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6. Gardens of life

6.1 Short description

“Gardens of life” is a project that started in 2011, and which was initiated by the CSO network “Green network,” and delivered in cooperation with Development agency “North”, City of Varaždin and the City Market Varaždin. The project was targeted at the socially vulnerable population in Varaždin, users of social assistance of the City of Varaždin, tenants in social housing and unemployed, with the goal of improving their quality of life and income conditions. Although the project was primarily targeted at the users of the City’s welfare measures, it was not restricted to them only, and other socially disadvantaged citizens could apply too.

The idea was that users of welfare measures grow their own vegetables on public land (of the City of Varaždin). The expected benefits were twofold: this way they produce their own food and thus save on their budget (with the possibility to sell surplus on the marketplace), and at the same time, they increase their self-esteem and are empowered to influence their own life circumstances. In addition, the project aims to raise awareness among citizens on environmental protection and sustainable development, including food production for one’s own needs in an organic manner.

The City of Varaždin gave its land, on the outskirts of the city, to their disposal. It spreads over 9,000 m2, which was then divided into 40-50 smaller parts, with the prospect of widening the space. At the moment, there are approximately 60 users of the Gardens. The Gardens are located in the city district Hraščica, a rather segregated city area due to the social housing stocks that are near the gardens.

The City of Varaždin made a list of users of the land, based on the call for interest. The users have a right to use the land as long as they continuously work on it. The City Market assures that users can sell their surplus on the marketplace. The “Green network” organised free workshops for all interested participants in the project on how to grow vegetables in an organic and biodynamic manner.

“Gardens of life” is seen as innovative practice of dealing with social exclusion, emerged from the local initiative, but is also innovative in terms of new modes of cooperation between the local government, public company and civil society organisation.

The initiators of the project recognise it as innovative in a sense that the City put the land to their disposal free of charge, which was formerly rented on the market and was not oriented towards civil society and community. Secondly, in this way the community is oriented towards changes, learning and activity. On an individual level, it aims to empower socially vulnerable citizens in order to become independent and pursue self-employment.

Apart from the “Gardens of life” project, another similar project emerged a year later, called “Magic gardens”, initiated by “Gredica” – an association for the promotion of sustainable living in Varaždin.

As well as the “Gardens of life” project, it was also inspired by the global urban gardening movement, but in this initiative came from the citizens themselves, who shared common values and the idea of production of their own food in an organic manner. In contrast to the “Gardens of life”, the project “Magic gardens” is targeted at the general population in Varaždin, regardless of their socio-economic conditions.

Even though there are similarities between the two projects in terms of general idea and partly in goals, as noted, these projects have had different trajectories, types of users and value baselines. In contrast to the “Gardens of life”, this was a bottom-up initiative, coming from the citizens who first organised the association (Gredica) and then engaged in cooperation with the local government, which also provided them with the public land. The project has had great success since it was launched. It was awarded the highest donation in the category for innovations from Zagrebačka banka, one of the biggest banks in Croatia, and they were recently nominated and selected for the second round (as one of 35 projects, among 308 nominated) for an international award for social innovation “SocialMarie – Preis für Sociale Innovation”, awarded by the Unruhe private foundation from Vienna.

6.2.Concepts of and ways of addressing users

As stated by the representative of the Green network, the initiator of the project, the idea pursued by the project was activating approach to the users of welfare measures, where they would not only expect to receive assistance from the City. Contrary to the initial suspicion showed by the city officials that the users would not be willing to participate in such project, there was good response to the project. The interest shown by the potential users was higher than expected. The project has indisputably activated the users, it could be even said they “found themselves” in it, this was new daily occupation for them.

The idea of the project was that the partners provided the incentive, assured resources (land and facilities), organised training and foremost, to empowered users in order to become engaged, responsible, skilled in gardening and self-advocating. With the land assured, the project had a firm basis from its inception for sustainability. It was foreseen that with time, and after the project is formally over, users will continue with gardening and thus, the benefits of the project would be sustained.

Therefore, it was on the users to take over the coordination of the project follow-ups and continue work independently. The coordinators were not to supervise the users in the later phases. However, they offered them further support in terms of legal advice, training, etc. They advised the users to form associations or cooperatives, so they could self-employ and further improve their socio-economic position, but also strengthen their advocacy position. In addition, the City market offered them a bench on the market, aprons with their logo, which would make them recognisable. However, this was found to be difficult to implement. The users were not interested in forming associations and thus, reach greater scope and value of the project. Food growth was simply a sufficient goal for them. Furthermore, there was a lack of cohesion among the users; they were not used to cooperation. Some users showed a certain level of distrust toward others. As some representatives of users state, not all of users deserve to get the land, as some of them were not seriously interested in gardening. Instead, according to them, those places should be given to those who would really be engaged in gardening. Some users cooperate, help and socialise with others on individual level; they have built benches and common facilities for having time together, but there is a general lack of strategic cooperation and action towards common goals. However, it seems that some were inspired by the “Magic gardens” project and their results, and they are becoming more aware of the importance of associating.

The users do not have a representative or leader of the group. As the representative of the project initiators state, they should continue to work with the users so that they become a “good community”. If they were a more cohesive community and oriented toward each other, that would have produced added values. As one of the users stated, “poverty is not a lack of material resources, but poverty in people’s souls”. They are often still envy each other. Users respond very positively to the activities organised for them, such as training, and in these examples results are visible. However, reaching tangible results assumes continuous work with the users; they expect strong leadership. Notwithstanding, results in terms of activation of users are noticeable. The users express content and are proud of their achievements. As the results of their work (food production) are seen as short term, the users were motivated. The project is recognised as a good example of self-help. This innovation has made the users feel economically safer, strengthened, they can produce food for themselves. They themselves report great benefits from the project, foremost in terms of improving financial situation. As one user states, his gardens is his life. He is long-term unemployed, and due to his age (over 60) he can be considered difficult to employ. His wife is retired, and their total income is low. Another user is retired, and she still has a bank loan to pay off. Food they grow in their gardens brings savings to their budgets, but they are moreover interested in selling surpluses on the market in order to further improve their budgets.

Although the project was primarily aimed at users of local welfare measures, there was a great interest, if not greater, showed by other citizens who are economically deprived, also eligible to the land. As some users state, those who are on welfare are frequently not interested in such a project, as they get assistance and are not willing to participate.

Generally, the project was conceived in a way that it results in empowerment of users and their activation. It moreover counts on changing the attitude of users, in a sense that they need to offer something in order to expect to receive – “give something to the community, and you will get something back from it”. As such, it was a top-down initiative, from experts and with the support coming from the politics, but it can be said that the approach of the project coordinators to the users was not based on power relations and instructions. They provided continuous support to the users, rather than supervision and control. It was on the users to carry the project further on. However, this concept failed in a way, as it was shown that they lacked human and moreover social capital to sustain and further develop the initiative. To a certain extent, they still seek the leadership from the “top”, which limits the scope and potential of the project.

6.3.Internal organisation and modes of working

The project was inspired by foreign urban gardening projects and communities. Citizens in urban areas have no possibility of growing food, and the city, on the other hand, has unused land resources. It was further triggered by the circumstances of rising unemployment and lowering purchasing power.

The network of CSOs “Green network” was the initiator of the idea for the project, which was delivered in partnership with other local stakeholders – the City of Varaždin, Developmental Agency “North” and the City Market. The initiators describe the cooperation and management of the project as horizontal. They have held numerous meetings during coordination of the project. The City of Varaždin and the City market, as owners of the land, had first the task to parcel out the land and to assure the watering system (two water pumps). City market was further responsible for organizing that users get a bench on the market where they could sell their surplus. During the project, the coordinators had organised numerous training sessions for the users on gardening and permaculture, which increased their skills and knowledge.

When initiating the project, all partners embraced the idea and engaged in the project, including the (former) mayor, who promoted the project in the media when it was launched, so that more potential users get the information about the call for interest. Support coming from the media was also great.

The City Market and Development Agency North also applied for additional funds on a tender “Idemo”, to build a greenhouse, but the proposal was not successful.

Besides the formal partners in the project, it heavily relied on voluntary work and help from the others, which the organisers coordinated. For example, one farmer voluntarily ploughed the land for them, and a horse club nearby provided manure. Foresters also engaged; they donated wood to build tool storage.

6.4. Interaction with the local welfare system

It is noticeable that this project has made an incremental impact on the wider governance system. It is assessed as a good example of horizontal governance and cooperation, where the initiative came from civil society network, with a viable potential for up-scaling and institutionalisation in the welfare system. This is evident in the project of “Magic gardens”, which followed the “Gardens of life”, and which is comparable in certain aspects in terms of innovation in the welfare system as a whole. They are both good examples of innovative initiatives, which were recognised and supported by the local government, and in a way introduced new movement of urban gardening in Varaždin.

The project further gave incentive to strengthening of a new practice of management of the city’s property and resources. It is seen as “win-win” model: the local government is removed its obligation to take care of and maintain unused land, where citizens (users) are given free resources at their disposal. This model, seen as good practice, was also followed in the second example of the project “Magic gardens”. This is seen as a new trend, where the local government puts its resources in function of public good.

Both projects have also had an impact on changing a general culture of welfare system in Varaždin; they have to a greater extent promoted the practice of activation, self-help, mutual help and cohesion, and where spheres of welfare policy, urban planning, environmental policy are intermeshing, also opening space for acknowledgement of particular lifestyles.

Generally, from the 2000 onwards, civil society in Varaždin and the region has developed significantly and has become important policy stakeholder. The number of registered CSOs has increased most notably in this period. However, some find that it is still in its early stage of development. Some of recognisable areas of civil society impact are organisations for children, professional organisations, organisations of retired, environmental organisations and health organisations. Those areas are examples of systematic work, instead of ad hoc actions. Also, due to the economic crisis, the local government offer CSOs free spaces for lower rent, which were earlier rented to private business for economic prices.

The local government has also become more responsive and open to initiatives form civil society. They also initiate partnerships to CSOs on projects. However, political turbulence and changes in power structures over last couple of years pose a threat to the development of systematic cooperation with civil society and its role in governance.

Varaždin was shown to be receptive to the urban gardening movement. This is an example of good cooperation between initiators of such projects and the local government. Generally, civil society and citizens’ engagement seems to have strengthened over last decade in Varaždin. Civil society organisations in certain fields have become stakeholders in policymaking. On the other hand, unstable political structures results in unfavourable environment for building systematic relations to civil society.

The “Gardens of life” project is seen innovative in several aspects. First, it introduced new or unconventional type of activity – gardening – into the welfare system, thus breaking traditional borders between different policies and systems. Secondly, it has promoted and put into practice to a greater extent the principles of activation, self-help and promoted the value of “community” in peoples’ well-being. Thirdly, the project has contributed to strengthening the practice of horizontal governance, openness in policymaking and mobilisation of voluntary contribution. Not least, both described projects have contributed to changing the culture of management of public good, and to a certain extent, the mindsets of citizens about public good and public spaces as something they are entitled to.

The two projects well illustrate the differences in their scopes and achievements, as one was a top-down, and the other a bottom-up initiative. It can be said that social capital plays a crucial role and is a key explanatory factor for the projects’ outcomes and success. “Gardens of life”, being a top-down initiative coming from experts to users (socially excluded citizens), developed successfully; however, it reached limitations for its further development and sustainability. Such a top-down initiative, albeit resulting in notable improvements of well-being and in activation and empowerment of users, seems to have lacked crucial prerequisites for its further development: cohesion and trust among users and their entrepreneurial orientation. On the other hand, the “Magic gardens” project was the result of citizen mobilisation for a common goal, their entrepreneurial skills, and is characterised by a high level of social capital among them. As the representative of Green network illustrated, “one can even feel the difference in the atmosphere between the two gardens; whereas in the ‘Gardens of life’ users are more inclined to mutual criticism, in the “Magic gardens” one can feel the spirit of community”.


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Keywords: Activation | Activation policies | Case management | Child care | Child education | Citizen initiatives | Citizenship | Civil society | Co-funding | Co-production | Collaboration | Community | Community development | Democracy | Deregulation | Development | Diffusion | Disability | Employment services | Empowerment | Enabling | Entrepreneurialism | Entrepreneurship | European Social Fund | Family caregivers | Family Centres | Family needs | Family-minded | Gentrification | Governance | Grassroots initiatives | Housing corporation | Housing policy | Incubator | Integration | Labour market | Labour market integration | Local context | Local governance | Local governments | Local initiatives | Local welfare | Local welfare system | Lone mothers | Lone parent support | Micro-credit | Municipality | Neighbourhood | Neighbourhood revitalisation | Network | Networking | Participation | Partnerships | Personalising support | Political administrative system | Precarious working conditions | Preschool education | Privatisation | Public administration | Regional government | Segregation | Single mothers | Social and solidarity-based economy (SSE) | Social capital | Social cohesion | Social economy | Social enterprise | Social entrepreneurship | Social housing | Social housing policies | Social inclusion | Social investment | Social media | Subsidiarity | Sustainability | Third sector organisations | Unemployment | Urban gardening | Urban renewal | User choice | Welfare governance | Welfare mixes | Workfare | Young mothers | Youth unemployment

6. Gardens of life


6. Gardens of life