Skip Garden

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Name of project: Skip Garden

Location: King’s Cross

Type of project: the mobile garden and sustainability education project

Size:

Financial Budget: £200,000

Funding: part-funded by the Big Lottery,  Islington and Camden Borough Councils, Argent and St George, the developers of the King’s Cross masterplan, and the site and materials have been provided by The King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership, BAM Nuttall, Carillion and Kier. [4]

Management: sustainability education charity Global Generation – ‘a charity which gives young people opportunities to create a sustainable future’ [4]

Timescale: 2009-2015, or longer

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Context and issues:

The Skip Garden was inaugurated in 2009 and forms part of the regeneration at King’s Cross, a very central London area and one of the biggest regeneration schemes in Europe. The King’s Cross scheme is being delivered by the King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership (KCCLP), who is the single land-owner, and includes developers Argent, London & Continental Railways (a UK Government-owned property company) and DHL (the well-known supply chain company). The scheme consists of 67 hectares of brownfield land surrounding King’s Cross and St Pancras railway stations. The Skip Garden is run by the sustainability education charity Global Generation, and has received support from Islington and Camden Borough Councils, from local businesses (eg. The Guardian) and from the developers of the masterplan.

In 2002, an extensive public consultation process carried out by Fluid for the developers brought up the issue of development as a process, rather than a fixed output. It suggested the need for community engagement with, and ownership of, this process during its various phases: “what happens in the meantime?” In light of the consultation findings, it is not surprising that the Skip Garden, although not in the initial plans of the developers, has managed to find its way into the project and to enjoy a healthy relationship with developers, local businesses, local youths, volunteers and construction employees alike.

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Initiation and project aims:

The project was initiated when Jane Riddiford, one of the co-founders of the charity Global Generation and currently its CEO, got in touch with the CEO of developers Argent. His response was very positive, supporting the charity’s idea that ‘business and activism don’t have to be either end of the spectrum’ [1].  Following his request that the gardens on site be portable, Riddiford spoke to garden manager Paul Richens, who came up with the idea of gardens in skips. The idea seemed very appropriate given the building site context. The skips were donated by the construction companies on site, and bear the companies’ colours. The first Skip Garden was opposite St Pancras Station, and lasted for two years (2009 – 2011) after which it was scattered in two sites, with offices in one of the buildings, before fully moving to its current location off York Way which is expected to last till at least 2015.

The main focus of the project is to educate volunteers in the importance of sustainability. As Jane Riddiford, the CEO of Global Generation, defines it, the project aims and intention go beyond the physical site:

“ our capital in the organisation is not in the physical things that we are doing, it’s in our approach, and our educational approach, our philosophy. And I think that’s transportable anywhere… one thing we’ve tried to stay true to is our values and our approach, and that’s what’s defined us.”[1]

Global Generation as an organisation we’re not planning on having ourselves a series of skip gardens all over the country. Kings Cross is if you like our mothership. But our approach we’re sharing more broadly.”[1]

The project runs various gardening, food growing and sustainability workshops such as ‘twilight gardening’, ‘lunch and learning’, the ‘generators’ (young volunteers) programmes as well as a café and other events on site. It also runs the local school Business BTech, and works with the textile department of Central St Martin’s, usually accommodating 80 students over 2 days every year in this capacity.

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The garden uses local materials – and in this case that means building materials. So the gardens have been planted in upcycled skips, and the polytunnel was created using spare water pipes, scaffold netting and planks from the site.[4]

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Policies and processes: 

The owner of the site is the developer, Kings Cross Central, who bought the land and achieved planning permission after a lengthy process that lasted nearly 10 years. Global Generation have a 3-year temporary lease for renting the land, but they do not contribute anything to any potential rental costs, the expense being borne by the developers in full. As a charity they also benefit from tax rates relief.

The liabilities and the appropriate health and safety requirements, both for working with young people, and school children, but also for working on a development site, were determined at the outset of the project. However, means were sought to avoid these becoming disabling constraints.

The site falls between Islington and Camden Boroughs. The councils’ contribution has been varied, although over time they’ve both supported the ‘generators’ programmes. Islington are supporting a lot of the youth possibilities, mainly because they ‘have given up their youth service, and they are divulging or divesting out to other organisations, whereas Camden have kept their youth service’ [1]. Camden’s support has been more sporadic due primarily to significant resource cuts as a result of the recession. They are perhaps also more ‘policy driven’ than Islington, expecting ‘to fund projects that could be rolled out across the borough’ [1]. In opposition to this, the approach of the Skip Garden project is much more incremental and hence slower.

According to Rachel Solomon, the portable set up of the project (portacabins, skips etc) makes it akin to ‘a construction site’, and also looser in terms of ’permissions and licenses’. The Skip Garden team are ‘very strict’ about their methods and making sure risks are minimised, but this temporariness and portability, physically speaking, makes spaces easier to set up and to run, compared to properly ‘built’ projects. However, there are ‘interesting conversations’ with the developers about ‘the long term stay of Global Generation on development sites, and about how [this] could happen’, and that ideally this would be the preferred option. [3]

 

People and impact:

The ‘Generator’ programme involves 13-18 years old local children from Camden and Islington that come to learn about themselves, about communities and about the practical things they can do environmentally speaking. The programme focuses on linking them up with the real world, specifically connecting them with businesses across the King’s Cross site. Employees from those businesses support those younger people, teaching about things like social media, construction etc depending on what the business is. There is an exchange of knowledge, employees engaging the young people in different aspects of the business world that they would like to learn about or wouldn’t have found out about otherwise. Importantly, the expectation is that the young people can also give the businesses something back, offering fresh perspectives and  building relationships with businesses in a way that normally wouldn’t happen, counteracting the assumption that business people and young people are supposed to be separate. [3]

According to Riddiford, the project also usually works with 1 or 2 primary schools at any one time, in a more consistent way. They also run a project in the summer entitled ‘The Universe Story ’ – mainly with primary school pupils about to go to the secondary schools.

Since 2013 the garden has been open to the public, so on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and some Thursdays, there are tours that come through. These are connected to the visitors centre in the Granary building. Additionally there are individual people who come to visit the garden while others drop by the cafe as well, or on the first Saturday of the month when the Garden opens its doors to everybody. [1]

The workshops on Twilight Gardening in the summer teach those people who are interested how to garden in a really difficult place, understand how that works and what is needed for it to be a success. People come in from the whole area, everything from the local contractors to office workers, to local residents, to interested people, all working on the garden in the evening session. [2]

The diversity of types of people or age groups has gradually come to be the main marker of the project. [2]

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Challenges

One of the restrictions posed on projects like this, if entering the top down funding and policy route, would be the risk of losing the experimental appeal that defines them. For example, if activities in the garden were accepted only within very strict parameters, perhaps in terms of number of workshops or types of project or indeed spatial organisation, there would be less allowance for starting small and then seeing how things develop. The ability to be reactive to successes and failures would be significantly reduced. Being policy driven would enable projects like this to happen more, but this would need to be done in an open kind of way, whereby different approaches could be facilitated [3].

 

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Lessons learnt

Temporary location but long-term philosophy: there are plenty of short-term food growing projects, or art installations, but Jane Riddiford does not see the work being done here as temporary; rather the “physical location is temporary” while the work itself is not, because its permanency is not based on its physicality. This is a very important point, because it distinguishes this from other projects that are really intended to be temporary and everybody knows it – including the people that are involved in them. Perhaps this long term vision creates a different mind-set.

“Our identity is based on process. […]If that’s your core identity then that’s permanent, but ever-changing. So then you can handle being in a situation like this, rather than trying to pin it all down, and then when it’s over, it’s over. […]Paul, he is an organic gardener and he is gardening permanently, long term, he’s building up the soil, …but in a way that everything can move. So some people think oh do you change the soil every year and it’s all very instant, but he’s doing it as if he were taking care of the long term. [1]

Collaboration and synergy, instead of resistance and opposition: In many cases and in many ways temporary projects are a reaction against future development, or they’re trying to be alternative to more commercial, mainstream regeneration and urban design projects. They don’t involve ‘the other side’ – the developers, the landowners, the businesses. The Skip Garden and GG are bringing together these communities that, in many people’s mind, may have very diverging interests. This results in a qualitative change in the relationship with businesses as examples mentioned by Riddiford confirm. Young people working on the Skip garden programmes with GG, and getting work experience with local businesses, are imbued with a certain ‘less materialistic’, ethical business approach, while businesses become more open to trying different things together in conversation, to do with engaging staff in the company’s sustainability vision and building relationships with the local community in King’s Cross. [6]

As Rachel Solomon puts it, it’s ‘very powerful going into places like the Guardian newspaper, places like Argent, a developer which is huge, … we’re talking about a massive construction site with…millions and millions of pounds being spent. Having that engagement allows you to be able to bring those people into that space, to be able to see other people’s point, and to take that feedback in. […] Businesses will still operate in their usual way but with mindsets changed it does affect certain decisions or approaches.’ [3]

Flexibility: a project that’s said to be temporary can act as ground of experimentation. It has the ability to change. The Skip Garden has moved twice and can move again. The programmes can adapt to new developments. A more permanent project would probably result in more rigid programmes and activities, alongside an increased difficulty in adapting to changing conditions. This is one particularly interesting side of the Skip Garden project.

Recession: Within this specific context of policies and processes how has the current recession influenced the set up and operation of the project? If nothing else it has made things easier, says Riddiford. As ‘all the old rules are breaking down’ people are more open for different ways of doing things’; in other times the developers might ‘have gone down a more conventional route. Or they would have entirely funded something, and entirely controlled it, but they don’t have the money to do that, so actually, it changes the power balance.’[1]

Quotes

Jane Riddiford: “ Our capital in the organisation is not in the physical things that we are doing, it’s in our approach, and our educational approach, our philosophy. And I think that’s transportable anywhere… one thing we’ve tried to stay true to is our values and our approach, and that’s what’s defined us.”[1]

Jane Riddiford

Jane Riddiford

Paul Richens: I feel there’s been a break in the chain of gardening, basically. I mean my Grandfather got the family through the First World War through what he grew, and my parents did the same in the Second. So I would say I come from a line of survival gardeners… it was not just a pleasure thing. […]If you talked to my Mother about what a real crisis was, the crisis was in the war when there was no food around. You know you got one ounce of butter a week. That’s a real crisis. I think we overstate what disaster we’re in. There is a hidden crisis. Which is, you know, people eating the wrong sorts of food, obesity because of the food they’re eating um, but that’s not the money crisis.”[2]

Paul Richens

Paul Richens

Rachel Solomon: “The magic happens just by people being able to talk whilst doing something else… that breaks down that kind of pressure to speak and to learn and all this sort of stuff. It’s just cooking, or they’re just building, or something, or they’re just gardening. And that enables those conversations to happen.[3]

Rachel Solomon

Rachel Solomon

Zak Nur: “One thing I’d say I’d learned the most was you don’t necessarily have to pay attention to the numbers, once you change someone’s attitude I think everything else will follow and I think they’ve certainly changed my attitude towards work, [my] approach of doing things and yeah, they kinda gave me…they kinda gave me the platform to develop myself. ” [5]

Zak Nur

Zak Nur

1 interview with Jane Riddiford, CEO Global Generation, 19/09/13

2 interview with Paul Richens, Blue Dome Synergies, Garden Manager,  03/12/13

3 interview with Rachel Solomon, Youth Manager, 16/01/14

4 http://www.kingscross.co.uk/skip-garden

5 interview with Zak Nur, volunteer and Generator, 19/09/13

6 http://www.theguardian.com/sustainability/csr-staff-engagement-community-urban-gardening

Print

Skip Garden plan (2013)

Links to:

Zak Nur’s video King’s Cross Skip Garden https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUZaaD7dhc0

http://www.kingscross.co.uk/skip-garden

http://globalgeneration.org.uk/

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