Loneliness and social isolation is a growing problem in the UK with recent studies showing that 1 in 10 of us is lonely and 800,000 people in England saying they feel lonely most or all of the time.
But a survey suggests that community gardening could be the answer to better community cohesion, helping to bring neighbourhoods back together in the way that the village shop or post office used to.
The survey, from ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, questioned people about their views on community life, how well they know people in their neighbourhood and how involved they are in local activities, to find out what makes people feel engaged in their local community and whether or not a community garden could provide a support network for those who feel lonely and disconnected, a problem experienced by a growing number of soldiers when they leave the Army and find themselves without the support that military life provides.
The results show that whilst almost three in five (58%) British adults say that they don’t know people within their community well and 69% do not currently take part in any activities within their local community, nearly a quarter (24%) say they would get involved in a community garden if they had the opportunity and almost two in five (37%) think it would help them feel more engaged with their local neighbourhood.
Crucially, almost a third (31%) of those who admitted to regularly feeling lonely believed a community garden would offer them a support network.
Martin Rutledge, chief executive of ABF The Soldiers’ Charity who carried out the research said:
“Studies have shown that getting to know people in your local area can have a big impact on how happy and secure you feel.
“We know from our work with soldiers leaving the Army how important a local support network is. In fact, recent research showed that after finding a job and maintaining financial security, the loss of the social network that the army provides was the aspect of returning to civilian life that soldiers found most difficult. Many ex-servicemen can find themselves in a kind of ‘No Man’s Land’, feeling lonely, disconnected and unable to engage with normal civilian life”.
“In many ways”, says Rutledge, “community gardens require the same social processes as the Army: collective decision making, trust, reciprocity and working towards a common goal by following a set of established rules and regulations”.
Studies of community gardens support this, showing how collective gardening can bring communities together by creating a social structure arising from collective effort and shared goals, helping to bridge social barriers and ultimately bring people together.
It’s also proven that gardening is good for our health. Research has shown that regular energetic gardening provides the same positive health benefits as jogging or swimming and that 20 minutes of gardening a week can reduce mental distress.
Rutledge continues: “We know that gardening has a positive impact on our health. In our survey 46% of people questioned said it made them feel happier and more positive.”
The healing properties of gardens and gardening is the focus of several projects that ABF The Soldiers’ Charity are undertaking this year. In May, the Charity launch ‘No Mans Land’ their first garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show to mark the centenary of World War One.
Through the military charity HighGround, The Soldiers’ Charity has also recently supported a Horticultural Therapist to support work at Headley Court – the Ministry of Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre in Surrey. Carol Sales will be using horticultural therapy as part of Headley Court’s rehabilitation programme to return some of the injured or seriously ill members of the British Armed Forces to full fitness.
Carol said: “Gardening provides a way to interact with nature, people and the environment, to socialise and to build trust and develop pride in what you have grown, sharing stories and successes with your colleagues, wherever you might be. A community garden provides more than social connection, trust and reciprocal relationships; it provides something to which you can belong. It is good for the soul”.