An essay written about Creatief Beheer, a Rotterdam based organisation which works for the city to be a greener and healthier place through the creating and maintaining of inner city gardens together with local inhabitants

In the spring of 2011 I worked for a period with Creatief Beheer in Rotterdam South, mainly in de Afrikaandertuin. I moved to Rotterdam from Denmark in the summer of 2009,
but 3rd of March - my first day with Creatief Beheer - was the first time I cycled across the Erasmus Bridge to the southern part of the city. From the things I had heard about Rotterdam South and its 'deprived areas', I half expected to ride straight into a ghetto with burned-out cars and blaring ghetto-blasters. But instead I reached Afrikaanderwijk, with children playing, mothers pushing prams and public spaces characterised by flower beds on streets and squares, grassy areas and newly planted trees. It seemed to me as a place where people cared about their surroundings, and one of the driving forces in this is Creatief Beheer.

In the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy in 2005, a Danish-Iranian man took the initiative to start a small cross-cultural organisation for people of all backgrounds who wanted to create positive relations and see new angles to the debate in a time when many dividing lines were sharply drawn. For some years, I worked as a volunteer in the organisation. Initially, they aimed to arrange workshops and debate evenings and to invite guest speakers to give talks about current subjects. But the initiators quickly realised that this was not what their new members were interested in. There were plenty of debates and talks about currents subjects on TV already.

What people actually wanted was to meet and talk and to bring something to the table themselves. And so the main focus of the organisation shifted from debate evenings to buffet evenings, where each guest brought a dish to a large table and everybody shared the food. And it was fun! Eating together embodies values of fellowship, hospitality, gratitude and compassion - eating together is talking together. It is as simple as that.

When I started to get to know the values and the methods of Creatief Beheer, these experiences in Denmark came to mind. When it comes down to it, what most people want in their everyday life is actually quite simple and people tend to like the same things. They like to make a positive difference, to contribute and to be listened to. They appreciate values like compassion and fellowship. They want to see their children grow up healthy and safe, to live in peace and feel appreciated. Most people like to talk to other people, to get along with their neighbours and to live in nice and green surroundings.

One of the essential elements in the work of Creatief Beheer is the interaction with the inhabitants of the area on a daily basis. In de Afrikaandertuin there is always time for a chat with children passing by on their way to other activities and with young men coming to hang out in the hut, which they built themselves in a corner of the garden.
”Hi neighbour!”, the gardeners call out regularly to people walking by, which leads to friendly waves and often to a chat about vegetables and flowers, the weather or about last night's football game or a visit at the doctor's. Creatief Beheer meets people in the neighbourhood on their terms and on their turf, and the friendliness and courtesy is not reserved for anyone specific - everyone is greeted with the same welcoming smile and a cup of tea or coffee.

Afrikaandertuin has a relaxed atmosphere with room for different people, not least because of the park manager Franklin, who sets the friendly and inviting tone in the garden.
Gardens like this in the city can contribute to a vibrant neighbourhood and help to integrate people with different backgrounds and from different generations, as the space is open for everyone. There is always work to do in the garden; picking up litter, pulling weeds, planting flowers or new trees and participating in whichever project the gardening team is working on that day. If you would like to, you can join in on the work, otherwise you are welcome to take a seat on one of the chairs that have been set up outside the garden house and watch the progress. If you just use the woodchip-covered paths as a shortcut today, that is fine too – maybe you will come back tomorrow and stay a bit longer.

It seems that Creatief Beheer has decided that if they really want to engage people - in particular young people - in a project like this, they need to relinquish the reins and see what comes out of it. This offers a chance to see just how innovative and creative people can be if they are given the opportunity – for example the group of young men in de Afrikaandertuin, who built the hut and pieces of furniture out of recycled wooden pallets. The garden is an ever-developing project and it is changing its appearance as the users of the garden get new ideas.
In addition to bringing people together and beautifying neighbourhoods, the gardens have other public benefits; they can be a useful tool in telling children about community responsibility and cooperative behaviour and how to work together for the common good besides teaching them gardening. The gardens can also help to teach respect for the environment and how to address ecological issues such as waste of water, composting and recycling.

As with every other place, de Afrikaandertuin also faces challenges. This neighbourhood is not homogenous, it consists of a lot of different groups with different needs and wishes for the area. A challenge for the people in Afrikaandertuin could be to help ensure that the garden continues to stay open and inviting for all groups and individuals.
At the heart of all this should be a culture of trust and a genuine openness and curiosity about how to do things better tomorrow than today.
A common saying among the discontented is that the grass is always greener on the other side. It seems that Creatief Beheer says: The grass is greener where you water it.