Project Dirt: the eco-web project that's much more than the Green Facebook...

Mark Shearer and Nick Gardner
Mark Shearer and Nick Gardner

Project Dirt co-founders Mark Shearer (left) and Nick Gardner

Forget impersonal internet interactions, Project Dirt is connecting green initiatives in real life to make environmental change at a local level a reality

Social networking sites have moved human interaction into the digital sphere – friends are no longer people you’ve necessarily met face to face and personal worth is judged by the number of names on your profile, not the quality of your relationships with them.

This is just one reason why Mark Shearer is determined his environmental community website Project Dirt will never be the Green Facebook. Its aim is not only to connect local environmental projects in the ether, but also to help people start up or get involved in eco work on the ground.

‘Project Dirt is about learning from real people doing real projects,’ he says. ‘If you want to get involved in environmental work you can see how others are going about it, and the general public can see what’s going on too.’

Set up in Wandsworth in 2008, it is the brainchild of Shearer and Nick Gardner, a charted surveyor and consultant respectively, who met in 2005 through a shared interest in the environment. Both 26 at the time, they were looking for a green project to get involved in, and landed upon the idea for a website to make precisely that kind of decision easier.

‘We looked into it and discovered a huge wave of people doing things, but none of them speaking to each other and none of their projects actually open for the general public to look at and learn about. And there wasn’t a lack of info out there about green issues, there was too much, and a lot of it contradictory. We wanted to make things simple and tangible, so people could see what was going on and access information direct from the source.’

Growing the grassroots

The site is free to use: members sign up, create their own project page and then are able to network, share information, search for volunteers and, increasingly, access funding streams. With 375 member projects and more than 1,000 events posted in the past 18 months, the site is rapidly becoming the place to be for new and established green groups.

Projects range in size from one or two members (Brixton Cornercopia) to more than 100, such as Food Up Front. As news of the site has spread so too has its membership, beyond its Wandsworth base to Lambeth, Islington, Camden, Hackney and Westminster. Project Dirt Liverpool is already underway, Bristol has expressed an interest too and a new, larger site is planned for next year.

Shearer is determined not to overreach himself, however. ‘We want to make sure the new site is ready before we grow to other cities – it’s important to keep the core firm. The internet’s great for learning what someone in Japan’s up to, but no substitute for meeting people and seeing what they’re doing. Having Project Dirt at a local level has been key to its success so far.’

The site’s attraction – and its inviolable rule – is its neutrality: projects have their own branding and thinking, using the site only as a platform. This also benefits local authorities, who now have an interface through which to interact with and offer funding to grassroots projects in their areas – as Shearer points out: ‘If they’d set up a network themselves, no one would want to know.’

Green in the mainstream

Unlike other environmental projects, Project Dirt is run as a limited company rather than a charity or non-profit. Although no trading is taking place at the moment, Shearer envisages revenue being generated in the future from subscribers such as local authorities and companies – ‘those who are able to pay – it will always be free to members and groups. We’ll reinvest a good percentage of any future profits through a formal pledge in the company papers’.

With its co-founder’s enthusiasm for the green scene as an ‘emerging sector’ and a ‘great business opportunity’, is there a danger that Project Dirt will go the way of Green & Black’s or Innocent and be snaffled up by a corporation keen for a greener image? It already has an ongoing relationship with footwear giant Timberland, after all.

Shearer is keen to dispel any question of selling out, pointing out that the site lives and dies on its standing among its members.

‘We have seen a spate of companies with poor CSR records buying into others to improve their images, but you can’t sell your souls. Timberland has provided us with a £10,000 grant this year, which has benefited up to five projects, but before we make any decisions we ask a steering committee of project administrators to give us their honest answer – funding or nothing? And we need to take their views seriously: if Project Dirt loses its integrity then it loses everything.

'If someone were to step in tomorrow – a brilliant partner that our members approved of – then we could build the new website and help get even more projects off the ground. I would quit my day job in a flash to work on this full time.’

What its members say...

Sue Sheehan, green community champions officer, Lambeth Borough Council/Hyde Farm Climate Action Network
When a community group or project starts up, their first thought is often to get a website: not only can you do that really easily on Project Dirt but you can also network with other people running similar projects to get advice. It’s been a really good resource in bringing like-minded people together and helping them do what they want to do. It’s helped to create more activity and feels very supportive. Lambeth Borough Council recommends it to all its community groups and when we had a funding round made it a requirement that successful groups joined up. I like the local feel of it, and there is something about developing organically. It’s the fact that you can fill in gaps locally, network with people at a local level. It’s not just a virtual space – it’s more important than Facebook because a lot of people meet in real life as well.

Dan O’Neill, Transition Town Wandsworth
Mark and Nick have created a unique platform for community cooperation and facilitated a whole host of activity in South London. Transition Town Wandsworth couldn’t have come into the world without it, and the community garden we’ve created – Wandsworth’s first – would have been starved of participation were it not for the grassroots ‘word on the street’ supplied by Project Dirt. It’s allowed me to meet and work with a great bunch of people doing invaluable work for nothing more than the satisfaction of involving themselves for the betterment of their communities – it didn’t require any politician making a call to action. I host three projects on the site and have watched them grow over the past two years. There’s a massive appetite for change out on the streets and it is forums such as Project Dirt that are allowing those wanting it to find like minds; it is only by coming together that it can happen. Long may it continue: a genuine backyard revolution.

Eifion Rees is the Ecologist's acting Green Living Editor


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