rebecca clark, greening the city

December 14, 2013 § 2 Comments

Rebecca Clark

When I was ten I spent most of my time eating too many sweets and swapping Italia ’90 World Cup stickers.  When Rebecca Clark was ten she was already saving the planet.  “I started a club in primary school called the Green Team.  It was 10p to join, which annoyed some of the parents, but the money always went towards good causes plus you got a badge and a membership slip.  We would parade round the playground with campaign banners saying ‘Save the Whales’ or ‘Save the Planet’ and we even had a theme tune, which I am not going to sing for you!”

So, whilst I was busily filling my sticker book, Rebecca was a social entrepreneur before she even knew it.  She now owns and runs Green City, a not-for-profit social enterprise that organises interactive public events to promote wider issues around sustainable living.  “It’s essentially a community engagement project that helps people of all ages understand and implement simple ways of living a little more sustainably, but the main aim is to inspire and engage people through fun, hands-on activities.”  Things started small, with recycled clothes swapping events and fringe activities at local festivals, but Rebecca’s energy, creativity and obvious talent has seen the business grow quickly and successes now include co-hosting Cardiff’s annual One Planet Cardiff festival, working with the Eden Project on The Big Lunch campaign, doing lots of work with Sustrans and Communities First teams and, back for its third year, the Festive Food Fair, which takes place this Sunday 15th December at Chapter Arts Centre.

“I can’t pretend to say that I knew what Green City was going to be when I started it.  Things developed without a clear plan, with no official business plan.  I knew a lot of “green” people, I knew I liked what they stood for and I knew I wanted to communicate that to more people but I wasn’t sure how.  I just started experimenting with ideas and when I realised that something I was doing had value and that there seemed to be a need for it and there were people who would support me, I went for it and it’s grown organically from there”.

Rebecca grew up in East Sussex and came to Cardiff, like many of us, to study. “My tutor pretty much told me that I had to go to UWIC (now Cardiff Met) if I wanted to do Graphic Communication.  I actually wanted to go to Exeter as that’s where my boyfriend was going, but good job I didn’t because he didn’t last!  I loved Cardiff as soon as I arrived“.  At University, Rebecca showed glimpses of what was to come. She started running a regular techno night in town “It started off at the Ice Rink; the coolest night in town, big house party, always sold out.  My boyfriend did the music and I brought all the fluffy extras – face-painting, chai tea, and fundraising”.   She also joined Lush Cosmetics and eventually went on to run the Cardiff store for a year or so. “I loved what they stood for and I was interested in fun ways or stories that staff could get information across.  My favourite was when we had a naked day, wearing nothing but our aprons, to promote the issue of over packaging of products. That caused quite a stir.   But it was also a really good grounding for running my own business because they placed a lot of responsibility and autonomy on individual stores”.

In her mid-twenties Rebecca decided it was time to go travelling and after a couple of years returned to Cardiff with a new outlook.  “Travelling gave me a real sense of an ability to live within your means, I realised I could live with so much less.  I struggled to fit back into city living for a while and I suppose that’s where the seeds of Green City really started”.

Those seeds have now grown but, as for many small businesses, progress is tough.  “I never saw Green City growing huge and taking over the World but it does seems to be taking over my life at the moment.  It’s great fun but there’s also so much pressure on you when you’re self-employed to provide for yourself. The business doesn’t fully support me at the moment, so I have to do other things to make ends meet”.  Now most people would probably find an easy part-time job to tide them over, but being the girl she is, Rebecca teaches at the circus. After joining No Fit State around six years ago to learn how to trapeze she has now progressed to teaching others.  “It’s really rewarding.  There are so many life skills in it.  You can see kids really opening up.  Some come in so closed and don’t like anyone looking at them but circus breaks that all down and gives them some great social skills.  And there’s no age barrier. I also tutor a woman in her seventies who is just amazing on the trapeze.  She’s my idol, if I’m 50% of what she is at that age I’ll be so happy!“

Working at No Fit State has made Rebecca realise how much she loves teaching, which has led to exciting new plans for Green City.  “Next year is very exciting.  I’m going to be partnering up with Hannah from Free Range Learning; she’s got some fantastic ideas and knowledge. Our plan is to develop a whole range of workshop packages that we can deliver ourselves to suit different people; we’re looking at doing sustainability summer schools and half-term activities for kids and maybe even a corporate package.  We’re interested in communicating to different age groups in interactive ways and maybe even incorporating the performing arts side of things. We’ll see”.

So, exciting plans ahead and, whilst at ten years old she may have been a little bit scary, Rebecca Clark is slowly but surely achieving those ambitious playground ambitions.  As Rebecca says herself, “the great thing about Cardiff is that it’s small enough to feel like you’re making a difference”, and a difference she is definitely making.  Now Green City just needs a catchy theme tune!

Rebecca Clark owns and runs Green City and also teaches at No Fit State Circus.  She is an UnLtd and Future Leaders Award winner. The wonderful Festive Food Fair takes place this Sunday, 15th Dec 2013 at Chapter Arts Centre in Canton. See you there for some lovely local Christmas goodies.

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Michele Fitzsimmons, growing ideas

May 14, 2012 § 3 Comments

Edible Landscaping

Michele Fitzimmons © gwionthorpe

Ask anyone who loves Cardiff to give you three reasons why it’s such an ace city and I bet you most of them will name one of our beautiful parks. Big slices of lush greenery right smack bang in the middle of the urban sprawl.  We’re so lucky to have them.  But one remarkable lady isn’t content with a few public parks, she is on a mission to green, grow and feed our city.

“Everywhere you go in Cardiff there are bits of land where there is the potential to grow some food.  It could be a small area at the end of your street where there might be room for a nut tree, it could be a brownfield site where you think raised beds with vegetables could work, it could be a community centre where you would like to join with others in creating a community garden”.

Michele Fitzsimmons is a permaculture designer and educator who, since the mid 1990s has been developing her Edible Landscaping ethos.  Having completed a permaculture design course, Michele decided to turn her hand to creating edible and wildlife gardens to benefit her local community.  “I’ve designed quite small gardens for places like Adamsdown Community Garden, South Riverside Development Centre and areas in Roath, to slightly bigger plots like Chapter Arts Community Garden in Canton.  I’m particularly proud of the design I created at Edwardsville Primary School in Merthyr Tydfil”.  This latter design included the school buildings and grounds and helped the School win the Wales Eco-Primary School of the Year award in 2008.

Michele’s latest project, part of the Transition Cardiff movement, is Farm Cardiff.  It hopes to inspire individuals and groups to identify areas in their neighbourhood where there is food growing potential and then feed the info back to a group of committed volunteers who will place it on an online map available to everyone. “One way of thinking about it is to see Cardiff as a farm, with the potential to produce much more of its own food.  Farm Cardiff is an open, informal group with a range of skills but above all enthusiasm and commitment to get things done”.

Michele is from Australia and her love of nature started from an early age. “I’ve been gardening for as long as I can remember. I had a really idyllic childhood.  We had this big garden and beyond that was acres of bush land, which was my own private playground. I used to run around in the bush, jump over snakes, go down to the waterhole, sit on top of the waterfall, hide in the caves and that was my normal playtime. I just loved being out with nature. It was heaven.”

Michele’s philosophy is matching what people want to do in their garden with some practical ideas and design. “I think we should all have an investment in our own individual food security, but I realise that most people are really busy so it’s a matter of making it easier for more people to grow their own food, even if it’s a couple of pot plants”.  She runs numerous short courses for individuals right through to full landscape design and consultancy services.  “I teach anything from ‘how to grow vegetables’ right through to ‘edible forest gardening’ and anything in between.  It’s literally horses for courses”.

The word ‘permaculture’ comes from ‘permanent agriculture‘ and is about living lightly on the planet and in harmony with nature to make sure that we can sustain our activities for many generations to come.  Or as Michele puts it, “It’s not rocket science.  It’s a way of working with nature to create a really productive, nature-friendly garden and it can be achieved in all sorts of spaces”.

Over the past few months, Michele and her colleagues from Cardiff Transition have been tackling the question ‘can Cardiff feed itself?’  “Of course, it’s ridiculous to think that Cardiff could feed itself, it’s got hardly any agricultural land and over 340 thousand people, but it’s a question that raises some significant issues. A better question, and one we need to tackle, is ‘can Wales feed Cardiff and itself?’ Because yes is the answer to that…almost”.  Based on research by Amber Wheeler into how many hectares are needed per person to eat a healthy diet, Wales is short by some 80,000 hectares of suitable land.  “Theoretically it is possible, but it relies on a number of factors, which are quite complex. But a really simple step is to get more people interested in growing their own food.  We’ve run out of agricultural land, so we need to start looking at people’s gardens, parks, industrial estates, verges, flat roves. We need to start thinking of as many opportunities as possible to grow food”.  Enter Farm Cardiff.

Whilst the focus of Michele’s work is on Cardiff and Wales, the motivation is global. “There are lots of really hungry people in this World and yet they’re growing cash crops for us Westerners.  Why?  Why shouldn’t they grow food for themselves? And why should we depend on them for our food? Why aren’t we pulling out all the stops? I just think it’s our responsibility to grow more of our own food.  So my motivation is to bring about ideas of how we can do that and get more people involved in the idea of growing food for themselves.”

But don’t think Michele is standing on any kind of soapbox.  She is very much a roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty kind of lady.  More practical than political. “I see my role as being more pro-active at the grass roots level. Engaging and enthusing people about nature and gardening. I don’t really want to go to meetings and talk about it.  I need to stick to what I know and I know how to grow food”.

Michele Fitzsimmons is a permaculture designer and educator and runs Edible Landscaping, an education and design business specialising in edible gardens, organic fruit and vegetable growing and permaculture.  She works with individuals, businesses and communities to help them realise their aspirations with their food-growing project www.ediblelandscaping.co.uk

Steve Garrett, the riverside market man

September 22, 2011 § 6 Comments

Steve Garrett © gwionthorpe

There are a few things that make Cardiff extra special. The Riverside Market is one of those things.  Every Sunday morning, for a few hours, a stretch of pavement opposite the Millenium Stadium is transformed into a bustling local food market, selling all sorts of lovely stuff, from fresh apple juice, award-winning meats, awesome coffee, French patisserie, proper veg with mud still attached and probably the best hangover-cure ever, Kimi’s curry van.  It really is a lovely experience and Steve Garrett is the man we have to thank for it.

Born in Wrexham, North Wales, Steve was educated in Liverpool before leaving for Canada, where he lived for fourteen years.  It was here that he found his inspiration. “I felt a real kind of freedom in Canada to do exactly what I wanted.  I lived on a communal farm for a while and got in to growing food, working on alternative energy schemes and actually trying to build a different type of life model. I got really involved in farmers markets and I was drawn to the whole idea of bypassing the big supermarkets and seeing local farmers sell directly to local people.  I loved the atmosphere, it was really social, and I thought “I really want to set one of those up when I get back to the UK”.  And that’s exactly what he did.

In the mid-nineties, Steve returned to Wales and settled in Cardiff where he got involved, voluntarily, in two things at roughly the same time – the Riverside Festival and setting up the Riverside Market.  Both of these have now become a key part of the City’s cultural make-up.  “The market was originally just ten stores in the little park at the end of the road (Despenser Gardens), trading no more than once a month. It was one of those things that I thought I’d never make a living out of it but I was determined to make it work. I never expected it to become something that totally took over my life”. Cardiff’s Riverside Market is now the oldest and, arguably, the most successful farmers market in Wales.  It attracts hundreds of visitors each week, from all backgrounds and ages, and it has quite deservedly won numerous awards.

There are now five farmers markets operating across Cardiff, all run by the Riverside Community Market Association (RCMA), of which Steve is a Director.  The newest of these markets, which started in August, is perhaps the most exciting development yet.  It is situated right in the heart of the City, on High Street, opposite the Castle and is running for an initial 12-week trial period until mid November, every Thursday between 11am-3pm.  The initial signs are good.  “It really works. It’s a lovely social space there and the market is creating a kind of piazza. We’re hoping to work closely with Cardiff Market to create a proper market quarter in the center of town.  The potential is definitely there”.

On the back of his hard work and success with the RCMA and other projects, Steve is now an influential and respected voice on local food and sustainability issues in Wales.  He also uses his knowledge and experiences to help other groups start their own projects and is keen to see more encouragement and support for budding entrepreneurs.  “We should really be trying to encourage people to start things.   If you try to nail it all down and try to make it all safe you hinder creativity.  But I know that Cardiff is really promoting itself as a can-do City, it says it wants to be helpful to people with ideas”.

Further afield, Steve has recently become involved with a group of women, all HIV widows, in Western Zimbabwe, helping them set up a local food cooperative.  “The first time I spoke to them about my ideas I felt a bit embarrassed.  I didn’t think I’d have anything to teach people who invented the whole notion of markets. But the cooperative model seems to be something that could really take off and be quite a life changer for them”.  You can watch a video documenting Steve’s work in Zimbabwe here.

Steve clearly has a love of food, people and community but his other big passion is music.  “I have always been well into music.  My alter ego at the moment is Stainless Steve.  I sing and play guitar with a little band and write songs.  It’s just for fun but it’s a bit more than a hobby.  It’s always a lovely feeling when you perform something you’ve created from nothing and people like it, and they laugh, which I particularly like. I’m trying not to be taken too seriously”.  Through his company, Cultural Concerns, Steve also aims to “provide practical activities, advice and support to community artists, funders and policy-makers to support the development of better links between the arts, personal development and community regeneration”.

How does he find the time to do all this? “I do move a bit fast, but you’ve got to learn to manage it because there are endless things you could be doing every day.  I try and savour each day and spend it with people I like”.  But Steve is not one for too much reflection or self-congratulation.  “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking back about what I’ve done or achieved.  Pride doesn’t really come into it.  I spend more time thinking about where I want to go.  It’s good to know that I can put effort into things and it bears fruit. That’s a good feeling”.

Steve explained that when he moved to Canada it felt like he was breaking away from all the expectations in Britain that he had to have a certain type of job or a certain type of career.  Looking back, he now admits “I’ve completely failed to have any kind of career in the normal sense, but the consolation of that is that I’ve done a lot of interesting things”.  If Steve Garrett is an example of what you can achieve if you don’t conform to expectations, then it is a practice that should be heavily encouraged.  See you on Sunday!

Steve Garrett is Founding Director of the Riverside Community Market Association (RCMA) and a Director of RCMA Social Enterprise Ltd. He is also the founder of Cultural Concerns, a small company focusing on culture and the arts as a means of empowering individuals and communities.  Stainless Steve performs original and wryly observant songs about the ‘big issues’ of our times at venues across the country and can be booked via his agent.

Marc Thomas, Mr. Plastik fantastic

May 31, 2011 § 2 Comments

Marc Thomas © gwionthorpe

Marc Thomas is working on a dream.  “When we’re young we dream of doing something great. Most people dream of being famous, but then they go to university, live off of mouldy pasta for 4 or 5 years and at the end decide they prefer the security of a full time job”.  But, unlike many of his peers, Marc has chosen a different path.  He’s going it alone.

Marc is editor and owner of Plastik Magazine (formerly Journal of Plastik), an “on-line magazine of culture and things relating to creative culture”.  The aim of the magazine is to “represent the creative atmosphere of one of the world’s most vibrant cities – Cardiff.  The city is up and coming and producing a vast amount of incredible creative talent.  Plastik Magazine exists to document the flux of the city”.

Marc acted on impulse when the idea for the magazine came up.  Instead of thinking through a web strategy or developing a business plan he decided to be reckless and just do it.  “Personally, I feel uneasy with the idea of just getting a job out of comfort.  If I were working for a magazine or newspaper I would seldom get the chance to work on a project like this. I’d be constrained to writing features that might not be all that interesting.  This might be the only opportunity I will ever have to be so free in journalism and business – If I don’t take it now, I’ll probably end up feeling bitter and ruing the day I took the easy way out”.  Wise words, but also quite brave for a 22 year old fresh out of journalism school.

Plastik Magazine has gained a loyal readership in a short space of time, but over the past few weeks, with the end of his University days fast approaching, Marc has been focused on turning Plastik Magazine from a journalism project into a fully-fledged business.  “I’ve been working hard on building revenue streams into the website and creating new ways to build community at the same time. There’s a big problem of how to make online journalism profitable and not sell out. Plastik Magazine wants to help local businesses, culture and customers connect and also continue to be able to afford to provide our readers with brilliant content”.

It is this dilemma that has led to Marc’s most recent venture – the Plastik Pass.  The pass is a discount card, which costs £5, lasts six months and gives lots of unique offers and discounts at local, independent businesses throughout the City.  “The Plastik Pass is my proudest achievement to date. It’s a cord of three strands: community, revenue and culture”. Marc’s hope is that by buying a Plastik Pass you’re doing two things. “Firstly, you’re saving a whole bunch of money, and secondly, you’re supporting loads of great local businesses and helping to promote our unique culture, which is something you can’t really put a price on”.

Marc’s creative juices are clearly is constant flow.  So much so he has developed a post-it system to capture and prioritise his ideas.  “If there’s something that needs doing I get very excited about the blank page in front of me”.  However, he stresses that one thing he’s learning is that it’s very difficult to come up with a brand new idea.  “Originality is hard to come by.  These days, to get to the front of a crowd, you just need to be better at walking through gaps”.  Similarly, Marc realises the importance of a good support network.  “There’s a lot you can do on your own, but you can’t do everything.  At some point you have to listen”.

Marc is not a native.  He moved here five years ago, like many others, to study at University. But his love for Cardiff is clear and there is no doubt that he has worked hard to become part of the community.  I wish I had contributed as much during my student days.

Marc didn’t quite fit the picture I had in my head of someone who is deep into the music scene, an entrepreneur, promoter, and journalist.  I’m not sure what I expected, but he wasn’t it.  Marc was so much nicer.  In fact, you’d have trouble meeting a nicer bloke.  They say nice people don’t get very far in business, but I have a funny feeling this one will.  Best of luck Marc.

Marc is an editor, journalist, writer and song-and-dance man.  He is currently the editor of culture e-zine Plastik Magazine, the brains behind Plastik Pass, a regular blogger and lover of sensual print layouts. He is tweetable on @iammarcthomas and would love to hear from you.

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