Evie Murray founded Leith Community Crops in Pots; a space for children and adults in Leith to get outdoors and grow food. She was included in The Independent On Sunday’s Happy List 2015, as one of 100 people who make Britain a happier place to live in.
There are some really fascinating women in Breaking the Mould, and so many people breaking moulds, in terms of women in the workplace and making inroads into male-dominated professions which is really brilliant. I was obviously drawn to the gardener and the horticulturalist’s story [Mary Elizabeth Burton], such inspirational women there.
When this started, I was looking after two children who were in need of some help. I looked after them along with my own two kids and decided that if I was going to do it, I was going to do it as well as I could and make sure everybody had a stimulating environment to thrive in. They needed to be outdoors, eating healthier, have stimulating play, and a lot of reassurance and time. The bee crisis hit the headlines at the same time and I thought growing flowers and food together would be a holistic approach to the children’s health and wellbeing, and a solution to the challenging situation we were in.
Supermarkets were a source of concern when I was trying to help the kids engage with healthy eating because of the quality of food and eye-level junk food. The new children I was caring for were used to having sweeties all the time and the frustration of having all that junk food at eye-level meant it was quite challenging to get the kids past that sort of dependency, feeling like sweets were a treat and were a source of reassurance. I was very frustrated with the supermarkets but growing food was about re-educating them and getting them different experiences.
More parents got involved and we were out gardening and growing food in schools. It was a recreational time; an outdoor mother and toddler group learning about food and acquiring new skills. Ultimately, we were becoming urban farmers in the city. It was so enjoyable it snowballed quite rapidly with more people getting involved and more gardening sites. Then I went to see the Council about taking on this two-acre derelict site which was a real neglected part of park land, and an area of anti-social behaviour. When my pitch was successful, over fifty of us came along to the first set of Imagination Days we held and helped clean up the site. We started to imagine what we could do with this space. The gates are kept open because it’s common good land and if we shut it off then it’s a loss to the community and limits their opportunities to use the space in whatever way they want.
The phenomenal thing was how much it tapped into an unmet need – there were so many people that wanted space – they wanted access to land, to grow food and to be part of a community. In the early days we started school gardening clubs to try to improve playgrounds because often they are grey, dull and pretty lifeless places. We wanted to grow food and have children learn where their food was coming from because we found that a lot of kids thought it just came out of packets in the supermarket.
On a Sunday there’s about fifty families wandering around here; children are exploring, people are growing food and eating together. It has a real feel-good factor because a lot of friendships develop between people that wouldn’t normally meet. It’s a real community, outdoor lifestyle. Eight shared areas are now used communally by people ranging from nursery groups, new friends and older gentlemen who are here every day, which breaks down the isolation that comes with retirement. We’ve got about 86 members but also lots of others who get involved in different ways. The groups of people here would maybe never mix but all of a sudden they’re all part of the same community.
I was nominated for The Happy List, for creating happiness within the community but I definitely wouldn’t make The Rich List. As much as I would’ve liked to continue working for free, eventually the charity had become so successful and popular that it became a full-time occupation. I was running the Charity voluntarily with employed staff running skills projects and working this much for free was beginning to look rather absurd. The demand to be involved in the project was so high, offers of help and support were phenomenal but that was a challenge in itself because someone had to coordinate all of that. Luckily we were able to find some funding and I was appointed to take on the Chief Executive post.
Funding is an ongoing challenge because it’s not easy as such a small charity. A croft also has additional difficulties because we don’t have security of tenure over the lease; it’s on a rolling basis. We have more permanency here than some other sites, for example garden projects on development sites get for two years before building starts. Our site is common good land, meaning that it can never be built on and all the structures are temporary. In that sense, it’s more secure than other gardening projects because as long as the community want it to be here, which they do, it will be so I think it will be here a long time, but there’s no way of proving that to funders. We’ve created a landmark, within a really densely populated area, and also created a new group of people.
When I started growing food I got really excited because I had never tried to do anything like that before, I had a lot to learn but I was really good at it. I also realised that nature works in a beautiful system and it all needs to work together, and we need to work with it. For example, when aphids come, what do you do? You plant something else that can deal with that, so it’s pest control with permaculture principles rather than just spraying everything with pesticides. I was also really interested in soil health because I was growing in quite a concrete space in my back garden, so I started composting and everything just sort of grew. I made a compost bin and everything else I needed to grow different plants for particular purposes. It was like a whole new world opening up.
While I was learning all this stuff, there was also lots of inspirational things happening with other change-makers. Mike Small was doing the Fife Diet and I was visiting various talks and listening to different people so I set up a Facebook group called Community Crops and Pots, which spread all over Scotland using social networking. I was growing a wee bit of food in my garden and seeing what I could do, Christine Sparks, a singer in Glasgow, was also growing food and we’d be popping up photographs of what we were making. We were all skill sharing, working together. Having no experience in anything like this, I was just passionate about what I believed in which carried me through. I worked in charity sector before so I wasn’t totally unfamiliar to it but I brought on a lot of skilled people. Actually, that’s probably one of my best skills – being able to talk people into getting involved. They all got on board and supported the ethos and therefore, got behind the whole thing.
A powerful TedTalk given by the Incredible Edibles of Todmorden was really inspirational at the start of this project. They are four or five women who decided that they wanted to change where they lived. Without asking for permission they decided to plant fruit trees bushes outside the doctors’ surgery and the police station. They totally transformed the place, turned it into a beautiful landscape and it became a destination for tourists. Crucially, their talk discussed council regulations and permission – if people were given permission to use land in a different way, what would happen? What happens is the creation of thriving communities that excite and motivate people.
There are so many people who are disconnected with nature, just like I was, but with such a large space there are lots of exciting ideas and things we can do with it. We’ve had many consultations to formulate our croft development plan, which is led by the community it serves and will deliver what they want from it. For me, it’s really important that children are able to play by themselves, dig holes, get muddy and really engage with their environment as opposed to close monitoring and static play parks. Children also need to be around nature because that’s the only way that they’re ever going to defend it. I think our mission in life is try to restore some of what has gone and create a green economy.