By Sara Valle-Martínez
Wray Crescent in Islington, North London, fills up with sunshine on a Saturday morning. Ten neighbours gather, pushing wheelbarrows full of compost, digging the ground with their shovels, and chatting animatedly as they chug their cold cans of ginger beer.
They don’t miss a beat. They dry off the sweat on their foreheads before resuming the shovelling, the pushing, and the planting. They just want the park to look alive.
Sacha Austin, 56, a project manager for the Greater London Authority and secretary of the group: “The aim has always been to grow food for local people and also to increase biodiversity around the park.”
“There’s so much beauty in all of this,” she says as she walks through the park, proudly describing their achievements, pointing at their fruit hedges with blueberries, blackberries, and gooseberries; her muddy hands mushing the fragrant leaves of wild garlic between her fingers.
Friends of Wray Crescent Open Space (FoWCOS) is a group of residents who work together to improve the park. They spend over five hours every weekend working on their small vegetable garden, the flower beds and other small patches of land dotted around two hectares of land space.
In 2018, FoWCOS successfully filed a funding application with the support of Islington Council to the Mayor of London Greener Cities programme. They received £2,500 to kickstart their project.
In 2021, they were awarded the Bees’ Needs Champions Award from the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) for their flowerbeds that support pollinators.
Lois Harvey, 58, the treasurer of the group and leader of the bee project, said: “The main goal with the flower garden is to provide the bees with flowers that they love because over the last few years we’ve lost half of the bee population in this country. We’re doing everything what we can in this park to encourage bees and look after them.”
Insects are pollinators of 80% of all plant species in Europe, including most fruits, vegetables, and some biofuel crops, according to Defra. Bees contribute directly to local food production from pollination to crop production and the wider environment.
The bees buzz between the multi-coloured flowers, collecting pollen, while the laughter of kids playing in the playground and the chatter of sunbathers fill the space. Ms Harvey says the objective is to expand her project with an eight-mile bee and butterfly trail all the way to Grenville Gardens.
The same green fields where green grows now were full of houses in the 1880s, as shown in an old map on their website. They’ve faced some challenges when planting because of the poor quality and thinness of the soil. But that hasn’t been the only challenge: the park was deserted during the pandemic.
“We used to have more regular meetings before Covid. Those have fallen down a bit, but we’re trying to get that going again” said Jonny Harvey, 58, who is Ms Austin’s partner. Besides being the chair of FoWCOS, he is a freelance tech journalist.
FoWCOS used to give the produce to Crouch Hill foodbank and decided to keep it local during the pandemic, providing two biweekly grocery bags full of self-grown produce to residents in need. But they welcome everyone to join them and encourage others to do the same in their local areas.
“When you work, you leave your flat, you get public transport, you go to your horrible office with the bosses and then you go back again and that’s your world and your world shrinks,” said Mr Harvey before throwing a frisbee to her cinnamon-coloured pit bull, Bonita, who prances around entertaining and bringing smiles to the children of FoWCOS.
“We’re dealing with generationally disruptive problems, which are having incredibly harmful consequences on whole communities, and the only way to make a difference, given that our politics are so broken, is to work together and build local communities,” he added, grabbing his shovel again. “So, I’d say do it; get involved.”