a cake. We discovered that we lived around the corner from each other and that we shared a similar vision of a green, connected Cardiff so we began working together, developing projects to help people engage with environmental issues and take practical action in their lives and communities. We now work together full time on Green Squirrel.
The Railway Gardens project was born back in 2015, when Green Squirrel and the Edible Adamsdown community growing group were working together to relaunch a small growing space on Moira Terrace in Adamsdown. The group did brilliantly, attracting new members and quickly outgrowing their tiny garden and they began, with help from Green Squirrel, to hunt for a larger space with room for training and growing plenty of food. We spotted an overgrown and disused space behind Railway Street, alongside the train line, and started to investigate. We wanted to know who owned it – and could we use it?
When you consulted with local residents, were you sharing and seeking feedback on pre-existing plans, or was the aim more to solicit suggestions and make plans on that basis?
Consultation started in 2018, and our jumping-off point was the ideas of the Edible Adamsdown group: space to grow food, training space, maybe some community chickens or bees. However, we were really keen not just to get feedback on these initial ideas but to see the space as a blank canvas – it’s pretty big and there’s potential to do a lot with it.
We began by holding events around Splott and Adamsdown and inviting people to respond online – basically, we wanted to know what they love about their area, what could be better and how this patch of land could be used. The results were so inspiring – people were thinking big, and they were thinking about how this space could connect up different groups of people, make the area more economically resilient and make life better for all residents. Sadly some ideas couldn’t be pursued, such as a community cow, but a great many of them could.
A recurring theme was the need for some shared, community-led indoor space, so a second period of consultation focused on how this hub could look, how it should be run and how everyone would like to use it. We began working with architects to turn this incredible explosion of ideas into a plan – and at the same time we started looking for funding to make it all happen.
During this process, we were thrilled when Cardiff Council said we could probably use the land, then gutted when six months later they changed their minds, deciding to sell the site off for development. We decided to do a community ‘temperature check’ to find out if there was an appetite to try to get this decision changed – there definitely was! We quickly gathered over 3,500 signatures on a petition and some news coverage, which led to some meetings with Cardiff Council enabling us to present our case. Just before Christmas 2018, we got the news we’d been hoping for: the Council would lease the land for community use.
What will Railway Gardens bring to Splott?
The plan, granted planning permission in 2020, includes a two-level community hub and kitchen for training, workshops, social events, birthday parties – anything really! There will be eight shipping container business pods, run by the Boneyard, for local social businesses, and one of these will form a permanent home for Benthyg, the ‘library of things’ from which residents can borrow all kinds of equipment and useful stuff.
The community allotment will include raised beds, a large potting shed for training, a small wildlife pond, beehives and a composting area. All these features will be interspersed with climate-friendly planting and sustainable drainage, and there will be an outdoor events pagoda for markets, school visits, play and outdoor fitness. We’re packing a lot in!
The aim is to create a multipurpose facility that is available for individuals and groups to develop their own projects, run groups and hire when they need it. Green Squirrel will be running a programme of workshops teaching sustainable living skills, but most exciting are the things we don’t even know about yet: the creative and innovative ways that local residents will make the space their own and make it work for them. During the pandemic there has been a huge wave of community organising in the area, and the feedback we get from residents is that people want the skills, the space and the support to develop local solutions to local issues.
Which aspects of the project are you most excited about?
I love gardening, so I’m looking forward to seeing the potting shed and growing areas develop. But personally I’m most excited about what happens when everyone comes together in this space: the new connections between groups, the projects that develop, the artwork that appears on the walls, and all the little bits in between the main structures; the parts that the community will design, develop and build over time, such as wildlife habitats, seating and play. We have a 20-year lease on the site – I love trying to imagine how it looks and how its use will change over time.
How did you go about getting the National Lottery funding? Did the amount come as a shock?
The project had previously received funding from a few smaller pots to help pay for things like architects’ fees and surveys to get it to this stage, but we knew we’d need a Lottery grant if this was going to happen. We began the application process in 2018, were rejected twice at the first stage and finally got through to the second stage of the process in summer 2020.
We then had six months to bring together a full project plan for Railway Gardens: how we would build it, how we would run it, how we would fund it, how we would reach different members of our community, evaluation – a huge amount of detail. We needed to know exactly how much money we’d need for every element, from the huge things like buildings to the tiniest things like bins.
It was a very challenging process for us as a small organisation, and involved a lot of people, a lot of volunteer hours and a huge amount of learning. But it was a really useful, positive process too and got us to a stage where we knew the project inside out and upside down, and had ironed out a lot of the wrinkles.
We knew exactly the date when the decision would be taken, so in the weeks leading up to it we couldn’t sleep – on the day, we were total wrecks! When we got the phone call to say the project would be funded, Becca and I both had a cry… then a cup of coffee with some rum. We’ve been walking past those locked gates and imagining the community’s vision coming to life for the last six years, so getting this funding felt like a miracle.
However, right now we don’t have access to that money – we need to secure £150,000 more to ‘unlock’ the grant. We’ve applied to a Welsh Government fund (the Community Facilities Programme) and should hear the outcome any day now. It’s a bit nailbiting.
What are the next stages towards the project’s realisation?
If we manage to secure that last chunk of funding, then things will really get rolling – we’ll start recruitment for a Community Involvement Officer to support the project. That’s really exciting, as having another regular person on the team will hugely expand what we can do and help the project build up even stronger relationships with local people and organisations.
There’s a fair bit of preparatory work to do on the site such as drainage, power and security, and then we can get started with the exciting stuff. We hope to have all the main facilities built and ready to use by early summer 2022, then we’ll work with local residents to design and create growing spaces, play opportunities, artwork and lots more.
How can people get involved?
By joining our volunteer community. While we’ve been waiting for the site to be developed, volunteer activities have mainly focused on admin, planning, fundraising and events, but hopefully from next year we will have many more regular volunteering opportunities available – everything from gardening and site maintenance to running family activities or helping to evaluate the project. All skills and all levels of experience are needed and everyone is very welcome – get in touch via railwaygardens.co.uk or by emailing.
We’ll also be launching a Friends Of Railway Gardens scheme later this year, asking people to support the project with a small monthly donation in exchange for some nice little perks such as early-bird booking at events. We’ll be holding ‘come and see’ days throughout the construction process so that everyone can see how it’s progressing, and we’ll kick off the quarterly Assemblies, where anyone can come along and have a say in how the project is run and what its priorities should be. Anyone who wants to stay up to date can sign up to our newsletter at railwaygardens.co.uk or follow us on Twitter.
words BEN WOOLHEAD