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Exploring the Story Garden

One community garden in Central London and its expansive offering of connection

On the land of the British Library’s old car park behind Euston Road, nestled between the Francis Crick Institute and the traffic of St Pancras, is the Story Garden. Whilst frantic commuters, day-trippers, and tourists flock between the train stations, the characters seen around Somers Town’s community garden are of a more tranquil disposition. 

The visual: a reader sits outside the learning hut, a gardener bustles in the polytunnels, someone be-wellied makes a cup of tea in the garden’s kitchen. The Story Garden is a self-defined ‘meanwhile space’; one that is constructed with the knowledge that it will be forced to move at some point. Global Generation, the charity that manages the garden, fully embraces its temporality in the heart of the capital. Growing on borrowed time since 2018, the garden was only supposed to be on its current site for three years, but the lease has been extended to five. This year it finally moves.

The benefits of urban community gardens have been espoused repeatedly; research has found that such gardens are good for local economies, increase civic engagement, and improve the wellbeing of residents. The Story Garden in particular has been crafted into a place of controlled and abundant greenery, primarily for the benefit of those that live in Somers Town. Many of the residences around the garden are old Victorian social housing tenements with very few nearby gardens or green spaces. This temporary Eden provides a safe, free, and verdant area for local people to gather. Arguably, The Story Garden is an essential space for a community within the context of the unfolding 21st century ‘metacrisis’.

Defenders of London’s startling capacity for greenery - including myself - often tout that ‘London is the world’s largest urban forest’, originally built on the Great North Wood, which is still accessible in some of the huge green spaces which are particularly prominent on the outskirts of the city. The active reclaiming of brownfield sites in London, such as in the case of the Story Garden, speaks to a couple of things. Firstly, it speaks to humanity’s desire, particularly in urban areas, to make all spaces productive and ‘useful’; and secondly, to how we increasingly seek to re-insert the natural world on top of the earth we have meticulously paved and re-paved over. These two ideas conflict and play out in varying iterations across the city: the joy of a new green space being built for residents, and the unease at those residences benefited being another unaffordable block of high-rise luxury flats.

These tensions play out at the Story Garden where we ask nature to reclaim the ground we have repeatedly reified as our own.

The garden is home to some seventy community vegetable beds, where produce is grown for the overstretched local food banks and other community food projects. On a fundamental level, the garden provides food security in a low-income area. The rest of the beds are managed by locals, who come and go as they please, to grow what they like for themselves. Gardening for the collective, and for the individual, occurs side-by-side. As an act done publicly, this reinforces community practice; gathering, sharing, nurturing.

In my own experience of discovering the Story Garden, there is a regenerative power in stumbling upon a special place such as this one. After moving to Camden at the end of 2022, I have been trying to situate myself in this city on foot, walking all I can. It is on these excursions that I discover the Story Garden for the first time, and have been back many times since.

Nothing can be grown in the ground. The layers of asphalt prevent this, acting as man-made forcefields between people and earth. The ground is covered in a thin layer of woodchip. Plants ordinarily considered weeds sprout through the concrete - the gardeners keep them, grateful for any green coverage. The garden’s DIY ethos, ‘making do’, trying to enmesh itself with somewhere that is not particularly permeable, speaks to my own experience of being a new resident in London. It can be hard to feel local here, especially in the age where one of your long-distance friends online can feel much closer than your immediate neighbours. The garden offers a healing space to me, for all my Whatsapp-addictive tendencies.

The idea that this garden was built predominantly as a resource for the locals, and not for me, is not lost on me. I am attempting to figure out my place here as a non-resident, but no one makes me feel unwelcome. The friendly atmosphere, spurred on by the propped-open gate, feels invitational. This is the balancing act of community spaces; how to make a place feel characteristic of an area without excluding outsiders who might also contribute to its mutually beneficial offering. By nature of being outside areas, community gardens are ideally situated to perfect this crucial balance. The Story Garden even more so, given its location at the conjunction of work and home for so many.

Exploring these ideas over the last year, I visited many urban community gardens and found them enchanting in how they simultaneously pursue the physical act of gardening alongside community building practices. They are a very tangible manifestation of attempting to bridge the omnipresent divide between nature and culture in cities. The Story Garden, in its standout urban location with its array of mismatched temporary buildings and vegetable beds made out of skips, drew me in. The ultimate symbol of urban greening resilience. 

One street over from this haven, commuters on Euston Road speed walk to the station, oblivious. Our desire to take the quickest route anywhere, following our pocket-sized digital maps, takes all the creativity out of a psycho-geographical wander where we truly engage with our surroundings. Unfortunately, this means we miss opportunities to stumble upon places like the Story Garden. Time in this city operates as a very precious currency; my returns to the garden are largely to attend the weekly gardening club, which I use as an excuse to spend time in a beautiful green space where I feel at peace. Note the word ‘excuse’ - reflecting upon this, it would be rare for me to journey to the garden to simply sit and enjoy it. In order to justify the use of precious time in such a seemingly superfluous way by modern urban standards, I employ the added element of utility, productivity: the act of gardening. 

The garden itself, a more-than-human ecosystem, doesn’t work on a busy Londoner’s definition of time. It doesn’t bother itself with human definitions of success: all the plants are otherwise engaged in the everyday toil of ‘grow, consume sunlight, reproduce’. By stepping through the gate, we enter a place governed by the schedule of the seasons. The garden doesn’t worry about keeping up and invites us to do the same. 

Living in London for only a few months, I have already begun to view rest as a luxury as opposed to something that we all deserve in abundance. Time sitting in a garden has always felt precious; even if only to absorb what sunlight you can before you have to return to obligation. Why does this feel like a stolen moment? I ruminate on London’s pace of life, and what myself and my fellow gardeners, most of whom will not eat these crops, get out of being in this space. It is less corporeal than food, but almost as important: restorative interactions with other social animals.

To dig further into this beyond-physical sense of what the garden provides, I speak to Sophie and Karari, who currently run the gardening club, about how the garden provides a social forum to anyone who wanders in. They emphasise its ability to bring people together who might otherwise not meet. The garden’s place in Somers Town is strengthened by the variety of people it draws, weaving its ties further afield than the NW1 postcode, towards non-locals like myself. This speaks to my own Story Garden exploits side-stemming tomatoes with locals of all generations who have been helping tend the garden for, in some cases, years. 

These encounters feel wholesome and unblemished, and it is easy to romanticise such an experience. Holding conversations with people from a different background to yourself should not feel quite so unique, and it is jarring that this stands out. This is not to diminish the garden’s capacity for meaning-making, as the physical tasks that the garden demands of us are literally bringing people together. Operating in all its multiplicities, the garden forces us to grow alongside it.

Throughout the season, gardening club sessions run on Thursdays at the Story Garden. Anyone is welcome to join. The agenda is as follows: share a pot of tea with your fellow gardeners (brewed with an array of herbs from the garden), pot some seedlings, dig your hands deep into the cool, clutchable compost and let your worries seep out into the soil. The space of a garden, and the physicality of keeping such a productive one, demands the frequent return of its supporters. There are always enough people there for it to be an active network of community practice.

‘During Covid, green space became so much more appreciated and since then it’s brought into focus just how important these spaces are’ Karari explains, mapping the Story Garden’s journey in Somers Town with the Pandemic smack in the middle. Four years on, and the garden remains a site of local appreciation - hosting weekly cooking groups, seed swaps and a plethora of other events. Engaging in all its pluralities requires a high level of collaboration between Global Generation and the groups that utilise the space, further extending the garden’s well-rooted network.

The Story Garden never sleeps. In being managed by a global charity, as opposed to a grassroots project, it is arguable that the garden should be providing for the community. Even beyond its vital work alongside local food banks, and growing the existing community ties of Somers Town, the Story Garden also fosters growth further afield - corporate away-days and creative workshops advertised online as well as locally. Tying growth and productivity together in a different context might seem neoliberal, but interestingly when we see it in the context of a community garden we perceive it to be healthy and regenerative, no matter who runs it. 

My first ‘productive’ visit to the garden is for a climate emergency network meeting, on a promisingly bright January day. A fitting setting. The garden’s indoor spaces are creatively used; the polytunnels are both plant nurseries and meeting rooms, for example. Various events generate income for Global Generation to maintain the garden’s busy schedule and by extension, its community, fulfilling a cycle of productivity adjacent to the cycle of the seasons with which the garden also contends. We sit at potting benches, contemplating institutional vs radical action, and my eyes wander towards the trays of seedlings sheltering inside.

What metric can be used to measure the success of a community garden? Weight of crops grown, footfall in the garden, turnout at events or demand for booking its spaces out? Regardless, one clear measurement of success for the Story Garden is how its tenure in Somers Town has been popular enough to secure it a new, permanent site on the other side of St Pancras. The garden’s metric for success also has an intangible quality: how can one measure the joy humans derive from kinship with nature and each other?

Many of us living in cities have partially lost the way of embedding active community practice into our everyday lives, eschewing it for a lifestyle that prizes individual productivity as opposed to the collective. Through ‘co-production and a network basis community gardens provide a ready-made social structure anyone can fit into. The thing about a ‘meanwhile space’ is, it has the power to move this social structure wherever it goes next. 

The garden is moving not because it has fulfilled its primary purpose of nourishing the surrounding community, but because its lease is up. The British Library would like their land back to build their planned extension: a different kind of site for learning and growth. But the British Library does not embed itself with the residents of Somers Town like the garden does. The garden burrows its roots into the ground (or tries to), and the library is merely placed on top. It cannot support food security, sustainability, or commoning practice quite in the same way. These spaces are beyond valuable and we need to look after them wherever we can. Luckily, this one has found a new permanent location; others might not be so lucky.

Across London, there are many iterations of such a wondrous and resourceful space: the miniature raised community beds at Kilburn tube station, the Broomfield community orchard, Camden World Peace garden (a particular favourite of mine). These places remind us that nature and culture do not have to be far removed from each other and that we can embrace everyday pockets of greenery in our commutes, our walks to the shop, and our traversions across the urban environment.

The Story Garden asks me to turn inward and interrogate the kinds of spaces I value in a city where space is everything. This is the power of finding somewhere where one feels included, spoken to. I vow to visit it soon, even if it is just to sit on one of the rickety chairs, admiring what humans have the capacity to create when we work alongside nature, instead of against it.


‘Kaitlin Hyde is a writer and a budding gardener currently working for a food waste charity in London. Kaitlin is interested in community practice, the more-than-human and radical forms of curation’


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