An Interview with Father Nature

Earlier this month we caught up with Crispin Swayne and Paula Webb, Co-Directors of Father Nature, to find out more about their community projects and how they connect people living in cities with nature. Check out our interview below.

Our Interview with Father Nature

1. You run a variety of community projects to help connect people in the inner city with nature. What are some of the key benefits you have seen from these projects?

One of the reasons we started Father Nature was because we saw time and again how magical nature is as a platform to improve communication between people, whether it’s isolated pensioners, out of work youths or struggling young families.

We see such joy from the people we work with when they discover how accessible nature is, even in the city, and what fun it can bring.

Then there is the confidence gained from pushing your boundaries a little, such as growing your own food or how to relate to animals – from tiny bugs to large livestock, and how fascinating, normal and natural that can feel; knowing that you are part of nature, have come from it and can feel satisfaction from helping it.

People on our projects soon realise that being part of community projects can help you find friends, happiness, skills, employment and even self-sufficiency.

2. One of your main aims is to bring local people together to create a nourishing, inviting and inspiring environment. How do you get people involved in your work?

People come to us! So many organisations are looking for a platform to advance their green or community work, they’ve heard about us and approach us to be the conduit.

We’re in constant dialogue with schools, borough councils, children’s services, private companies, architects, residents associations, hostels, the NHS and the British Army, amongst others, all of whom are trying to engage with communities. They can see that the right ‘natural’ activity, such as a growing project, planting party, or our Big Park Sleepover, targets so many things, including personal wellbeing, community building and sustainability. Nature as a platform works like magic.

Then the word spreads and others want to get involved. We’re never short of volunteers or requests for help!

On any given project we find the key is to be relentlessly inclusive. The more people locally who are involved in the decision making and doing, the more they invest of themselves and get inspired by the scheme – whether it’s deciding where to put the planter, what plants to grow, digging in the plants, agreeing to a watering rota with neighbours… When we get to the point when they say, ‘Thanks we don’t need your help anymore,' then we know we’ve done a good job.

3. Each year you run a Big Park Sleepover mini-festival for low income and local families at Myatt’s Fields Park in Lambeth. What do you do on these sleepovers? How beneficial do the guests find them?

The idea is to get people making friends with nature and across communities so the whole event is geared around outdoor fun and group activities. We take over the park for a night, hire in the tents, the food, the storytellers and a host of workshop leaders, including fire-lighting, drumming, whittling, planting, foraging and cooking. There’s loads for the kids to do, including jumping around on hay bales and a mini-Olympics. We even had circus skills this year.

We get the local Army Reserves and Cadets to provide the security which really helps people feel safe and allows them to relax.

Firelighting at the Big Park Sleepover

Firelighting at the Big Park Sleepover

For a lot of the families who come to the Sleepover this is their only holiday of the year, and very often their first time out under the stars.People walk away with so much more confidence to get outdoors, try camping and connect with their park and nature.

It’s exciting for the kids; as the sun sets and they realise they’re going to be in a park at night, there’s a palpable thrill in the air.

The parents have a great time too; they get a chance to let the kids go wild and explore the activities, while they find new friends and support on their doorstep. A lot of the parents reconnect with the benefits of being outdoors for themselves and walk away with a fresh view on their hectic indoor-bound lives and a commitment to spending more time with their kids in nature.

4. How key are community gardens to the local environment and neighbourhoods?

Increasingly, public spaces are being managed by private companies who are seriously infringing on our human rights by curtailing freedoms such as celebrations, protests, performances, even relaxing on the grass.

Community gardens are important self-policed meeting places, providing opportunities for local problem solving, horticultural education, relaxation, exercise and self-expression. The people they attract deters or addresses antisocial behaviour such as drinking, drug taking or littering.

5. Does one garden have a domino effect, in that when people have seen one in a neighbouring community they want to do it in their own?

It’s definitely been a snowball effect. Our work is, without doubt, our best advertising. Some of our larger projects, such as the work we did with the tenants on the Edmundsbury Estate in Brixton, or the Neighbourhood Enhancement Scheme for Lambeth Council, have proved so popular that passers-by often get in contact to see how we can help them. When we tell them that with a little determination and our help they can turn that fly-tipped, wheely bin corner of shame on their estate into a thriving beautiful community hub for growing, they want in.

We now have over 100 such projects in Lambeth, with another 60 already planned for next year.

Edmundsbury Estate

Edmundsbury Estate

6. You mentioned that you think community growing is moving towards being a necessity, rather than just a fad. How do you see this happening?

For health reasons, we need to complement diets with fresh foods which, for some, are not always available or affordable. We can take control, to some extent, by growing our own food and exchanging information locally while doing it. We can trust our food more if we know where it comes from.

7. How important is it that children are included in these community projects from a young age?

It’s a cliché but our children are our future and the experiences we give them are key. We’re trying to teach them respect for the environment, for each other and themselves, including what they eat.

Learning to work with people in a shared space in nature enables kids to learn about themselves, others and the world, how everything is interconnected, and how they are not isolated; how everything they do has an effect and the choice of what impact they want to have on the planet and in the wider world.

Community Planting Party at Andalus Rd for Lambeth's Neighbourhood Enhancement Programme

Community Planting Party at Andalus Rd for Lambeth’s Neighbourhood Enhancement Programme

8. Is there anything that could be done to encourage children to get into gardening?

Start with nature tables, nature trails, then PYO, such as strawberries, and then getting into conversations about GYO. Mucking about with mud and trowels is a good start. You never see a sad child mucking about in puddles of mud (soil contains an antidepressant). Before you know it, they’re growing cress, then strawberries.

We have a saying that ‘gardening is inevitable’. Often older people with time on their hands find their vocation as gardeners and make great teachers for youngsters.

9. You also mentioned that you can help very young children get horticultural qualifications. How do you do this?

Watch this space! We’re currently working on setting up an AQA scheme for under fives.

If you’d like to get involved with Father Nature then please email [email protected].

Remember, Shedstore is your one-stop shop and first port of call for all of your gardening requirements. 

Main image: Crispin Swayne & Paula Webb - Father Nature's Co-Directors