‘Centrepoint at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show — A psychologically informed Garden’.
26.05.2022: As I write this week’s PIE blog, as the Lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) at the national youth homeless charity — Centrepoint, I am reflecting on a week dominated by the theme of ‘gardens’. For those of you who do not consider yourselves ‘green fingered’; myself included (!) and who therefore may not be aware, this week is the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) yearly ‘Chelsea Flower Show’ (c.f. https://www.rhs.org.uk/shows-events/rhs-chelsea-flower-show). This is of particular interest to Centrepoint and all things ‘PIE’ on this occasion, because we have a ‘Show Garden’ on display this week.
The ‘Centrepoint Garden’ was kindly made possible by a collaboration between our garden designer; the amazing ‘Cleve West’; a complete legend in the gardening world and multiple award winner at RHS Chelsea Flower Show (6 Gold Medals, including ‘Best in Show’ two years in succession) and an organisation called ‘Project Giving Back’ (c.f. https://www.givingback.org.uk/). Project Giving Back give charitable organisations in the UK a chance (and most importantly the funding!) to exhibit a garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. This enables charities, like Centrepoint, to promote their cause (i.e. #EndYouthHomelessness), raise awareness and understanding of their work and the issues they are addressing as well as supporting the horticultural industry.
The ‘Centrepoint Garden’ explores the notion of ‘home’ to celebrate our work in helping young people in the UK who are experiencing homelessness. It is more than just a literal exploration of ‘house’ (although it does feature a house footprint in the centre), and as per a PIE, focuses on themes that are associated with the ‘home’. The design of the garden also highlights the challenges and traumatic experiences faced by young people when the world they know becomes ‘uprooted’ as well as the ‘healing processes’ that occur through our psychologically informed support offer that allows them to grow and realise their potential in the future (i.e. #changethestory).
It is this juxtaposition between the visual metaphors in the garden that convey the negative impact of homelessness and those that highlight the power of healing that can come from this with the right support (or ‘conditions for growth’) that has made the garden such a talking point this week at RHS Chelsea Flower Show. For me, it is why the garden design captures so well the key concepts of a PIE. Firstly, the importance of acknowledging the emotional damage resulting from the experience of homeless (i.e. ‘the uprooted tree’ and ‘damaged house’). Moreover, secondly how a PIE support approach can create the ‘right conditions’ for a young person’s recovery from homelessness (i.e. how nature can still grow in to something beautiful in the midst of this chaos and destruction given the right conditions of light and water).
Regarding the actual garden, when I had the pleasure of visiting it this week, I was stuck by just how much the design of the garden had been so carefully and creatively considered, utilising so many individual elements linked together to explore the issue of youth homelessness. It was actually quite emotional when I had the honour of being allowed to walk through it and connect with not only the overall scheme but also some of the individual details.
The garden designer Cleve West clearly understood so much about Centrepoint and our work, translating this in such an imaginative way within the show garden. It has certainly been a talking point garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show this week (just as we hoped!) and in fact has won both the highest prize at the show — the ‘Gold Medal’ as well as the ‘Best Construction Project’ prize. For general information about the garden please see the link here: https://www.givingback.org.uk/our-gardens/the-centrepoint-garden as well as further information from the RHS here: https://www.rhs.org.uk/shows-events/rhs-chelsea-flower-show/news/2023/cleve-west-return-chelsea.
So what does Cleve West say about the ‘Centrepoint Garden’? You can watch an interview with him on BBC iPlayer (c.f. RHS Chelsea Flower Show- — BBC Episode 2*; around 50 minutes in here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m001m7y1/rhs-chelsea-flower-show-2023-episode-2) where he highlights some key features of the garden. For example, he describes the overall theme of the garden as follows: “It’s a very literal take on homelessness, we have got the demolished house, we have got the fallen tree, which are really strong metaphors for being fragmented and displaced and having your life turned upside down … and we have got nature healing the scars of all this”*. The house footprint of the fragments of a demolished Victorian townhouse acts as a loose structure for the garden, showing that a ‘broken home’ or homelessness is not the end and that life can thrive outside of it.
Cleve West further notes that the central focus of the house footprint is the fireplace because “the hearth is the centre of the house, it represents warmth, love and security and we wanted to highlight that as a feature”*. This again resonates with our PIE approach to support within Centrepoint. We want to create a ‘professional home and family’ within our supported accommodation services, with a support offer that is characterised by warmth, non-judgement and empathy (i.e. ‘love’), and psychological and physical security and safety. It is from these conditions that all human beings thrive — not just homeless young people, but often the very conditions that have been so lacking in the previous relationships of the young people we support. This means it can take time for them to approach the ‘fire’ for fear of ‘getting burnt’ again, but we keep it lit for them to approach when they are ready (i.e. the importance of building relationships in a PIE approach to facilitate change).
In another part of the garden is a fallen tree (taken from a recent nursery expansion, where it will return after the show to become a new ecosystem). This is a Silver Birch tree, reflecting the uprooting of young people from their surroundings when they become homeless. However, this tree also has a positive message as fallen trees provide food and habitat for many animals and insects. I was interested to learn this week that 217 invertebrates are associated with a Silver Birch tree, 155 of which are butterflies and moths! I have always loved the Silver Birch trees on my road in London, for the beauty of their bark, but I am also now looking at them in a different way — noting their important role in ensuring biodiversity in the city.
There are also some bird boxes in the Centrepoint garden, beautiful objects of art — surely the equivalent of the ‘Ritz’ if you are a bird looking for a home! These were sculpted by Johnny Woodford (c.f. http://johnnywoodford.co.uk/) and will be auctioned off after RHS Chelsea Flower Show finishes at the weekend. Interestingly, these also have a message as Cleve West notes; “we have had to block them up because we don’t want birds nesting otherwise we wouldn’t be able to take the garden down but happily that enables us to talk about the fact that homeless people are stigmatised by Landlords and find it very difficult to get a rented property, and also that 1 in 10 properties in this borough [Kensington & Chelsea, London] are empty”*. The broken path in the Centrepoint garden continues this theme, alluding to the often difficult steps securing their first ‘home’ faced by many homeless young people. Specifically, we know in Centrepoint that one in five of those in our supported accommodation services cannot move on because they either can’t afford the private rented sector or Landlords do not want tenants with experience of homelessness. This is why our Independent Living Programme (c.f. https://centrepoint.org.uk/what-we-do/independent-living-programme/), creating affordable ‘first homes’ for homeless young people is so important.
Throughout the Centrepoint garden, there is also background sound that if you pay attention to carefully in the noise and hubbub of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show — as Cleve West notes; “the soundscape invokes the memory of the family that once lived here in this property”*. This was another quite an emotional element of the garden for me, as it highlighted the link between relationship breakdown and youth homelessness, and there were lovely little details in the garden I spotted that emphasised different aspects of homelessness and breakdown in family life (c.f. the discarded baby shoes, which also highlights our young parents services).
Many (over two thirds) of the homeless young people that Centrepoint supports are within our services because of relationship breakdown, meaning that they cannot live with their birth family. This may sadly be for traumatic reasons such as abuse or neglect, but may also include reasons such as the ‘cost of living’ or ‘overcrowding’ in the family home that brings them to Centrepoint. This is also why a PIE approach to support is so important, as it allows the young person to process their past traumatic memories of ‘family’ through our psychotherapy offer and/or support sessions and hopefully one day in the future create their own home and ‘family’.
Along the outside of the Centrepoint garden, on the plywood hoarding as per a demolition site, there is a mural painted in the ‘Pointillist’ style of Georges Seurat. As Cleve West notes “the mural has 120,000 dots, which represents the each homeless person in the UK, each young person”, as highlighted in Centrepoint’s recent research (c.f. https://centrepoint.org.uk/databank/). This is a further powerful visual metaphor of the scale of youth homelessness in the UK, and why there is such an urgency to #EndYouthHomelessness for the next generation. Each of those dots is a real young person, who right now does not have somewhere to call ‘home’, something many of us take for granted.
Finally, but arguably the most important aspect of the Centrepoint garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, is the planting. Thankfully, when I was covering a shift at the garden this week I was given an iPad with all the names of the plants on (both the English and the formal Latin name), as there were far too many to remember! However, as Cleve West notes, the planting is “typical of an urban front garden in London … we have all sorts of weeds”*, which he notes actually is important is “showing how biodiversity / nature is coming back in and repairing everything”. Examples of plants include both ‘wild’ and ‘pioneer’ plants ranging from Dandelions, Buddleia, Nettles, Cleavers, Buttercups, Wood Avens and Daises as well as an escapee houseplant — a Yucca Elephantipes tree. Whilst these might typically not be seen as ‘flowers’, as they are generally unwanted intruders into a garden, they are a very important role in biodiversity, being termed ‘hero plants’ as they provide vital access to pollen for bees before more traditionally acceptable plants flourish.
I really liked the use of weeds, not just because it made me feel less guilty about their presence in my garden at home(!) but because they again provided a thought provoking metaphor for homeless young people. Often they are seen as ‘weeds’, being not seen as valuable contributors to society, or of any worth or value. Yet if we ‘reframe’ their importance — just like with weeds — we can see that they are just as much of value as any other young person or ‘plant’ in their generation. Maybe even the well-heard saying at the show of ‘weeds are just flowers in the wrong place’, is also a further metaphor for homeless young people displaced from their ‘home’. And with the right conditions and context such as light and water at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show the ‘weeds’ looked quite beautiful as they flourished to their full potential. Moreover, even the Yucca tree is growing outside of its usual indoor conditions in our Centrepoint garden. Therefore, just like the ‘weeds’ and the Yucca tree, if we can give homeless young people the right psychologically informed conditions and support, they will grow and thrive wherever they find themselves, even if they are outside of a ‘conventional’ home environment.
Therefore, my overall reflections on the theme of the Centrepoint garden are that whilst the garden might not be considered conventionally beautiful, the reality is that youth homelessness is not ‘pretty’ either. Whilst at first glance it might appear as a ‘dysfunctional and fragmented space’, is in fact a thriving, natural and evolving habitat. I really loved the seeming chaos, thought provoking features, the complexity of the wall mural and the choice of resilient ‘weeds’ as show ‘flowers’. I also reflected how much the Centrepoint garden showed how nature could grow in spaces that are neglected or not seen as a typical garden. This was also a major topic of reflection and conversation throughout my shift at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show with those that stopped to speak to me about the Centrepoint garden. I reflected that this in some ways is a poignant echo of the nature of many of homeless young people we support on the ‘frontline’ in Centrepoint. They are often chaotic, they do not fit neatly into existing societal parameters and the conventional ideas of what a ‘young person’ should be (i.e. perhaps being seen as ‘weeds’ rather than flowers), and their presenting issues are often very complex. Yet, within our reflective practice sessions, they are often thought provoking, and within our PIE support approach, we can recognise and build upon their resilience to help them to create a positive future for themselves where it might have not once been thought possible.
It was also a great experience to speak to members of the public about the vital work that Centrepoint does across all aspects of the organisation to #EndYouthHomelessness, and to raise awareness generally of both the charity and the wider issues around youth homelessness and the housing crises in the UK. The general public seemed really interested in our work, particularly to hear about our wonderful frontline services and how our staff we support vulnerable young people in the UK (I could certainly talk more about this than the Latin names of plants!). Consequently, the garden was a real talking point of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year and it reminded me that even with the everyday challenges of working in the homeless sector, which we all face, what we all do in Centrepoint is amazing whatever our role. I was thinking on the way home how proud I was to be part of the ‘Centrepoint family’.
The other reason I am so pleased that Centrepoint has had a garden at RHS Chelsea this year, is that I have been involved in wider discussions about ‘gardens’ within the organisation since I started my PIE role a few years ago. I am a passionate believer in the value of nature and outside spaces on our mental well-being, as discussed in a previous PIE blog (c.f. https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/being-at-one-with-nature-reflections-on-the-importance-of-nature-upon-our-psychological-7b7eb0d177aa). Nature is important to consider in any PIE because it has such a positive effect on our psychological well-being. I was literally smiling all day at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, just being around all those plants and the garden was so uplifting and inspiring! However, do not just take my word for it; there is plenty of psychological research evidence of the importance of nature on mood. For example, Lackey et al (2019) found that having contact with nature increases our positive emotions, feelings of vitality and attention span whilst decreasing our experience of negative emotions and mental tiredness. In addition, promoting young people’s connection with nature is important, as research has indicated that adolescents who perceive connection with nature as important have been found to have better psychological well-being than those who do not (Capaldi et al, 2014; Martin et al, 2020).
Therefore, I am very much hoping that the ‘legacy’ of the Centrepoint garden is not just in awareness raising amongst the general population, and of course the associated fundraising, but also that within the organisation we can raise the profile of our ‘outside’ spaces and their importance in recovery from the trauma of the homeless experience. Nature has the power to be part of that healing process, by creating spaces to stop, reflect, be mindful and re-connect with the living world around us. It can give a space to calmly process difficult emotions and feel at peace. Consequently, as we have re-launched our PIE Physical Environment Fund for this year I would like to encourage our Centrepoint staff and the homeless young people they support to submit applications to uplift and regenerate tired and neglected outdoor spaces as well as indoor. We might not have the budget of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show or even the space(!), but a little can go a long way in the gardening world and so get in touch to discuss your ideas and let’s make our outside spaces just as psychologically informed as those within our supported accommodation services.
Finally, and arguably most important, I started this week offering a reflective practice session to a wonderful team that I have worked with since I started in Centrepoint in 2019. This team have been on a difficult journey following the tragic loss of a young person in their service, but they have shown resilience, reflection, genuine care and compassion for each other and the young people they support and have created a wonderful PIE in their service. I mention this service and team in particular, because this is where the Centrepoint garden will be going after it leaves RHS Chelsea Flower Show next week. With the exception of the tree and some bird boxes, the rest of the garden will be transplanted shortly to the Ealing Supported Accommodation Service, and they are all so excited to have this honour to be the legacy guardians of this beautiful garden for the future.
As one of their Supported Housing Officers; Jamie explains so eloquently in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTUuXmXYDYE, the garden will be used for key-work sessions, and for a space for reflection and social activities. I cannot wait to see it when I next visit and to see how it will be used both as part of their support offer as well as a source of inspiration for other Centrepoint services. This week has been a very unusual one for me, I am so grateful for the opportunity to see the Centrepoint garden at RHS Chelsea Flower show, but I am also pleased that I will continue to get to enjoy it along with the staff and homeless young people in Ealing for many years to come. It will continue to emphasise not only the important role that a garden or outside space has in making a house a ‘home’ but also that a broken home or life uprooted is not necessarily the end. Rather, perhaps with the right psychologically informed conditions, it can also lead to new growth and rejuvenation into something ‘different’ but something equally of value and beauty…