“Fresh air boosts your mood, sleep and helps your physical health,” “growing your own vegetables and consuming earth-grown nutrients are incredible for your health, immunity and overall health, not to mention sustainability of  our planet and ourselves!” All messages I’ve recited more than ever during this past year of the Pandemic as I like many others have been trying to go back to basics. 

But what if you don’t have a garden? What if, like me, you struggle to even know where to start with sowing seeds let alone have the space at home to do so? Journalist, Owner of Sparkle Communications and our Wellbeing-focused Founder Sophie Mei Lan writes…

As we embark on Mental Health Awareness Week with the theme of Nature because after all, the natural world is a free profound resource for us all, I take a look at how an urban shopping centre is offering accessible rooftop allotments for its shoppers, local residents and those of us working within cities. 

From gardening clubs to owning a mini plot, The Ridings Shopping Centre is much more than a collection of shops, it’s a community hub nestled in a fast paced part of Wakefield City Centre, cushioned between busy bus routes, sky-scraping flats and a busy commuter route for those utilising its car park or hiking through.  

And now we explore one of their hidden gems, offering eco-therapy as a sustainable solution for the demands of those of us living a busy city life who don’t have the luxury of their own garden or like me, they may have an instagram-friendly compact concrete jungle with no clue of where to start with my own plant pot, let alone allotment plot!

They partnered up with district wide social enterprise Incredible Edible to create this vital space because they know how important eco-therapy is for mindfulness, how growing your own can reduce stress levels and gardening is even a great form of low impact aerobic exercise burning 150 calories in 30 minutes, perfect for all ages and abilities. 

“Incredible Edible is about making a difference by growing your own healthy local food and turning where you live into more vibrant and resilient communities. 

“Incredible Edible Wakefield started in 2010 as a small community group in Horbury but has since grown. Their aim is to develop innovative local food initiatives that help as many people as possible to enjoy the many benefits that come from learning to grow your own food.

“We create Edible Community Gardens, Mini Allotment Plots and Communal Growing Spaces as well as running Edible Gardening Clubs and Help Us Grow sessions that help people all over the district to have a go at growing their own food for the first time or to improve their existing food growing knowledge and allows experienced growers to share their knowledge and skills.”

And as I am a digitally-savvy girl of juxtapositions, I love a good ‘hike’ around the shops nestled inside The Ridings Centre and incidentally carrying shopping bags whilst walking is a good resistance workout, I have discovered the vital importance of getting outdoors and appreciating the natural world to transform my wellbeing. 

I am a big believer that nature should be inclusive to all, regardless of your background, so it was quite literally a breath of fresh air to discover that The Ridings Shopping Centre in Wakefield has these rooftop mini allotments for everyone regardless of ability. 

“Nature is our great untapped resource for a mentally healthy future.

Despite this, many of us are not accessing or benefitting from nature. Teenagers in particular appear to be less connected with nature and around 13% of UK households have no access to a garden. We want to challenge the disparities in who is and who isn’t able to experience nature. Nature is not a luxury. It is a resource that must be available for everyone to enjoy – as basic as having access to clean water or a safe roof over our heads. Local and national governments need to consider their role in making this a reality for everyone, and we will be talking about how they can do so during the week.” Mental Health Awareness Week 2021. 

As an advocate social prescribing which suggests that there are lots of ways to support our mental wellbeing rather than purely medicalised treatment, such as embracing the natural world and simple pleasures like plants and growing which prior to Lockdown, I hadn’t been tapping into anywhere near enough, not to mention that it should be as simple as taking deep breaths for a meditative brain booster, with a 20 minute mindful pause boosting our productivity by up to 70 per cent. 

Yet, it’s estimated that people check their smartphones every 12 minutes of the day, but imagine if that attention was decluttering our minds through sowing seeds to bloom, rather than dulling it with consistent social media scrolling? 

As fellow busy journalist Isabel Hardman, who healed from a mental breakdown through tending plants as part of group eco-therapy, writes:   

“There is a growing body of research that shows our minds and our bodies need nature. I’ve spent the past few years interviewing the scientists behind this research, visiting psychiatric hospitals and following people with mental illnesses as they try to manage their conditions using the great outdoors, and I’ve become convinced by the power of what I call the Natural Health Service.

“Since the 1980s we have learned that views of nature — even just from a window — can help patients recover from surgery, improve mood, reduce anxiety and stress and raise self-esteem. Exercising in green spaces reduces someone’s perception of pain, which means they’re able to keep going and enjoy themselves for longer. Exercise itself both helps prevent mental illness and improves the symptoms of those suffering from it, and that includes serious, life-limiting conditions…” 

But as a working single mum who straddles between writing health blogs, presenting wellbeing vlogs as well as writing columns on mind and body fitness for all, even I have found it difficult to always access this daunting term of ‘nature.’ 

So the fact that these no-strings attached pressure mini rooftop allotments are available to all regardless of transport, lifestyle, experience or budget, just shows how one small act of sowing a seed of creating community gardens in the most unusual of settings, could actually be the perfect solution for creating a vibrant city centre again, a heartfelt community hub with the realities of modern life. For us all to be well we need to connect, be active, learn new skills, give to others and pay attention to the present (NHS: The Five steps to wellbeing). 

The perfect piece of modern-day natural tranquility can be found on the rooftop carpark of The Ridings, set within a hybrid of the reality of our ever demanding daily lives.

I can do all this and more within the down-to-earth communal space inside and outside the safety of The Ridings bubble… from shopping for necessities at Morrisons and PoundLand, to buying my health supplements at Holland and Barrett and Boots, from rainy day trips to The Reel cinema with the kids to getting pampered at one of the beauty outlets, from giving to charities such as Wakefield Hospice and The BHF and supporting talented independent makers inside Created in Yorkshire and at one of the many market stalls, from getting connected to my own creative flair inside The ArtHouse spaces and active over a game of table tennis or even buying my sporting supplies at TK Maxx and Wakefield Trinity. Having a secure, accessible and centrally located place to meet loved ones over lunch or grabbing a coffee, a place to take the kids to play and most of all a safe place for all of us to recharge and reconnect after a tumultuous time over this past year.  

So whether you’re like my Grandma and love a shopping and a tea at M&S or you want to access Age UK’s Cuppa Club or you want to try my favourite frappe at Grind or fresh smoothies on the ground and grab a bargain from Primark and one of the many indies which I love to browse whilst getting my work phones fixed! 

There really is something for everyone! 

From May 17th onwards the cinema will reopen, there will be farmers markets and craft fairs, the award-winning cuppa clubs will be back, sporting activities available and events will return from vinyl fayres to business functions as well as space to hire in the evening for community groups, organisations and anyone wishing to book. 

By Sophie Mei Lan, Editor of Yorkshire Families magazine (https://www.yorkshirefamilies.co.uk), Sparkle Up North Business Magazine (https://sparkleupnorth.com) and a Mind & Body Fitness Author (Https://MamaMei.co.uk). 

 Most of all she is a community-based mum-of-two who is a genuine ambassador for The Ridings which has been her ‘place-to-go’ in the city centre since she moved to the Wakefield district a decade ago to bring up a young family whilst working for the local newspapers and magazines, as well as breastfeeding at FAB Charity, playing with her tots at The Den and she utilises the shops, events, creative spaces and loves to explore all the markets, enterprises, charity shops and now the outdoor hidden gem of the mini allotments! 

We want to hear your stories of how nature has supported your mental health. This might be as simple as tending to a house plant, listening to the birds, touching the bark of trees, smelling flowers or writing a poem about our favourite nature spot.

Whatever it is for you, Mental Health Awareness Week and The Ridings invite you to #ConnectWithNature and share what this means for you.

During Mental Health Awareness Week, we are asking you to do three things: 

* Experience nature: take time to recognise and grow your connection with nature during the week. Take a moment to notice and celebrate nature in your daily life. You might be surprised by what you notice!

* Share nature: Take a photo, video or sound recording and share the connections you’ve made during the week, to inspire others. Join the discussion on how you’re connecting with nature by using the hashtags #ConnectWithNature #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek

* Talk about nature: use MHAW tips, school packs, research and policy guides to discuss in your family, school, workplace and community how you can help encourage people to find new ways to connect with nature in your local environment.

For more information about this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week visit mentalhealth.org.uk/mhaw or join the conversation on social media using #ConnectWithNature and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek 

Sophie Mei Lan (https://evokemediagroup.co.uk) supports ethical businesses to shine in the media and make a positive impact on the world through writing content, connecting them with the press she works for as a newspaper columnist and online with her magazines which have reached 2 billion+ globally, as well as her passion to help build inclusive brands that reach communities globally, nationally and locally.

She is a published author, documentary maker and Editor of Sparkle Up North and Founder of https://EvokeMediaGroup.co.uk

@TheSparklecoach / @SparkleCommunications Read more of her wellbeing blogs at https://mamamei.co.uk and https://www.yorkshirefamilies.co.uk

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