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Finding Common Ground in Poplar's Communal Garden

A year on, Morgan Stanley’s 2015 Chelsea garden is a teeming social hub for a community in the heart of London’s East End.

A year on, Morgan Stanley’s 2015 Chelsea garden has transformed the lives of housing estate  residents by creating a sanctuary in the heart of Poplar, in the East End of London.

Plantsman Chris Beardshaw won a gold medal at London’s Chelsea Flower Show last year for his Morgan Stanley Healthy Cities Garden design - a bounty of geraniums, delicate ferns, spiky Camassia cusickii and upwardly mobile lupines.

But the real prize came later. A year after replanting it in its permanent home in Poplar, the garden is today cultivating something intangible: community spirit.

Collaborators and Friends

On a crisp spring afternoon, children living in the area flood in after class, chasing an airborne Frisbee through the maze of hedgerows and limestone pavers. Play workers from Play Association Tower Hamlets, a charity working with the firm’s Healthy Cities London program, rally the kids for parachute games on the lawn. By a hand-hewn wooden bench, play worker Panda Gavin passes around chunks of colored chalk to toddlers,  who excitedly doodle  on the limestone. Chatting nearby are Shenaz Ali and her father, here to inspect the broad-beans shooting out of their raised bed. Kate Metcalf, a gardener from the Women's Environmental Network, sidles over to talk slug-control.

Gardens at their finest are greater than the sum of their parts. And this one, in the shadow of Canary Wharf, has transformed an estate of strangers into collaborators and friends. A year ago, families in the surrounding tower blocks overlooked an empty field "used more frequently by dogs than by people," says PATH development manager Eleanor Image.

A Beautiful Place, Close to Home

With no appealing outdoor space, residents used to confine much of their playing, herb-gardening and socializing to home. The garden, uprooted from the Chelsea Flower Show and   replanted for Poplar residents last July, now includes raised beds for growing vegetables from tomatoes to onions and green beans. The Alis, who have lived in Poplar since the 80’s, visit frequently. "We come no matter what the weather - even if it's snowing," says Shenaz. “I don’t have a garden, so it makes me feel happy to know I have somewhere beautiful to come to, close to my home.”

"There's a waiting list for the raised boxes, so the rule is, anyone who has been given a box has to maintain it on a regular basis”, says Metcalf. "But it has never been a problem, in fact the residents are constantly tending their vegetables and want more space!" Metcalf began a schedule of gardening and cooking sessions last summer, delving into the community seed library for native vegetables. She keeps a collection of gardening books in a storage table decorated by the local children.

Children Have the Power

Dozens of children turn up for weekly sessions of unstructured play, supervised by Eleanor Image and her colleagues. "The point is that it's not a wall-to-wall lineup of activities," she says. "The children have the power. They have fun, they get dirty and they play with other children they've not met before.”

In the meantime, the community has launched a WhatsApp group to maintain their commitment to the garden and their friendships. It’s all happened naturally and now everything thrives in the garden, not just the plants.

Read about Morgan Stanley's 2016 Chelsea Garden, once again designed by Chris Beardshaw. Its final home will be on the rooftop of Great Ormond Street Hospital, to give parents a piece of nature only minutes from their children's bedsides

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