The Palmovka area of Prague does not look particularly inviting at first glance. Concrete, clutter and a space without a clear design concept. But just go a little further towards Kotlaska. After a few minutes of walking, you’ll find a green oasis that beckons you to linger – whether you want a place for kids to play, have a coffee with friends or just sit under a tree with a book. The community garden of the RUBIKON Centre is open to everyone.
The garden has great charm that immediately makes you feel at home. Just beyond the entrance there are tables, benches, and a building with facilities that serve the general public. Farther in there is a fire pit, playground, and mature trees that provide much needed shade in the summer. A wooden gazebo designed by Lukáš Gavlovský (his work can be seen, for example, in the Botanical Garden in Prague) and a yurt provide shelter from the rain.
Go deeper still and you will see the 60 planting beds that neighbors can rent to grow vegetables, flowers or other plants. Some parts of the garden are purposely unmaintained and overgrown with trees and shrubs with just a few paths. The lush greenery helps retain water and maintains a pleasant climate, but most importantly, this jungle is a haven for children of all ages who can be seen exploring the secret nooks and crannies.
RUBIKON Centre has been acting as the steward of the garden for six years. RUBIKON helps people who have served prison sentences become full-fledged members of society again. Kateřina Jirová is in charge of running the garden and the organization’s community centre.
Where did the idea for the community garden come from?
Six years ago, we were looking for a place for a community centre in Rubikon. We wanted to find a space where our clients could undergo training for work and at the same time meet people and integrate into daily life. We were looking for a room but eventually found a garden. For me, it’s a dream come true. In my spare time I am an avid gardener, I work in the social sector and love connecting people from different walks of life. When we came here, I immediately thought that this place had a lot of potential despite being neglected. Six years ago, the community garden boom was just beginning, and I thought it might draw people in. And most importantly, it would be wonderful to work here.
The site where the community centre was built originally hosted a retirement club, but then the space fell into disrepair for a long time. What was the beginning like for you?
So fast and chaotic! We had to rent the space, get a grant to improve the garden and renovate the building, and introduce this new dimension into the way the centre approached social work. It was a bit of a gamble, but our enthusiasm trumped any fears the management had and my colleague and I were given the green light to make the repairs. The building where we now hold various courses, neighbourhood meetings and corporate events, was basically a ruin. We started by renovating the inside. And then the municipality, which owns the building, renovated the outside at its own expense. For further work we obtained funding from the Prague Growth Pole Operational Programme (EU funds).
How has the garden evolved over the past six years?
It was wild at the beginning, we had to learn a lot of operational and technical things really quickly. But over time we managed to build a playground, a sandbox, tool room and workshop, which is also open to everyone. We also built a wooden gazebo and added a yurt at the very back, which is ideal for various workshops and gatherings. And last but not least are the flower beds. The biggest problem with the planting beds has been that we sometimes we have to use water from the municipal water supply system to water them, since we don’t have a sufficient rainwater catchment system. That’s why we applied last year for a grant from Via Foundation’s “See It Grow, See It Sprout” community garden program, which is supported by the Kaufland company. With the grant we were able to set up more rainwater catchment tanks. This year we were awarded another grant, this time to build a pergola and improve the paths.
Who takes care of the garden beds?
It is said that a sustainable distance for people using a community garden is 10 minutes’ walking distance from their home. This is quite true in our area: about 80% of the garden beds are tended by people in the neighborhood. The magic of community gardening is evident here. You live in an apartment building where you don’t know your neighbors, but come here, chat with the lady you’re digging in the dirt with, and suddenly you know each other. We’ve got 60 beds that 60 families are farming through memberships, that’s kind of the core of our community. Then we have people who come in during opening hours who aren’t gardening but want to get to know their neighbours, come to an event or maybe have roast something at a campfire. There’s hundreds of them.
And your clients are involved in all of this?
Yes. We’re a little bit different than other community gardens, because we’re always thinking about our core mission, which is to help people on the margins of society. The garden provides job training and our clients help maintain the space while gaining the work skills, experience and competencies they need so that we can refer them to our employers. Clients contribute to the operation through training for minimum wage, but often help us as volunteers. They come here to spend their free time, too.
Do you have any feedback on how local people and clients perceive this kind of collaboration?
There may have been some fears at first, but I believe that over the six years we have dispelled them. The negative reactions we’ve gotten can be counted on one hand and they have been more prevalent on social networks. Our clients are happy because they see the results and, most importantly, the usefulness of their work. They form ties, get to know regulars and make friends. And, through this type of interaction, we soften any prejudices that the public may have against people who have served prison sentences. Fears and a tendency to generalise are often caused by a lack of information. We see that these people are also very different, with different life stories. We give visitors and clients the opportunity to get to know each other and break down prejudices. That’s why we set up our community centre.
Kotlaska Community Centre also organizes other activities, such as hammock weaving, yoga in the garden, exercise classes for moms with children, etc. The garden is open to the public three days a week, with the other days reserved for other events.