Peter Nurick: How a designing a garden grows confidence

A fresh look at community gardens has come up with a  design which will create an inspiring outdoor space for the whole community. Picture: Dylan Drummond
A fresh look at community gardens has come up with a design which will create an inspiring outdoor space for the whole community. Picture: Dylan Drummond
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COMMUNITY-LED projects are key to improving health and wellbeing across Scotland, writes Peter Nurick

What is the best way to engage with people living with challenging health and wellbeing issues? How can we empower our communities to become stronger and more supportive?

These are big, troubling issues for a developed nation like Scotland to engage in, particularly when we see reports of growing mental health issues facing Scots of all ages, and problems of health inequality and loneliness for our older population.

V&A Dundee has been investigating these challenges through our ongoing Community Garden project, which is involving people from across Dundee in jointly designing a new public garden in the centre of the city’s transformed waterfront.

We’ve taken a lease on a 100 square metre plot within Dundee’s new Slessor Gardens, between the Caird Hall and the River Tay, and a stone’s throw away from the V&A Dundee site. The aim is to collaboratively create a world-class public space for people to enjoy and spend time in, a garden created by the city and for the city.

V&A Dundee worked in partnership with individuals and community groups who are actively seeking to improve their health and wellbeing. Supporters included Art Angel, an organisation run by and for people with experience of mental health difficulties in Dundee. Art Angel offers high-quality creative opportunities to help people to work towards recovery and mental wellbeing.

Over the past three months, 20 members of the public have taken part in the project across seven workshops designed and delivered by the design studio kennedytwaddle and design engagement specialist Linsey McIntosh, with the support of landscape architects Macfarlane and Associates.

At each of the seven sessions – planned to highlight the stages in the design process – the co-design team were guiding the project, influencing the final outcomes. And these stages can be applied to any other design process, giving our community participants transferable skills and an insight into how design works.

The project began with research trips to the site where the garden will be built. This gave participants the opportunity to get initial reactions to the space and start to document some of the factors that influence the site, including the weather, streetscape and the impact of the surrounding buildings. A second trip took them to allotments and finally to the University of Dundee Botanic Garden to see how different people use garden spaces and how these spaces are shaped and designed by their users.

Additional sessions explored in detail the planting that would be suitable, and gave the co-design team a chance to share their extensive knowledge from their own horticultural experience. After this, the team focused on particular themes that they had identified during their research, which later developed into concepts that would inform the structure and planting of the garden itself.

A visit to the maker space at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design gave a glimpse into some of the modern technologies and process that are available to the designers of today. The co-design team used sketching, collage and then model-making to further focus their ideas before arriving at a finished design that will be built, with the support of more community groups and volunteers. It will act as an inspiring outdoor space for the whole community and a space for V&A Dundee to host events, workshops and other community-focused activities in the run up to – and long after – the museum’s opening in 2018.

By collaborating with others, the co-design team has gained confidence and an insight into the design process. It has been fascinating and very inspiring to see how giving the participants full creative control, by giving them a voice in all of the design decisions, has had such a major impact on their confidence and wellbeing.

By the end of the first stage of the project, which was supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery and the Rank Foundation, the participants showed real ownership of the garden and see how their ideas had culminated in the final design.

It’s clear design that is open and collaborative can change individual lives and whole communities, and we’re proud to have successfully tested a way of working that has improved the lives of our participants.

Each of them has become a designer, a more confident individual, and a member of the V&A Dundee team through this project, something we will replicate as V&A Dundee continues to work with community groups and individuals across the city and beyond.

• Peter Nurick is communities producer at V&A Museum of Design Dundee. Find out more at