Are We Losing Our Community Spirit? The Struggle to Keep Southsea Greenhouse Alive

Sue Stokes, founder of Southsea Greenhouse Community Co-operative, explores the social revolution at the heart of community groups and the challenges involved in keeping the dream of a caring, sharing Portsmouth alive.

When I left school I had the usual teenage delusions. I thought I could fly, that my ideas had legs and that the whole world was my oyster. My thoughts had wings and my dreams ran wild. So in a spirit of optimism I studied modern ballet at the London School of Contemporary Dance, until I crashed out a year in with an injury. At 20 years old, I was very much still a child in my mind, a significant part of my life still at home with my Mum in the kitchen and the garden, learning everything she had to teach me about living and sharing.

Roll on 35 years, and a thoroughly eventful life later (well, so far). I’ve had an interesting career: window dressing, regeneration in the city with The Partnership foundation, Business Champions, developing children’s centres, working on the children’s fund – and lots more window dressing. I’ve been married for 30 years, I have four great kids, and some indispensable friends, I’ve lost a hundred pairs of specs and probably, a little of that eye for detail I had in my twenties.

But the part of my life I’d like to focus in on here began in 2011, when – with a few other ‘off the wall’ people – I founded a Community Co-operative called ‘Southsea Greenhouse’. I dreamed that Southsea Greenhouse might become a seafront flower cafe – selling flowers and crafts, serving teas and coffees, and building a community of workers, volunteers and the public.

We started small in a little painted shack on Southsea seafront.  Our name came from our love of green stuff and the idea that we would become a place where great ideas and big dreams can grow for local artists and growers. After a while we moved to the Pyramids Centre, before settling into the community garden by Canoe Lake that we now call home.

We began trading with a loose ethos of ‘loving life’ and ‘giving something back’ – and so many people responded. Thousands of working hours were given and exchanged as our members and supporters built, planted and weeded, created workshops and events, and most importantly, stopped and talked to the many garden visitors who would turn up whenever our shack door or garden gate was open.

As well as growing plants and veg, we grew in number; and that number moved around the city, spreading the magic. We supported other local ventures and traders, we encouraged everyone we encountered to love local and grow your own. We shared time, energy, and many cups of tea. We exchanged suppers, problems, stories and secrets – and all the joys and sadness’s beneath and in between. We overcame challenges and never tired of new ideas. This boundless community became my normal for the past five years and I confess, I came to take it somewhat for granted – until its unexpected collapse prompted a huge sense of loss and grief.

I know that change happens. Sometimes you just look up and it’s like everyone’s gone to the moon and your invite got lost in the post. The garden that members and volunteers ran as our own Eden-inspired garden centre, with its pick-your-own principle at its heart, has slowly become harder and harder to staff and manage as our volunteers began to fade away. There are fewer shoulders to share the workload and responsibility, less hands to make light work of regular tasks, and so many more things to manage and undertake with a smaller and smaller crew.

After much hand-wringing over our inability to open the garden to set, regular hours, we relaunched as a Secret Garden that opens unpredictably, in the hope that the expectations of our visitors would adapt to the limitations of what we can achieve with a smaller team of volunteers.

And still our visitors come, now with a little more curiosity and a little less tut-tutting at our irregular opening hours. They come in fits and starts, like lost sparks at a firework party.

Back in 2013 when we began our ‘grow local’ campaign, Southsea was ruled by supermarkets, new roads and sexy little projects that received public funding (perhaps not so much has changed).

Now the city embraces ‘wonky veg’, more people are showing interest in allotments, growing veg on their balconies and in window boxes, and there are more wild blooms springing up around the city. We like to think our dreams of a garden city inspired some of this. Our own green-space in the Secret Garden is a precious thing and we want to spend our time sharing the garden with others, to re-discover, support and encourage some of those old handicrafts, but not lose sight of our friends and the work that still needs to be done every day.


So what have we learned so far?

Well, we know how it feels to hit the bottom, for a start. We’re now facing the challenge of winding up our dream of a Community Co-operative, which we are now in the process of dissolving. The cooperative failed mostly because many of our old members signed up but then moved on and stopped sharing their time – a trend that appears to be echoed across the UK since the economic downturn.

The loss of so many of our volunteers makes me sad. We don’t live in a village, or even in a broadly benevolent community these days; we live in a city where money makes the most noise and often becomes a barrier to growth and sharing across our community. We can see this in loudly voiced local opinions on refugees, and in the growing trend towards silo thinking as the dynamics of finding funding sources in an increasingly bare landscape set projects in competition rather than co-operation with each other, and not much is free.

There are of course, exceptions – projects like Portsmouth Foodcycle, local foodbanks and campaigns like Don’t Hate, Donate are great news – but they rely on the hard and unpaid labour of a small number and rely on the rest of us to help a lot more, as well as funding and practical support to survive. In a more competitive landscape where our larger and more established organisations are struggling to survive, the city’s bigger players understandably gather around funding but leave in their wake smaller, independent and often grassroots community projects struggling to breathe, let alone to survive.

But I want to end on a high note, so here’s a challenge for everyone. It’s the kind of thing we did and still do at Southsea Greenhouse as some of Pompey’s die-hard eco-warriors: sticking up for the trees and the green spaces in our city, but also for those less fortunate, for the old, the young and the lonely, who we will always welcome in our community garden at Canoe Lake.

So here’s some ideas to get involved:

One thing my lovely Mum taught me in those early, post-ballerina days back at home: Make the most of those you love and always make time to share with them. If you love Pompey as much as we do, extend that spirit outwards and make ours the first city to reverse the decline in volunteering that’s spreading across the country. We’re in a time when building a community based on sharing is an increasingly revolutionary act, but unlike so much local and national politics, it’s a revolution based on collective action rather than division.

Share what you discover with your friends in real time and in real life as well as on social media. If you can, think about ways to get involved and share some of your time and skills with your community.

It’s all so much simpler – and so much more powerful – when we do it together.

Images courtesy of Southsea Greenhouse.