x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The roots of a green legacy

Two students from New York University Abu Dhabi are building a community garden in a busy Abu Dhabi neighbourhood.

Irene Paneda and Nahuel Rosa speak to Khalifa Obaid about building a garden in his neighbourhood. Sammy Dallal / The National
Irene Paneda and Nahuel Rosa speak to Khalifa Obaid about building a garden in his neighbourhood. Sammy Dallal / The National

Students Irene Paneda and Nahuel Rosa want to leave a legacy when they graduate from New York University Abu Dhabi and depart the UAE.

The legacy they have decided on is to build a community garden in a seemingly quiet, but densely populated area of Abu Dhabi City.

The garden, which would be a first for the city and maybe even the country, would not be run by the municipality, but made and tended by the locals and expatriates who live around it.

“It’s very important for us to be connected to the community where we live,” says Nahuel, 23, from Argentina. “The whole idea of a social project that engages the community has always been important to us with our education.

“We are both on full scholarships here and this country has given us so much, we wanted to use what we have learned.

“We realised that there are so many social groups that didn’t interact with each other. We wanted to create a platform to allow them to do that.”

Musahamati (my contribution), an Abu Dhabi Awards competition for young people aged 16 to 23, chose A Garden For All as this year’s winner. The win means their dream of a community garden will become a reality.

The young pair, now in their final year of studies, are working on the project with the Executive Affairs Authority.

Community gardens traditionally go much farther than providing an area of green space for families to relax or play in.

They are areas that encourage social interaction between neighbours and different generations, and an opportunity for people to grow fresh produce, thus improving their health and understanding of sustainability.

Over the past 20 years or so such gardens have been springing up around the world, especially in Western Europe, the United States and Australia.

In some large cities, non-government organisations have set up to help low-income groups establish their own community gardens. In the US there is also a push to turn abandoned plots of land into fruitful gardens.

There is no standard size for a community garden. It entirely depends on its purpose and the wants of the community.

Irene and Nahuel are now working with the authority and municipality to determine the Karama garden’s size and where it should be.

“It’s all down to the people who live here,” says Irene, 21, who is studying political science. “It isn’t about us saying ‘this is what you should have’, it’s an organic process. People need to be involved in setting up the garden.”

There is unlikely to ever be two identical community gardens, because each one is designed and managed with that particular local community in mind.

“We don’t need it to be very big,” Irene says. “We want to focus on the process of it. Ideally, local farmers can give input about what plants are good in the heat. It would need things like trees placed strategically for shade but the rest can be organic.”

Irene and Nahuel, who studied together at Pearson College in Canada, gathered opinion over a few months in the Karama neighbourhood by standing outside a mosque offering coffee and dates to anyone prepared to share their views.

When asked about a possible garden, the response was an overwhelming “yes please”.

“One day when we were here the imam took the microphone and shared the idea with everyone in the mosque and a conversation and debate started happening,” says Nahuel, a psychology student. “People were very enthusiastic and kind about it. They want it.

“So one very important step is to develop different programmes to involve the community – educational programmes, health programmes, recycling programmes or sustainability programmes. And women-only times.”

Many of the large houses in the neighbourhood, which are all surrounded by tall concrete walls, are occupied by Emirati families who, despite their common roots, remain strangers.

Khalifa Obaid, a Customs officer, lives in a villa with his wife and three young daughters who can be heard from the street playing behind their high wall.

“It would be very nice for the children especially if there was a space around here,” says Mr Obaid, 35. “It is different now, when you live in a city you maybe don’t know the neighbours.”

He moved to the area a year ago from Al Bateen, where he grew up. He misses the family gatherings that attracted just about everyone on the street.

“We had a lot of gatherings, usually on a weekend, especially a Friday, but now nobody does the same,” Mr Obaid says. “I usually have to go to Al Bateen to see my family.

“I’d like somewhere safe for my children to go, and my wife, and it would be very good to meet my neighbours in the community.”

The idea of community gardening is not entirely alien to Abu Dhabi. Across the city there are fragmented examples of people using public land to do some sort of gardening, usually growing produce.

Outside a handful of small yet popular cafes, pavement slabs have been pulled up and the ground planted with seeds.

On a much larger scale, the new Mushrif Central Park is being billed as “a place for the entire community”. It is being redeveloped to sustainable standards and will include quiet zones for older people, a botanical garden and children’s playgrounds.

While researching in Abu Dhabi, Irene and Naheul discovered the important role traditional medicine plays in Emirati heritage. This, the locals said, should definitely form part of their new garden.

“An Emirati lady at NYU brought me to her house to see the small garden that they have,” Irene says. “There I was talking to her mum and she was telling me about the medicinal plants.

“I got the sense that this was a women who was passionate about her garden, and I realised it would be such a good platform for that passion and that knowledge to be channelled.”

One of the issues in Abu Dhabi is the mass departure of residents at the weekend. Jasim Al Naqbi, an Emirati, lives alone in the Karama neighbourhood from Sunday to Thursday then returns to his family in Fujairah.

The father of five wants to expand his family, and does not want to move them all to the capital because it “has a different sense of community” from the Northern Emirates.

“I remember one day we saw an ambulance and we didn’t know what had happened until someone said a neighbour died,” Mr Al Naqbi says. “On the east coast people all live together. Everyone knows each other.

“Here, people live on the same block but they don’t know each other. I really appreciate what these two are doing because this neighbourhood really needs something, especially for the kids.”