Dries Van Ransbeeck, Manon Brulard and Janneke Klop from Belgium were among that group and did something about it. While travel restrictions were in place in their country and everywhere else in Europe, they initiated the development of a new platform designed to unite slow travellers and garden owners in Belgium and beyond. Welcome To My Garden (www.welcometomygarden.org) describes itself as a network of citizens opening their gardens to slow travellers in need of a camping spot.
Camping options are limited in Belgium and wild camping is generally prohibited outside of dedicated bivouac zones. Only about 60 of those bivouac zones exist throughout the country and they each offer space to only a maximum of three tents. By enabling citizens to open up their gardens to slow travellers, the founders of Welcome To My Garden wanted to help close the gaps and truly enable slow travel in their country. On launch, the platform was very well received. Only three months later, the platform now unites over 11000 people, 2277 gardens and has recorded 15800 camping requests.
We asked co-founder Dries about the boom of the platform and their plans to go pan-European.
Dries, can you tell us where the idea of Welcome To My Garden came from?
Dries: “I am a bike touring enthusiast. Only in 2019, I cycled halfway around the globe from Belgium to Japan. Not long after I returned to Belgium, restrictions came in place to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus, limiting travel within Europe and within Belgium. It was all over the news at the time that travel during the summer holidays would be primarily limited to Belgium. That was a bit frustrating for me to hear as Belgium is not really equipped for slow travel in comparison to other countries. You cannot simply pitch a tent somewhere as you would be able to do in Scandinavia. On top of that official campsites as well as bivouac zones are quite far apart thus strongly limiting the multi-day possibilities. That is where the idea of setting up a citizen garden sharing initiative came from. We started with a simple registration form and list of addresses, which we visualized on a map. We shared the idea on some social media platforms, which was picked up by the media. Within one week during the lockdown while travel was prohibited, more than 300 people signed up to share their gardens.
So that is when it all started for real?
Dries: “Yes, it is. Our list sort of immediately became unmanageable so we started looking for more volunteers to develop a platform that would automate the entire process and would guarantee the privacy of the hosts and travellers. On 23 June the platform went live. The platform now unites over 11000 people, 2277 gardens and has recorded 15800 camping requests.”
That’s great! Can you explain us how it works?
Dries: “So, people who want to open up their garden to travellers can add their garden by creating a profile on the website. In principle this means they just offer a little corner in their garden to pitch a tent. In addition, they may indicate that they offer access to drinking water, a toilet and electricity. They are not obliged to do this though: all of those are bonuses. The gardens are really meant to serve as a bivouac, not as fully-fledged campsites. Travellers who want to stay on one of the campsites simply contact garden owners through the platform to arrange their stay. Usage of the platform is free of charge.”
Are there any limitations for garden owners or campers?
Dries: “Yes, our platform is aimed at slow travellers looking for a stop along the way. Therefore, we limit the duration of stay to a maximum of 48 hours and do not allow arrival by car at the camping spot. Of course, you can still drive to a trailhead by car or use public transportation on route. We think this is important because we want to offer additional possibilities for slow travellers. By car, you can eventually always reach a campsite, so you don’t need these slow camping spots.”
Is it safe? Have you received any complaints so far?
You mention people new to exploring nature. Do you know if they made up a significant part of the users?
Dries: “We don’t have information on specific demographics for the users of the platform, but we did receive a lot of beautiful and inspiring stories. For example, one family has traveled around with a donkey this summer. I spent two and a half weeks traveling around myself and stayed in the garden of a family who were going to host the family with the donkey. They were all so excited about the upcoming stay. I am grateful that we are able to facilitate such nice experiences both for the travellers and for the hosts and I hope we can keep enabling such stories for a long time.”
You have a very impressive network of sites in Belgium – how do you plan to scale up, where do you hope to grow more in the immediate future, and what are the barriers to that growth?
Dries: “The growth of the platform has been organic so far and we want to keep growing organically in the future. There are no country limitations. Any address will be automatically added to the platform. Of course, it would be absolutely amazing to cover places all over Europe. We currently have three language options: Dutch, French and English. In the future we would like to expand that further to cover more European languages. We’ve already enabled community-driven translations, so now we’re looking for local partners to help us with that.”
You mentioned the platform was developed by volunteers and without extensive finances. How does that work?
Dries: “When we saw we needed to automate the process, we put out a call for volunteers to develop the platform. We spent evenings and weekends over a period of six weeks with a group of eight enthusiasts to develop the platform. It was a very intense process until the official launch on 23 June and interesting as most of our volunteers had never met each other before we started working together, and we weren’t allowed to meet in person at the time. We now have a public Slack channels where anyone who is interested can contribute to the development. As such, we take as much of an open and transparent approach as possible. This also applies when it comes to our finances, consisting solely of donations, which are fully consultable via opencollective.com.”
Finally, what can anyone do to help?
Dries: “Anyone who is keen to travel or to share their garden is of course more than welcome to register on the platform here: https://welcometomygarden.org/register.
Partner organisations in other countries willing to help us translate the platform to local languages or help otherwise are very welcome to contact us on email@example.com.
Besides that, we solely function on the basis of donations from happy travellers and organisations willing to support our cause. Anyone wishing to support our platform is more than welcome to donate via https://opencollective.com/welcometomygarden.”