After 7 years of planting community orchards in London and beyond, we have noticed that our groups often find themselves having to make a choice between creating an open or restricted access orchard. But for many, the idea of a ‘gated orchard’ runs counter to the core principles driving community orchards and, often, orchard groups are motivated by the idea of ‘reclaiming’ common land for use by the community.
The Orchard Project is founded on these values and encourages groups, where possible, to find ways of making their orchard accessible and inclusive for as many parts of the community as possible. For us this is not just a matter of principle, our approach is that the more people who use and engage with an orchard – the more likely they are to treat the space with respect and get involved in its maintenance. So before we even start to think about whether a site should be open or restricted access, we ask;
How can the space be made meaningful to the people living around it?
Diverse, resourceful communities
The first point is that no community is homogenous. A group may decide to plant some fruit trees on an under-used space and have a vision of how that space could become a resource for the community. But a community orchard will become different things to different people. For some it may be an exciting volunteer project to get involved in, for others the beautiful garden that they never had, for others a place to let the kids play, or a place to paint and contemplate the beauty of blossom, or to practice Tai Chi, or a source of free food, or a nice contained space to let the dog run around, or a short-cut, or a slightly less public place for young people to meet and have a laugh. The point is that a space will only reach its potential as a resource because of the ‘resourcefulness’ of those who use it. So we have to let them use it!
The question is, are all these uses compatible with each other, and with the needs of residents for safety, privacy, a tidy, relatively quiet estate? And, crucially from our perspective, are all these compatible with the needs of a healthy, biologically diverse and fruitful orchard?
The Tragedy of the Commons
There is a concept that is casually used by economists to dismiss the possibility of community-managed resources – the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. Based on a particularly cynical view of human nature – it argues that individual self-interest will inevitably lead to the neglect or over-use of a common resource. The equally inevitable solution then is some sort of ‘enclosure’ and ownership of the land with an economic incentive for the owner take care of it. Of course, we don’t believe in such 18th Century poppycock! However, in our experience, the urban environment can present real challenges to a pure, ‘open access’ approach.
The common arguments for restricting access focus on concerns about attracting anti-social behaviour and crime – especially where the land backs onto residential properties – and the deliberate or careless damage of wildlife and the trees themselves. Occasionally the issue of early or over-harvesting of fruit is also raised.
Vandalism in particular can be a serious problem on open sites. We have seen entire orchards of unguarded saplings being snapped and destroyed overnight – a genuine ‘tragedy’ for the orchard group. It is usual to experience some vandalism on a newly planted site, which is why we have evolved a robust guarding method for our trees; and we encourage all our orchard groups to use it on open sites, at least until the trees are a bit more established and the ‘threat of the new’ has faded.
‘Managing’ Community Resources
The key point about community managed resources, is that they have to be managed! That is, the different uses of the space and the different needs within the community have to be understood and the space designed, maintained and managed accordingly.
In a medieval rural setting – that system of ‘management’ operated through culture. A culture of practice had developed around the use of common land and resources. People were brought up knowing the ‘rules’, with a wider awareness of their role in a bigger system, and with a sense of responsibility about the consequences of their actions for the community as a whole.
In the modern, urban environment this collective culture of practice simply does not exist. And – much as we may yearn for it – we cannot recreate it overnight. What we can do – as a group of committed volunteers with a shared vision – is to create, maintain and manage spaces that meet a wide range of community needs. We can then use them to start (re)building community relationships and to nurture whatever green shoots of common responsibility and collective ownership we can!
Open is not always inclusive…
We cannot take inclusivity for granted. It may seem common sense that an orchard open to everyone all the time will be automatically more inclusive than one where access is restricted and managed. But people will feel alienated or excluded by even an open space if their needs are not being met, or if other groups or parts of the community seem to dominate the use of the space.
In contrast, we have examples of restricted access sites with a high level of community engagement and a diverse, representative range of people involved and using the space. If access to an orchard is restricted to the residents of an estate – for example – then those residents often display a greater sense of pride and ownership of the space, which is reflected in the care that the trees receive and the respect given to the space as a whole. The sense of local identity and ownership also provides a means for people to connect beyond divisions of faith, culture, language, class, age etc.
Sometimes, an orchard ‘open to all’ may be more difficult to build a sense of local identity around, and may end up attracting a wider but less diverse catchment of ‘usual suspects’ (i.e. those already involved in environmental or food growing networks.), rather than the people that would benefit the most.
These principles can even be extended to individual trees, with some orchards operating a ‘tree mentoring’ scheme where individuals take responsibility for the welfare of particular trees – sometimes with their name being displayed on the tree itself.
It may also be that a closed site can allow the involvement of other types of groups – such as charities working with people with special needs. Having access to a secure, green space can allow such organisations to safely enrich the experiences of their service users.
So, the particular challenges and approaches will be unique to each setting. This means that orchard groups will usually have to go beyond the ‘open’ or ‘closed’ debate to find creative solutions that meet everyone’s needs and concerns as well as possible. Sometimes this may involve managing access to the site.
This is a complex area and there are many possible methods of community engagement, development and organising. But to summarise the thoughts expressed here, there may be a natural cycle of activity emerging:
- Understand the community needs
- Make the space as meaningful as possible
- Let the community be resourceful with the space
- Nurture a culture of collective ownership
- Go back to the first step, repeat!
In the end, the point is to recognise that as much care and thought will need to go into the relationships between community and orchard, as into the care of the orchard and trees themselves.
We would love to hear what you think about this subject, have you had success with a restricted or open access community orchard, or are you struggling to make a decision of which approach to take? Let us know over on our Facebook page.