Story Behind the Story
From October to November 2013, I interned with Operation Black Vote, a non-profit championing the rights and representation of minorities in politics. To read all the stories I produced, visit OBV's website.
On my own, I set out with an assignment: in an afternoon, report a story from Canary Wharf. In London's glistening financial hub, I wanted a unique story - and what I found was a working city farm sequestered in the shadow of skyscrapers. In a matter of an hour, I interviewed subjects who had lived the past and explained the challenges of the future.
Read a portrait of the present below.
City Farm Thrives in Spite of Funding Cuts
ISLE OF DOGS, London – Canary Wharf glimmered like a mirage of glass and steel above the rolling farm hills where three young women in rubber boots tried to walk a stubborn sheep.
“He’s always difficult,” Jasmine Gregory laughed, tugging at the sheep’s rope as it clamped down on some shrubbery along the path. Gregory, a therapist at a school for special needs students in Tower Hamlets, visits Mudchute Park and Farm once a week with her sixth formers for therapeutic environmental education.
A 40-year-old farm on the Isle of Dogs, Mudchute has survived the death of the docks, the birth of Canary Wharf,
development threats and funding cuts to remain the thriving public green space it is today.
From Abandoned Outpost to Flourishing Farm
Mudchute is a working farm with 32 acres of land and over 100 animals, including sheep, horses, and llamas.
But it’s also an educational centre providing environmental awareness to children and youth, animal therapy
to people with disabilities, and nursery, kids’ club, and horseback riding lessons to local families.
Denise Lara, education officer at Mudchute for the past 15 years, has been an active part of the farm's growth. Outfitted in an official green shirt, weatherproof trousers, and dirtied rubber boots, Lara is a down-to-earth woman with an unassuming smile on a face lined from years of being outside.
When Lara was growing up on the Isle of Dogs, the land that was to become Mudchute Farm was a former WWII military outpost. Lara remembered the wild woods littered with abandoned air raid shelters as her brothers’ favorite spot to escape from school.
Lara didn’t start her career in farming. “I used to work in the docks. All our family were dockers,” she said. When industry began to shift away from the docks, Lara’s family left the business.
“My father didn’t agree with what was going on and got out,” she said. “It was the end of an era, a ghost town before the wharf was built.”
The wharf brought the threat of development to Mudchute in the 1970s. The local community fought to preserve the green space and was officially awarded the land in 1977. Now the community-run Mudchute Association leases the land from the city council.
Since its opening, Mudchute Park and Farm has welcomed 45,000 attendees. It currently employs 55 staff and numerous volunteers.
Community Green Spaces Growing in Popularity
Mudchute is just one of 16 city farms and 74 community gardens in the capital city according to Catherine Miller, London development coordinator for the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens.
Miller said that some plots, like Mudchute, began as campaigns against the development of green space. But what started as pushback has evolved into a popular movement to grow local produce that, due to escalating land prices, is more cost effective if done communally.
According to Miller, most plots are in deprived areas and all have a strong ethos of open access, providing a free-of-charge outing for low-income families.
“They reflect what the community around it wants,” she said. “They’re not run as market gardens. Their primary purpose is education.”
Such is true with Mudchute. Lara, as an education officer trained to work with special needs students, oversees local school visits and youth programs. Many of the children who visit have mental and physical disabilities while
others are teenaged criminal offenders. Young visitors are given responsibilities such as cleaning the stables and taking care of the animals, like Gregory and her sixth former taking the sheep for a walk.
Miller, Lara, and Gregory all agreed that the therapeutic benefits for children with disabilities who work with animals are extraordinary – because they’ve witnessed real life examples.
“I’ve seen the most wonderful changes,” said Lara. “Kids who don’t speak are talking. Kids with the most appalling behavior are changed by being here with the animals.”
Lack of Funds Challenges Future
Despite the proven benefits and growing popularity of city parks and farms, all face a lack of funding. According to Miller, money for green spaces comes from a variety of sources – local councils, charitable trusts, individual donations, and national lotteries – but it’s not always accessible.
“There is money there, but it takes a lot of time for project managers to find,” Miller said. “Managers have to be on their toes, very adaptive and creative to keep funding coming in.”
Lara is one of those managers trying to keep Mudchute’s employees – herself included – paid. “There’s never enough funding,” she said. “Recently funding from the local council was cut, and I lost my salary.”
She compensated by working more – doubling the amount of children’s groups and expanding the nursery school and riding lessons, through which most of Mudchute’s income is generated.
“We could always use another staff member,” she said, “but we’re holding our own.”
This tough-as-nails attitude has seen Mudchute through the tumultuous changes of the past decades and keeps the farm looking forward to a future for London’s public green spaces.
As the sun tilted towards midday, the nursery toddlers, dressed in matching neon vests, sat down to lunch with their teachers on picnic tables by the stables. Gregory, arm in arm with one of her sixth formers, strode off waving goodbye, and Lara, with a no-nonsense smile, got back to work.