I was walking along a path in Membina Court when I happened to chance upon the notice shown above. This sign was placed on an empty plot of land just beside the path. Curious, my friend and I contacted Ms Tina to participate in this community project, and went down at 10am on Friday the same week.
When we approached, we saw a group of elderly gathered at the side of the garden, with bags of vegetables and fruits, stools and various gardening equipment. Uncle Philip, a resident volunteer, came to greet us enthusiastically. He is a retired engineer and gardening expert who took the initiative to lead the other volunteers by allocating the various tasks and teaching them how to go about doing them. Gloves on and with a chang-ko in hand, we promptly got down to work too, under his instruction, to prepare to fertilise the soil.
During the gardening session, we were told up to fill up the styrofoam boxes with alternate layers of soil and a mixture of cut fruits and vegetables, which will fertilise the soil before the seeds are planted. According to the volunteers, these fruits and vegetables were donated by the nearby Shop n Save. Also, there were plans in the afternoon to erect a wooden fence around the fertilised soil to prevent the nutrients in the soil from being washed away by rain; the fence would be made from discarded wooden furniture that the residents have discarded. It struck me how different members of the community came together to form a system to make it all work, eliminating the need to purchase new equipment or materials.
In the short hour that we were working, many residents passing by stopped to observe out of curiosity. Many of them were intrigued by what we were doing and started conversations with the volunteers to find out more. A Malay mother and her 3-year-old daughter even signed up on the spot! It didn’t take them long to blend in with the rest; the mother conversed freely with her new acquaintances, talking about everything from children problems to the location of their flats. It amazed me how quickly friendship is made between fellow residents who were just strangers moment ago.
However, all is not sweet and rosy for this blooming community garden. Ms Tina explained that some residents openly steal the soil that was meant for the garden (the soil was given by National Parks). They have since requested the Town Council to erect a low fence surrounding the plot of land to deter such theft. It was heartening to learn that they still stand by their original intention for the garden to fit in as part of the community landscape, preferring to erect a low fence rather than a high one.
At the end of it all, I was thoroughly impressed by the community spirit I witnessed that day in the neighbourhood at Membina Court. I also experienced how an initiative like this, coupled with a prime location along the main pathway, can help to bring the community closer together. It also taught valuable lessons to the residents, especially the younger generation, in the importance of cultivating a sustainable landscape.
Most importantly, I felt that this initiative was a platform for the residents to directly participate in the betterment of their neighbourhood, and imparted a sense of identity and belonging through such resident-focused work. This further prompted me to consider the following scenario: Today, maybe HDB home owners lament that although they own a home in the sky, they do not own any land. What if we could bring across the idea that every resident can have a stake in the land as well? By giving them ownership of a part of the land through initiatives like this, we can encourage residents to take responsibility of the shared spaces in the urban landscape and continually put in effort to improve and beautify them.
Perhaps, the success of this community garden was coincidentally due to the availability of this residual plot of land beside the main pathway. This also made me realise the potential of such residual spaces and made me think: in the urban design of a neighbourhood, how can such open, “residual” spaces be included (rather than be a by-product, or “residue” from planning) from the start? Can flexible spaces be set aside in favourable locations, so that whenever the need arises, they can accommodate activities such as these?
Perhaps, the lesson I learnt was not just about gardening, but much more.