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AS OXYGEN bars spring up in major cities around the world and winter temperatures turn to those of spring, and our TV's tell us that large-scale environmental groups are no more than right-wing propagandists (Against Nature, C4) and the Kyoto conference is incapable of cutting worldwide pollution, is there any hope for the individual to make a change? The answer is yes.
There are growing sections of communities around the world activating change, both in the countryside and in the city. But it is perhaps more surprising when care for the earth is being administered in areas that appear on the face of it to be covered in concrete.
In North London take a cycle ride up the polluted hill Hornsey Rise and it will not strike you as the most obvious place to start an environmental project. But it is here that a group of local people is making an impact, on the immediate community and beyond. Hornsey Rise is home to Naturewise, a small collective of environmentalists, changing the landscape on their very doorstep and showing other people how to do the same.
Co-ordinated by Alpai Torgut, Naturewise was set up in the summer of 1990. The following year it was running the first Urban Permaculture Course in Britain and had began work creating the first Naturewise Forest Garden. Since then it has completed a second Forest Garden and has run eight Permaculture Courses.
Permaculture literally means permanent culture, or permanent agriculture. It is a way of designing and creating sustainable living environments which can be used by communities, schools, businesses, farms, and gardens, or can be incorporated into architecture. It enables people to work out solutions to local and global problems and put them into practice.
Permaculture is sustainable because it produces what we require to live while regenerating and conserving at the same time, minimising waste and destruction. The basic principles are to teach people how the complex systems of the earth, plants and animals can be harnessed to meet the range of human needs. Forest Gardens are just one part of Permaculture.
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The idea of Forest Gardening was brought to Britain by Robert Hart, who has been the inspiration to Naturewise. A tiny imitation of the natural forest, a forest garden achieves the utmost economy of space and labour and requires minimal maintenance. It is a sustainable edible landscape which can make a significant contribution to our diet throughout the growing season, from the first herbs and wild garlic in March to the last apples in November. The wide diversity of species that inhabit it ensures that any small invasions of pests never reach epidemic proportions.
"The Forest Garden is really based on following natures lead, and it can be done in the cities because we are still in the earth and are part of it, even though it is covered, even though it feels like its not there. A Forest Garden is a doorway for nature to come through, for earth to come through. A Forest Garden is to do with observing how a forest works naturally and then designing and recreating it, using those principles. It is designed with the specific purpose of meeting peoples needs - for foods, medicines, materials, energy, the enjoyment of nature and wildlife. It is a self sustaining microcosm of the ecosystem.
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Comprehend and copy nature." City dwellers have lost contact with the land and the way in which food is produced. One way of reconnecting with the land is by growing food. Food growing can also improve the quality and sustainability of urban life. 89% of us live in cities. At present, most cities are highly unsustainable; covering only 2% of the earth's surface, they nevertheless consume 75% of its resources, states Tara Garnett in the report 'Growing Food in Cities.'
"People are very disassociated with the bit of land they live on, especially in the city it is almost like the land isn't there at all - covered with pavements, roads, buildings, cars, noise, aggression, fear, crime. One would often find in localities that its very difficult for people to come together and celebrate and form communities in the face of all these adverse symptoms and conditions." added Alpai.
Tara Garnett - a former Naturewise Permaculture student - states that creating a sense of community has the potential to play a significant part in the regeneration of inner cities, and food growing projects, like Forest Gardens, are a very practical form of urban community development - a way of involving people in an activity which can make a visible difference to the quality of city life.
Furthermore, the benefits of Forest Gardens in cutting global pollution and its devastating effects are far reaching. Today's retailing and food distribution systems, relying on motorised transport and, increasingly, air freight, exact a heavy environmental toll in terms of fossil fuel use, air pollution and damage to wildlife habitats through road building, as Alpai explained.
"If we people that live in the cities take more responsibility, take care of our needs as locally as possible we will contribute to decreasing the pressure on the earth. The more we can take care of our needs locally the less food and materials will be trucked or flown all over the globe, burning fossil fuels in the process."
Additionally, food from the Forest Garden can be beneficial nutritionally, not only because of the type of harvest - fruit, vegetables, nuts, but also because it is free from chemicals. "It is difficult for a lot of people to get good nutrition. It could be to do with poverty or that there is not very good food, even if one buys it, it can be very poor nutritionally."
The Naturewise projects have created opportunities for people to tackle the specific problems of carrying out Permaculture in urban areas: for example, vandalism, lack of funding, government policy and dealing with unemployment.
In the report Growing Food in Cities, Tara Garnett describes the impact of the environment on crime. "A research team from King's College, London, recently concluded that one of the most powerful factors in curbing crime and vandalism on problem housing estates was the presence of a garden.
" The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro which produced Agenda 21 sets out how countries across the globe can work towards 'sustainable development', which meets the needs of the present without burning up resources, which would jeopardise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
But Alpai is sceptical about the role of the government. "It doesn't seem to be supporting initiatives like these. In fact, they seem to be an obstacle even though they signed up for Agenda 21- which is all about sustainability on a grassroots level. The reality on the ground is that they actually hinder these initiatives. It is very difficult for ordinary people to access resources. In my experience, concerning Agenda 21, all that is done is basically a lot of paper is used up, a lot of meetings are held and very few resources if any are parted with to support grassroots initiatives."
"Also, unemployed people are having to deal with the negative approach that the government is having towards them."
Working on the Crouch Hill Forest Garden, Naturewise developed good relations with people in the locality, particularly with the Crouch Hill Community Recreation Centre. As a result, a nearby adventure playground planted a small community orchard with the help of Naturewise students and Naturewise also planted an area with shrubs and fruit bushes to encourage butterflies and birds for a local community nursery. Children, teachers and parents also became involved in the creation of the second Forest Garden, carried out with the help of Naturewise students, who did their practical learning on the forest garden. Through planting and harvesting fruits, herbs and vegetables from the forest garden, Naturewise hopes the children will learn to protect, care and preserve nature. The project at Margaret McMillian's represents an imaginative example of what can be done with school grounds and has prompted enquiries from other nursery schools.
Naturewise has also recognised that through their projects, individuals, including professional people, unemployed people, single parents, students, self-employed people and council officers, with differing approaches can work creatively together in a common task. The Forest Gardens have created educational and training opportunities for people and food for the local community to harvest.
Most of the Naturewise work, however, is done on a voluntary basis. And to fund material costs over the years, for instance, plants, trees and tools, Naturewise has received small amounts of funding from London Borough of Islington, Islington Community Environmental Trust, Elthorne Park LBI Neighbourhood Forum, The Tree Council, Hanley Crouch Neighbourhood Forum and Archway Neighbourhood Forum.
The other major aspect of Naturewise's work is education. The PermacuIture courses, which operate a policy of not turning anyone away, charge negotiable fees according to people's means or circumstances. Tutors also take cuts in wages in order that the courses go ahead. As Alpai explained, the main purpose is to guide people in ways to get activated. "The Permaculture courses are basically for people to find their confidence to start doing something.
Students learn ideas and practices to do with sustainability. It's really inspiring to see people form into a community, and learn to be, work, and sort out problems in a beneficial way with each other - to have this experience is quite something"
Since the 1970's, when Permaculture was first devised and practised by Australian Bill Mollison, it is now used in thousands of communities and farming projects in more than 40 countries. "Permaculture as a design system contains nothing new. It arranges what was always there in a different way, so that it works to conserve energy or to generate more energy than it consumes," writes Bill Mollison in Permaculture. A Designers Manual. It draws on both traditional knowledge and modern science and requires the minimum of interference with nature. Alpai concluded: "Basically, the problem is not the environment, its not the earth, its people. If people sort themselves out and relate with the earth in a wholesome, non-abusive way the earth would regenerate itself, heal itself. The problem isn't about fixing the earth, it really is about people fixing themselves because the origins of what's going on is people. We have to learn new ways of being with the earth that are not based on abusing, controlling and manipulating."
In the late 1950's when America sent its first satellite into space the reaction was expressed as the first "step toward escape from men's imprisonment to the earth." America launched another satellite skyward in the beginning of 1998, reportedly scanning the surface of the moon for water. But have we not missed the point? How will theories of outer space sustain us when our water is too poisonous to drink, our air too toxic to breathe? Our "escape" from earth will more likely be extinction, not a spaceship.
"The experience of the natural world and its laws has almost been abandoned for closed, artificial, and meaningless lives, perhaps best typified by the dreams of those who would live in space satellites and abandon a dying earth," wrote Bill Mollison in Permaculture. A Designers' Manual. "The sad reality is that we are in danger of perishing from our own stupidity and lack of personal responsibility to life."
Publications: top of page
by Robert Hart.
How To Make A Forest Garden by Patrick Whitefield.
Permaculture. A Designer's Manual by Bill Mollison. Introduction to Permaculture
by Bill Mollison.
Permaculture in a Nutshell
by Patrick Whitefield.
Available from Naturewise Top of page
0171 281 3765
Worldly Goods 0117 942 0165
Growing Food in Cities
by Tara Garnett.
A Report to highlight and promote the benefits of urban agriculture in the UK, for the National Food Alliance and
SAFE Alliance working party on Growing food in cities.
Contact: 0171 837 1228 for a copy. 10.
written by Maxine Burrage.