Targeting transport: guerrilla gardening goes one stop further

| 8th April 2013

Eventually every stop on London's No.322 bus route might be cultivated.

Ellie Garwood reports on the rise of guerrilla gardening in and around UK transport systems, including the new Edible Bus Stop initiative.....

Chives and onions, flowers and trees; these aren’t urban bus stops as you know them. They are little havens of beauty and inspiration; they are art and horticulture, self-expression and community ownership. Edible bus stops across South London are being dug and pruned by enthusiastic local residents, who have been delighted to see their street corners brightened and beautified. 

Organisers of The Edible Bus Stop have a visionary goal of one day cultivating each and every stop on the No.322 bus route to create a fully-fledged edible bus line running from Crystal Palace to Clapham Common. The projects not only provide local food for local people, but they also galvanise communities, create a sense of ownership, a sense of local pride and help reduce anti-social behaviour.

Mak Gilchrist, Lambeth resident and Co-Founder of the Edible Bus Stop (EBS) explains how the project started: “It was 3 February 2011 when I first saw a planning notice for a proposal to take the one piece of green space that we had in the neighbourhood and build private houses on it. The plans would have made the pavements narrow, we’d lose our phone booth, we’d lose the bus shelter, and we’d also lose a very mature silver maple tree, which was the one big mature tree in the neighbourhood.”

Following much research into how to oppose planning proposals, and the secretive use of a neighbour’s work printer, Mak distributed 500 leaflets to the local community, drumming up vital support. The bid was successfully rejected and during a follow-up meeting of 40 local residents it was decided that the area could be used for gardening; a community space for local residents to feel a sense of ownership and pride, and get to know one another. 

Not long after the idea was seeded Mak met co-founder of the EBS Will Sandy through a mutual friend. The two are the first to admit they are not the world’s best gardeners, but Mak, an ex-model, and Will, a landscape architect, both have an eye for the beautiful, and more; they have a passion for building communities. 

A skate-board and BMX enthusiast, Will’s previous projects have included building jumps and ramps in disused areas. Will says: “I grew up in Somerset and there wasn’t always the space to go and skate or bike, so you’d build your own. You’d transform a space that was underused or a bit scary, under a bypass for example, and you’d make it your own. You’d all come together; I remember at age 11 we’d be hiring diggers, under the oldest one’s name, and be building jumps and all sorts. I think my passion for this project stems from that, it’s the same sort of culture, not quite a subculture, but people coming together for a need, to address something that’s missing in their community and I think there’s a real zeitgeist for it all over the country at the moment, and all over the world, and we seem to be tapping in to it quite nicely.”   

A phrase commonly tossed around by the co-founders sums up the concept perfectly: ‘brutal landscapes create brutal outlooks’. By beautifying a space, you soften the look of an area, which softens the attitude of the people, and therefore the whole community. The aesthetically pleasing garden spaces are the antithesis of the 2011 London riots, the social catalyst that kick-started both Mak and Will into action.

Will continues: “During my diploma I learnt about developing design and how this in itself can create communities, we also learnt about the onslaught of gentrification, homogenisation and automation and how we might be able to create spaces to tackle these issues.”  

Currently there are three edible bus stops in South London; one fully formed Edible Bus Stop in Lambeth, one currently in development in West Norwood and one just about to fledge in Crystal Palace.

Residents meet on a specific day; the first Sunday of every month at the West Norwood stop, and the second Sunday at the Lambeth stop. Jennifer Cooper, a local Lambeth resident, is an active member of the Edible Bus Stop on Landor Road. She says: “Many people thought the garden would be trashed, and I half expected it to be trashed, but nobody does. It has touched people’s hearts and people have claimed it as their own.” She continues: “People are hungry for community, people are hungry to connect to each other, and the garden gives us an outlet to do this.”

Mak and Will are visionaries at heart, not only are they passionate about completing a bus route through South London, but they can see the idea being replicated throughout the entire city, and more, throughout the UK. Mak says: “When I see people’s reactions and smiles to what we’ve done to our humble patch imagine what we could do if we extended it down through all the bus routes creating a number of edible corridors joining all the communities together.”

Other transport themed gardening projects:

Kilburn Tube Station: In 2011 Transition Kensal to Kilburn converted empty raised bedsat Kilburn tube station into productive spaces dripping with all manner of fruit and vegetables, and even an espaliered apple tree. Co-Founder Michael Stuart said: “We asked the tube if we could plant something here, and we specifically wanted fruit and vegetables, to show people how easy it is to grow fruit and vegetables absolutely anywhere.” 

“People always wondered whether we’d get any vandalism, or whether the food would be stolen, but actually we don’t mind, we’re quite happy and we’re inviting people to pick what they want. We’re delighted with the idea that commuters can get off a train and pick a strawberry or a tomato and munch it on the way home; it’s fantastic.”  

With over 12,000 commuters going through the station everyday this is a money-can’t-buy piece of living publicity for the joys of growing your own. Anyone is welcome to join the station growers, and for those with little or no gardening knowledge there is a group gardening day held on the first Sunday of every month.  

Lancashire train stations: The Prospects Foundation, an environmental charity in Hyndburn, Lancashire has developed fruit and vegetable gardens on a host of local train stations including Accrington, Rishton and Huncoat. 

Barbara Russell is a volunteer at the Huncoat station garden, she said: “We started last year just on a small scale, growing strawberries and tomatoes, but we are looking to expand this year and have earmarked space for more raised beds and planters. I’ve also got ideas for having hanging baskets with tumbling toms, as well as cabbages and brussel sprouts.”

Russell, who previously helped maintain the decorative plants at the station, has come into her own with the fruit and vegetables project; she explains: “I’m partially disabled and not able to do a great deal of digging so I before I mainly dead-headed and weeded, and helped to clear up after gardening sessions; but this has given me something a little bit more advanced to get my teeth into. Because they are raised beds they’re easier for me to look after.”

It was in 2010 that Barbara and her fellow volunteers took over the station, and started to add flowers and greenery, which then lead on to the fruit and vegetable growing. Volunteers are now working on getting the community more involved through working with local schools to develop the station’s overall look and design. Barbara continues: “Since we took over the station vandalism has decreased tremendously, and with the schools taking over and growing vegetables and flowers, the kids are more likely to say ‘don’t touch that, I’ve done that.’…Everyone seems really pleased with the work we’ve been doing.”

International PARK(ing) Day: An annual awareness raising event whereby parking spots up and down the country are turned into spaces of beauty, to highlight the importance of greenery in urban spaces.The day was developed in 2005 when a team of employees from a San Francisco art and design studio converted a single parking space into a temporary park. The team unravelled turf, put out a park bench and a tree, for just two hours, before removing the items, and rolling the turf back up. 

The mission of PARK(ing) Day is to call attention to the need for more urban open space, to generate critical debate around how public space is created and allocated, and to improve the quality of urban human habitat. The concept has grabbed people across the globe and the event now happens in over 35 countries, from Indonesia to Iceland to Iran.

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Ellie Garwood is a freelance journalist passionate about community growing projects and local food. She is also Project Worker for Transition Chichester, in West Sussex. @elliegarwood