Down a narrow walkway across the road from a large social housing estate in East London’s economically disadvantaged Tower Hamlets borough, the concrete gives way to a tangle of green. Hundreds of plants are crammed into a space the size of a two-car garage, forming a thriving mess of a garden where strawberries ripen and bell-shaped foxglove flowers stand at shoulder height. Just over the fence, the banks of the Regent’s Canal are lined with residential narrow boats, a mostly itinerant, unconventional form of floating affordable housing in one of the most expensive cities in the world. For an area with the highest rate of child poverty in the United Kingdom, the highest unemployment in the city, some of the lowest levels of air quality, and a 19,000-person waiting list for housing, the garden is an oasis in a defoliated urban jungle.
Sally Hone is one of the self-described boat people who call this stretch of London’s 8.6-mile canal home, and her pruning shears attempt to bring order to the dozens of species teeming in the garden. Ducking under the drooping, fruit-laden branches of an apple tree, she turns back and confronts the obvious. “You can tell it’s a developer’s dream,” she says.
Hone is the unofficial head of the Canal Club Community Garden. She and her partner, Dominique Cournault, have been licensed since 2010 to cultivate this space, which is owned by the council of Tower Hamlets, one of London’s 32 boroughs. They open it up to the public for gardening workshops, art classes, and shared pizza lunches that they cook in the garden’s clay oven every Tuesday. “For a lot of the mums in the estate, it’s a free meal,” Hone says.
Not long ago, this land was a barren chunk of concrete, a leftover parcel from a city building effort in the early 1980s. Hone and Cournault worked for about eight years to gain legal access to the site, which sits next to the Wellington Estate, a council estate with 300 apartments, and slowly replaced its concrete surfaces with raised planters and soil. Around the same time they began the garden, the council closed the community center next door. “They stopped repairing, they stopped cleaning, they stopped doing the roof, they just let it run into managed decline,” Hone says. At some point, the council’s property team, she notes with a wince, had its name changed to Asset Management. “And then we heard about a year ago that they had plans to demolish all this and build affordable flats. So that’s where the fight started.” ...