As I go round the country these days I am often on the lookout for unusual places where community thrives, away from traditional locations we might normally associate with the idea of community. Many of these are sport, arts, or environment related, perhaps because people want to interact in less formal places based more on their interests or leisure – a challenge potentially to those running government and civil society-led buildings given the debate on the future of community assets and their funding at the moment. The future may increasingly about hubs where people already go, which have a dominant emphasis or theme, but which are also multiple-use, clustering many different public, private, and voluntary activities so that the whole is self-sustaining.

One example I recently visited of an unexpected hub for community was a garden centre. Scotsdale Garden Centre in Cambridge is what the garden or horticultural industry calls a “destination centre”. Indeed despite going in the middle of the day it was packed – it seems in the recession and with an aging population more and more people are gardening and growing food, and keeping pets! As well as the expected range of plants and sundries on offer, the store was abuzz with children strolling through the pet and fish displays, a mini-indoor amusement park and several grottos were being built for Christmas, and the restaurant close to full with families (especially grandparents with their grandchildren) enjoying the half-term break. Check out their website for full details.

The main purpose of the visit was to witness the garden industry’s surprisingly strong role within the local community. I was inspired by the Cambridge Cancer Care Help Centre that Scotsdales have built on-site to provide a facility for mutual support and understanding for those suffering or otherwise affected by cancer in the community. The finance was raised by the local community, and the centre is run by volunteers with one professional centre manager. There is an amazing sense of peace when you step into building, and despite being told it was a “quiet” day, there were plenty of people around enjoying a cup of coffee after a presentation on the power of acupuncture!

And Scotsdales is just one of hundreds of garden centres around the UK that play a strong and important community role, according to the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA). Many of them work closely with school gardening clubs, teaching kids a sense of sustainability through how to grow their own food and plants. They raise money for local and national charities. They resource the planting of allotments on and near housing estates. They provide therapeutic facilities for people with learning disabilities and support local hospices. They run social and community events. They are increasingly providing space for local charities, social enterprises, and businesses on their land. And in some cases, they have even become the local post office. I encourage you to visit your local garden centre – like me, I suspect you’ll be surprised how much is going on.

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