It is a beautiful sunny day on Regent’s Canal, just off the busy Kingsland Road Bridge, boats are chugging by and locals are enjoying a stroll along the bank. This would have been a very different picture a few years ago; the path was overgrown, litter crowded the bank and the canal played host to years of rubbish.
But then came a re-birth, with environmental clean-up projects and the growth of ambitious flat developments that have given the canal way a new lease of life.
Nowhere is this more evident than in an alcove tucked away on the canal, where SkyWay, a charity for disadvantaged and vulnerable youths aged between 8 and 25, has created a community garden in partnership with the Canal & River Trust.
“It started off with the program of our young people clearing up canals,” says Sam Mars, Fundraising and Communications Manager for SkyWay Charity. “It was a joint project with the Canal & River Trust and the youth reparations programme for the Hackney Council, through which young offenders were meant to give back to the community.” Following this project, Canal & River Trust saw potential in the charity and, through the canal adoption scheme, it was able to give SkyWay a space to develop a community garden.
What was previously a bit of scrubland that had been neglected, left to vandals and plagued with anti social behaviour, has now been given a new lease of life as a community garden. Designed by local Hackney resident, architect and landscape designer Peter Beardsley, the area is now filled with lovely wooden benches where people can sit and enjoy the canal while having a quick bite, and with little plots that will home a variety of fruits and vegetables in the coming months.
Living in an urban environment where nature is scarce, the community garden gives youths the opportunity to get their hands dirty. “When you’re living in the estates, there’s not a great deal of green space,” says Mars. “Being able to bring young people to a space like this is quite calming; it takes you away from the streetscape. They can also learn about the canal and how that works. It gives the youths a sense of ownership and pride in what they’re doing. It helps develop their confidence in their own skills and interests and if you can do that- it’s great.”
SkyWay also runs a healthy eating programme, as the community garden gives them the opportunity to teach youths where their food comes from. “Why don’t you come down and do some planting and then a few months later we can go back and pick what we planted and use that for our cooking?” says Mars. “It’s about showing youths where the food is coming from and how to develop that sustainability. When they get things growing from planting seeds in the spring and waiting until autumn and suddenly there’s a pumpkin, they’re really excited”.
SkyWay is familiar in Hackney, having been active in the borough since 2002, while offering a wide range of youth services, from youth clubs to sports related activities.
Getting young people involved in the programmes allows SkyWay to learn more about them as individuals, in order to build and maintain relationships within the Hackney community. In fact, it is important for the charity to work with locally based companies, as youth services nationwide have been facing budget cuts, and SkyWay, like many other charities, has struggled to find funds to run programmes.
Mars acknowledges the change in the area: “Two years ago people were coming down here with a can of special brew, now they come down with a bottle of chardonnay”. He hopes that the community garden can act as a bridge between the long time residents of Hackney and the new influx of people coming into the borough, by getting everyone involved through volunteering.
SkyWay will be collaborating with another local charity CHUG, Canals in Hackney Users Group, in December, to create more awareness about the community garden.
To find more about Skyway Charity and how you can help: http://skyway.uk.com/
You can follow them on twitter @SkyWayCharity