Inner-city Auckland garden offers refuge for bees, homeless

What started out as a "living social sculpture" to save a waning bee population has unexpectedly morphed into a project that brings purpose to Auckland city's homeless.

Not all the 'bees' at Griffiths Gardens have wings, it seems.

Occupying a vacant lot adjacent to the Auckland Council headquarters in Wellesley St, the gardens offer workshops on how the pollen-collecting insects play an integral part in the world's ecosystem and how we can preserve them through organic horticulture.

Last Thursday, a Māori medicinal garden (rongoā) was formally opened, along with a council-sponsored art space on the same site.

But from the first day of its construction, artist and For the Love of Bees founder Sarah Smuts-Kennedy quickly found another species in need of preservation right on her doorstep.

"As an artist, I made a rule for myself that I couldn't make anything, because while artists do things and people observe them, nothing actually changes.

"So, on day one, I had a garden bed to be installed and I needed a community to install it."

Awhina Mai Tatou Katoa, a group of homeless carvers, were performing their craft at the other end of the lot and quickly found themselves co-opted.

"Yep, that's pretty much how it happened," confirms Awhina Mai facilitator Robert Smith. "During that installation, she wanted the community to be a real part of it, and she used to actively grab people and pull them in.

"We were walking past, she needed a hand and we're about getting involved - that was the first time we connected."

Mr Smith and his carvers have all spent time living rough, but he has now maintained his current tenancy for four years and has developed into a leader in his community.

His team have taken obvious pride in contributing to this project, fashioning the three pou whakarae (free-standing posts) planted in the gardens.

While the posts - named Whakarei (to adorn), Whakatipua (to grow) and Whakatu (to stand) - carry deep spiritual meaning, they are also symbolic of how the local street people have embraced this site as their own.

"We know we can walk in here and not be judged because we're homeless," says Mr Smith."That means nothing,

"Understanding that more than 70 percent of our whanau out on the streets are Māori, it's another way to help them connect back to their culture.

"It captures us on a spiritual level, it breaks a few barriers down and starts some great conversations."

Watching Mayor Phil Goff and so many 'suits' mixing, a little uncomfortably, with the city's most needy citizens at last week's opening was somewhat jarring, but the council's presence here is an important one.

Like a beehive, where all classes must combine to form a functional community, the governing body will be better placed to help the homeless if it shares a common ground and purpose - in this case, Griffith Gardens.

"I imagined on day one that we would arrive at something like this," says Ms Smuts-Kennedy. "But we wanted it to not come from council down - we wanted it to be generated from the community up.

"It's been a dream, but what's amazing is, when we do workshops, we'll have anyone from a 60-year-old woman from Remuera working next to a homeless person.

"We started out talking about honey bees, because they gather honey for us. They are in urgent need of care - we need to learn how to create a holistic ecosystem for them to thrive in.

"Similarly, for our homeless people - in fact, all citizens of a city - we are a holistic system. We are not parts, we are one and when we are all looked after, the city has an opportunity to thrive."

One day, this corner of the city will be a railway station.

Until then, its primary function is a "biology-first teaching hub", where people can learn how to turn Auckland into the safest city in the world for bees.

During that time, it may also become safest place in the city for human bees.