Growing Communities with The Big Dig

By Penny Rivlin

This week, the team have been engaging with a nationwide digging initiative, The Big Dig, that aimed to promote and foster urban-based community digging projects.  A year long-funded project, launched in September 2012, The Big Dig was supported by funding from the Social Action Fund (managed by the Social Investment Business on behalf of the Cabinet Office), and was coordinated nationally by Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming.  Funding for The Big Dig was prompted and facilitated by the Giving White Paper (see its one-year evaluation, HM Government, 2012) – an initiative that seeks to address social challenges through ‘giving’. Predicated on the assumption ‘that people want to live in better-connected communities in which more people are working together for the common good’ the White Paper aims to ‘broaden the culture of giving’, such that giving acquires the status of an embedded ‘social norm’ for present and future generations (ibid: 5).  Situated in this institutional context, The Big Dig differs from our other case studies in terms of its close connections with national modes of governance/policy.

Although participating Big Dig cities and towns are directed by different partnership NGO bodies, they are united by an underlying ethos oriented to community-building (as evidenced in The Big Dig strapline ‘growing food together’), and inclusivity.  This premise is based on encouraging and engaging a target of 10,000 volunteers, and, crucially, people ‘from deprived areas who do not traditionally volunteer’ (see In this sense, The Big Dig’s community growing projects aim to respond to and ameliorate wider issues of social disenfranchisement.

The Big Dig has established projects in 27 UK cities and towns. Volunteers receive training in a wide repertoire of food growing and associated skills, ranging from rudimentary to more advanced growing; organic gardening; cooking; permaculture; bee-keeping; green woodworking; food and resource waste reduction, as well as other strategies for instituting environmentally sustainable everyday practices.  Through these modalities of self and community empowerment, The Big Dig seeks to provide access to fresh, seasonal, local and healthy food – in turn fostering sustainable community bonds, sustainable selves and local networks of ‘pride’ that work to ‘reduce anti-social behaviour’ ( Moreover, many Big Dig communities have employed various social media platforms as a means of communicating digging activities, ostensibly sharing their ideas, failures and successes with local and national members and visitors. Thus, like the wartime gardeners and the Wigan Diggers, Big Dig volunteers contribute to the construction of ‘virtual’, as well as local-embodied communities of diggers.

In line with our focus on digging cultures in the North West of England, we shall be examining the specificities of digging cultures and practices in a Big Dig gardening site in Greater Manchester.  We will be exploring the extent to which The Big Dig project is a significant indicator of the emergent cultural values of digging, and specifically, how such values are expressed, shaped and realized in relation to the key themes of the Cultural Values of Digging project. In addition to our consideration of the Big Dig in relation to its own aims and objective, we will be thinking about The Big Dig as a response to processes of individualization and self-responsibilization, and as evidence of an emergent ‘structure of feeling’ (Williams, 1977) for citizen-led action that is oriented to a qualitatively different experience of the social-environment nexus.


The Big Dig (no date) [online] Available at: Accessed 7 October 2013.

HM Government (2012) Giving White Paper: One Year On. [online] Available at: Accessed 7 October 2013.

Williams, R. (1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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