Permaculture at Pure Genius!! by Lynn Hunt
This is an article that first appeared in issue 13 of Permaculture Magazine, an excellant resource for information on sustainable lifestyle practises.


In May 1995, several hundred people from all over the country descended on a derelict riverfront site in London's Borough of Wandsworth and occupied it. In just one week, buildings made from scrap materials were erected, gardens were planted and the wasteland began to look and feel like the kind of community space that is a vital ingredient of sustainable cities. The action was an enormous success, attracting a large amount of media attention and bringing the issues of land use and planning process in cities to the fore. However, this was not just a piece of direct action, or a bunch of angry people. It was the start of what became a 5 month project which continues to bring the ideas of permaculture, land rights and co-operation to the minds of the people of Wandsworth and anyone who hears of this initiative.

A small and unobtrusive community lives on the site, tending the gardens and running workshops and entertainment for children; the place was open and very welcoming. The task of achieving this under the eyes of the press and sometimes unsympathetic bystanders was mammoth. This is an account of the process as well as a celebration of what people can do when they put their minds to it.

Secret Site, No Design!
For reasons of security, none of us knew beforehand where the site was going to be, what size it was or what state it would be in ­ not an ideal situation for practising permaculture which is by nature a highly thought out and site specific process. As permaculture co-ordinator for the action, I wanted to ensure that the entire activity was approached in a permacultural way, with the most efficient use of all available resources and long term sustainability in mind. What was left after the first week had to be instructive and accessible to the local community, enabling them to continue working and maintaining the site. I soon realised that this was not going to be a normal permaculture project.

When we arrived on site, there was chaos ­ people everywhere, all with different ideas of what needed to be done first. There were builders, gardeners, toilet-makers and hundreds of willing hands with no design to wor k to. The first important task was to have a look at the site P to map the area and check the resources we had. Thirteen acres of flat Buddleia forest were found, along with a great number of bits of wood, pipe, seeds and seedlings, a large quantity of compost, plastic and other materials that had been donated or scavenged in preparation. Most of the ground was rubble or very thin soil, although there was a patch of very rich soil on one side, presumably an old garden. There was also a running water source on site.

Division of Labour & Good Communications
Work began in a haphazard but industrious way. The central living area was decided upon very quickly and a compost toilet was erected a suitable distance away. Raised beds were constructed and planted, paths were marked out all over the site and buildings, tipis, yurts and a greenhouse had appeared by the end of day two. With so many people, many of whom were skilled engineers, carpenters and gardeners, and so much work to be done, division of labour was the obvious course of action. A great effort was made to ensure that communication was good. There were meetings of the whole group every morning throughout the week, so that everyone knew what was happening all over the site.

At the first meeting, it became clear that the majority of the group under-stood permaculture to be something to do with gardening, rather than a whole approach to living sustainably. Teaching workshops were arranged and it was decided that signs explaining the ethics of permaculture should be displayed in the reception yurt and around the site. By the second day, the reasons for the permaculture approach of careful design and prior study of the site began to emerge. The water supply, for example, was a considerable distance from the living areas, kitchen and most of the gardens and water was having to be carried across rough terrain. Some people felt that we should not be using the local soil, although others had put considerable effort into doing so, because we did not know whether it was contaminated. Argument about the relative dangers of heavy metals and pesticides ensued.

It was at this stage that the group began to work really well together. Already something amazing had been created and everyone was responsible for it. Problems were discussed and tackled in a sensible and methodical way; individuals or groups took on tasks and worked hard to follow them through; everyone worked well together and the atmosphere was relaxed and happy. The water problem was solved using lengths of donated pipe, the beds were irrigated and the areas where the soil was possibly contaminated were given warning signs. So well organised were we that even the health and safety inspectors from the local council went away unable to criticise.

Friends, Furniture & the Future
The response from the local people of Wandsworth was better than we could possibly have hoped. They had wanted something like this to happen for years. Many of them donated useful items such as shrubs, seeds, piping and furniture. Several got actively involved, speaking at the meetings and helping with the work. Hoards of local children came down to play and be entertained. At the end of a week, when many people left to return to their normal lives, they took with them a huge sense of achievement, a lot of new practical skills and many new friends.

The site became a well organised and well used community space. The gardens were enormously productive during their first season. The compost toilets did not smell (although I heard there was an explosion in one of them a month or so ago!). The buildings were warm, dry and very pleasant and there was talk among the residents of setting up a wind generator over the Thames and of keeping chickens or bees. Planning permission had been applied for in the hope of securing a sustainable future for the site.

What was achieved by this project astonished all who came into contact with it. The resourcefulness and co-operative nature of people is obviously a significant, if often forgotten, part of human nature ­ the essence of permaculture is there. A city permaculture project was started in a very short time by a large and varied group of people, most of whom knew almost nothing about permaculture. During the first week, it was decided that the site should be named Pure Genius, after the slogan used by the owners of the land. A more appropriate name I cannot imagine

The Pure Genius site was closed and flattened in October 1996. The project succeeded in raising national and international debate on affordable housing, urban dereliction and land rights.

First published in Permaculture Magazine issue no. 13
reproduced with the kind permission of Maddy Harland at:

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