Greening projects in your public housing community
There’s no question, greening projects have the potential to have a profoundly positive impact on a personal, community, and environmental level. It can be challenging, though, to get these projects moving forward, especially in community housing environments where there is such a wide range of perspectives, priorities and restrictions that need to be taken into consideration. We were lucky enough to spend some time with the community gardeners at Gordonridge in Toronto and also caught up with representatives from both Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) and Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation (CCOC) to gather their insights on what it takes to get these sorts of greening and sustainability projects off the ground.
Ten years ago, TCHC’s Gordonridge had 12 community gardening plots. In response to resident demand and tireless outreach efforts, that number eventually increased to 32 and today their community garden has 70 plots.
Gordonridge’s residents have worked hard for more than a decade to build up their greening capacities. In addition to their large community garden, they have also established a pollinator garden and a market garden. They have started to experiment with beekeeping and honey production, and for their most recent undertaking, they have planted a small orchard with a variety of fruit-bearing trees.
None of this happened overnight though; these projects have been built up over a long period of time. Their efforts have helped us develop a list of critical things to keep in mind to help you create successful and enduring greening projects in your community.
Pay attention to the needs of your community
Nichola Bynoe traces her active involvement in the Gordonridge community to a specific moment several years ago. There was a group of kids from the community who had the opportunity to go on a trip to Wild Water Kingdom, but they didn’t have enough money to pay for the bus. A group of parents banded together and started cooking and baking and then selling what they made in the community. They made enough to pay for the bus and snacks and still had money left over. Inspired by the success of this first project, this group started lending their culinary skills to other causes.
They eventually started a small catering service which led them to a partnership with Food Share. This partnership put them in touch with the resources they needed to start developing their garden. Responding to a specific need within the community was the starting point for all of the projects that would follow.
Each community is unique and in order for any given project to be successful, it must be designed with the specific nuances and dynamics of the community in mind. David Morales does work in community service coordination, resident engagement and community development in TCHC housing in East Scarborough, he says that you have to “identify the gaps”. Where does your project fit in the grand scheme of things? Before proposing your project, take a long, meaningful look at your community; talk to residents, tenant representatives and staff. What’s missing? What do people need? In what ways will your project satisfy the needs of the community?
Build and maintain relationships
If you want to engage your community, you have to be known and trusted within the community.
In an age of digital communications and social media, we often forget the value of face-to-face interaction. Get to know the staff and tenant representatives and talk to other residents. Tell people about your ideas and invite them to participate. You will find that your community itself, both immediate and extended, will be your most valuable resource. By talking to people, you gain valuable insights as well as cultivate trust and interest among community members which will inspire them to help you. Also, by having these conversations, you will discover the different roles that people can play in transforming your greening dreams into a reality! David Morales highlights that your building's lobby can be a great place to meet people and gather input on potential greening projects.
Nichola reminds us that these projects are all about uplifting the community. It can be challenging winning over and working with so many people, but it can also be very rewarding. Even if you might bump heads from time to time, at the end of the day you are all in this together, so, it’s important to nurture these relationships, check-in with each other regularly and keep lines of communication open.
We’ve said it before and we will no doubt say it again: it takes a village. You will want to connect with and take advantage of all resources available. The best way to connect with these resources is to be open to collaboration. If it’s a good idea, people will want to help you! That help will come in a wide variety of different forms.
As your project develops, try to make things as accessible and inclusive as possible. Keep lines of communication open and let people participate in whichever ways, small or large, that they can. Nichola says that people just starting in the gardening efforts often have new and exciting ideas, but sometimes lack the insights of more experienced gardeners. That is why it’s important to work together. Be receptive to a variety of ideas and learn how to best appreciate and utilize everyone’s individual strengths. The folks up at Gordonridge have worked with MANY partners over the years and though their core team is quite small for some projects, they have a vast network of individuals that will lend a helping hand when they can manage it.
There will be no one single golden key that unlocks your project’s potential. Within the community housing staff, there will have to be interdepartmental input. If one person can’t help you, they may still be able to point you in the right direction or connect you with a resource that you might not have thought of on your own. You will find that people have all kinds of experience, skills, knowledge and connections that will be invaluable in advancing your cause. By working together, you will find your greatest success.
Communicate every step of the way
Without regular and effective communication, important information has the potential to get lost or confused. Nichola advises that, whenever possible, you should try to get everyone around the table all at once so that everyone involved is informed and all voices have the opportunity to be heard. She also underscores the importance of getting agreements in writing.
As your projects move forward, it is also very important to measure and communicate your success. For those already involved, it will be a source of pride and encouragement to acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments. By expressing those same accomplishments to the community, partners and stakeholders, your efforts will also gain attention and interest and people will begin to have greater faith in your capabilities.
Natalia Snajdr is the sustainability facilitator at CCOC. She believes that you have to meet people where they are. She recognizes that everyone is balancing their own priorities, but to encourage ongoing participation with the CCOC’s recycling and sustainability efforts, she releases report cards for entire buildings and to individual residences. In this way, she advertises how even small and seemingly simple contributions add up to create a huge impact in saving money and reducing environmental footprints. At CCOC, they also connect the gardeners in the community by hosting a harvest gathering potluck. These kinds of communicative efforts showcase and celebrate the shared benefits that result when people put efforts into meaningful projects that address the well-being of their communities.
Be patient and remember the spirit of your project
All of our experts agree that though it is admirable to have a grand vision, it is best to start small and then let the project grow. There will be many pieces that need to be addressed and negotiated and by starting simple, you will not only avoid becoming overwhelmed, you will also be able to focus on one thing at a time and give every component the care and attention that it deserves. Treat every step as a learning experience.
Share the knowledge and skills that you develop along the way with your peers. The inspiring projects at Gordonridge have been cultivated slowly and deliberately for more than a decade. Anything worth doing is worth doing right, and to do things right takes time. Be patient. Remember your goal, remember why you are doing what you are doing and stay loyal to that vision. Nichola encourages you to keep that spirit strong. “It’s all about you believing in this idea,” she says. “and when you are selling it, sell it with as much passion as you can.”
This resource was developed with support from