Capital Growth: London’s floating gardens

Capital Growth and British Waterways have teamed up in a bid to convert London’s canals into flourishing floating vegetable gardens.

British Waterways, which manages over 100 miles of canals and rivers in London, will work with Capital Growth to identify suitable land alongside London’s canals and match it up with local schools and community groups who want to create their own edible spaces.

A stretch of land along the Hertford Union Canal in Hackney Wick has been selected as the first site, and will be used as a food plot and composting scheme. The project will be managed by Growing Concerns, a community based gardening and landscaping team aspiring to improve the environment for those living and working in the East End of London. 

Canal boat turned floating vegetable garden

A spokesman from British Waterways said: “Anyone can get involved including local charities, schools and mooring associations. It is a scheme that is very egalitarian. All sorts of things can be grown alongside the canals. We have been working with Growing Concerns for a number of years and they are fantastic.”

"Herbs and vegetables are already being cultivated on the site and Growing Concerns are hoping to set up green walls along the towpaths that will grow edible crops.

More creative options are also being considered. British Waterways have a number of very large work boats and are in talks with a Shoreditch based charity to recycle an old barge into a “self contained floating container garden.”

British Waterways and Growing Concerns are keen to highlight that the project will have no harmful effects on the environment, and whilst Capital Growth do not require that the food have organic specification, they will refrain from using any harmful pesticides. Caroline Walker from Growing Concerns said:

"The only waste the scheme will encounter is rubbish that is already on the site – we are currently working to clear the site and anything resulting from the project will be turned into compost so there will be practically no carbon foot print from it. There will also be wormeries and a wildlife corridor so there should be no detrimental impact on wildlife at all."

The food produced will be given to the volunteers and community groups involved with the project. However, as the project expands, there is scope for it to become a more commercial venture.

Ms Walker said: "I see the scheme as promoting a cohesive community, allowing people to have a common goal. It is about people talking to someone that they would not necessarily have spoken to before. Furthermore, it will allow people to be in control of what they eat and hopefully help people to realise that fresh does not always mean fresh - i.e. what is sold in the supermarkets. It is also about education, teaching people that you cannot expect everything at all times of the year – that there are seasons.

Our ultimate goal is to have it completely self-sustaining with volunteer input.  Producing lovely fresh vegetables for everyone and hopefully, if it is successful, expanding the project across other unused spaces in London."

Security threats and volunteer availability are the only challenges that the project may face and, according to Ms Walker, these threats are minimal. The land being used for Capital Growth is an extension of a plot already in use by Growing Concerns and Ms Walker has said that there is “no way” they will let the project slip because of people dropping out.

All organizations involved seem to have considered the pros and cons very carefully and hope that the project will bring a new lease of life to otherwise inaccessible and unavailable land around the canals. If the scheme proves to be a success, British Waterways hope that it could be rolled out elsewhere on the 2,200 miles of canals and rivers they manage across the UK.

According to British Waterways “the floating idea is something a little bit different”. London is following the example of New York, which also runs a variety of schemes designed at greening up its city slickers. In 2007, the city launched the NY Sunworks project. Situated on a barge, the scheme exploits renewable energy sources to grow food in a way that has low environmental impact whilst still being suitable to a city. The project provides educational opportunities to schools and in the long run, it is hoped that the project will be commercially viable. Ms Walker said that she thought such a scheme could also be exploited in London.

Capital Growth – the first venture by Rosie Boycott as Chair of London Food – identifies suitable patches of land around London and offers financial and practical support to groups of enthusiastic gardeners or organizations who want to grow food for themselves and for the local community. The scheme, launched in November 2008, aims to convert 2,012 unused urban spaces across London into thriving horticultural havens by 2012.

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