| 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 5½ 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
Friends, Furniture & the Future
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
The Sustainability Centre
Tel: + 44 (0)1730
Fax: + 44 (0)1730 823322