Culture, Features, Lifestyle

The LEGACY Issue: A Home from Home: Hulme community garden centre

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Featured image: Makenna Ali

I stop before the entry sign and peek through the gate into the secret garden. The scene is lively and warm; a stark contrast to the empty street I am standing in. There is bubbling conversation, lilting above the thrum of cheerful music to which groups of people sway gently, hot drinks in hand. A gathering at Hulme Community Garden Centre.

This wholesome, green little sanctuary dwells quietly on the outskirts of Manchester Met’s Brooks Building, easy to reach but known only by a lucky few. 100% volunteer-led, the centre is a beacon within the community, a rare and valued space where individuals can meet and share in the experience of tending to something special.

For music student Katie Russel, involvement with the garden has become a treasured part of her student experience. Whether it’s through volunteering, chatting with visitors or simply relaxing in the café with a book, she feels her time here has helped to cultivate a home from home amidst the flora.

“Being an international student, the garden centre has been essential to my sense of community,” she says. “It provides a space where you are welcome to socialise, but feel no pressure to.”

Adjusting to university life can be a lonely or isolating experience for many students, whether international or local. A recent study by YouGov revealed 92% of university students in the UK experience concerns with loneliness and more than half feel uncomfortable seeking a solution to it. Building a sense of community and belonging in a new city can often seem daunting, yet there are ways to combat this difficulty.

Alyss McBirney has been a long-term volunteer at Hulme Garden Centre and is now a member of staff. She has seen first hand the benefits of outdoor activities in easing these struggles. She explains that if students spend time outdoors rather than in their rooms they will feel more connected to the world: “It takes you out of your head,” she says. “You start to notice the sights and sounds. That sparks your interest and can get you out of a negative loop.”

She explains the smaller sensory elements of nature can have more impact on our mental health than we realise. According to a poll by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), 91% of UK adults said seeing birds and hearing birdsong has a positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Hulme Garden Centre provides an inner city sanctuary to enjoy the simple pleasures of nature, which can lead directly to improved peace of mind.

This positivity runs through the garden’s key mission to foster community and create opportunities for people to interact with nature and benefit from its transformative effects; bringing them together and building positive creative spaces.

This is valuable for musician Katie, who feels that green areas “provide wonderful space to nurture new ideas”. She has found getting involved with nature — from gentle walks to hands-on gardening workshops — can be a grounding and healing activity, especially in terms of preventing creative burnout.

Amy Deighton, a third year Creative Writing student at Manchester Met shares this outlook. She believes that being outside and moving her body boosts her mood and makes her feel that she’s doing something “positive and tangible”.

“My time outdoors positively impacts my creativity because it allows me to rest,” she says. “It lets me connect to the environment, and that gives me inspiration to write.”

Amy enjoys participating in seasonal events at the garden centre with friends and family – and she sees the organisation as an accessible place that local people can feel is for them.“It’s celebratory and gives people a sense of coming together,” she says. “It gives them a sense of pride, community and belonging.”

The wider legacy of the Hulme Garden Centre is clear, as a wide variety of visitors and volunteers continue to keep this plant-and-human haven running. After decades of the garden centre serving the community, they are keen to keep it open.

The regular workshops, craft events, live music, pay-what-you-can meals and more are offered with sustainability and accessibility at the forefront, providing a safe space for both people and wildlife to thrive.

Discussing the space’s lasting impact on her own time at university, Katie says: “I will look back at my time here fondly. There are certain places that you know you will remember forever once you move around enough, and I can feel that the Hulme Garden Centre is going to be one of those.”

The community garden encourages individuals to participate in the ways that best suit them, and Katie’s contributions to the centre include baking cakes. That for her provides an opportunity to be creative in a way that is separate from her musical work. This is just one example of the positive input she has made here, and part of the impact she will leave behind in Hulme after graduation.

Alyss says there are a wide range of ways people can plant themselves in the garden’s story: “We welcome new people as they come and go. Everyone is friendly and kind.”

Manchester Met Enrichment Project Coordinator Elle Simms says experiences like this can impact life beyond university. “Ultimately, volunteering is just opening yourself up to more opportunities,” she says. “It helps you build a narrative around who you are and what you can bring to a job in the future.”

Elle believes that taking part in environmental projects and immersing yourself in the local community is not only beneficial for future employment, but also for a wider sense of purpose.

“It’s proven that volunteering improves your wellbeing and makes you happier – there’s scientific evidence behind that. Your sense of value in yourself really starts to develop,” says Elle. “You can relinquish the risk of failure and enter a space without having to be an expert. That is such a powerful thing to engage in, especially as a student.”

As a former volunteer, Alyss wants to encourage more students to get involved in events at the garden. “You can get absorbed in an activity and learn something new,” she says. “It really brightens things up.”

Creative writer Amy says her experience with the centre shows that legacy is something that can be grown and cultivated through action and attention – similar to tending plants in a garden. Contributions do not have to be big to be valued, she says.

“Just do it! You’ll feel empowered when you make things happen. Try it – you might find something you love.”

What a legacy that would be.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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