The 365 Ways Blog

Michael Norton is author of "365 Ways to Change the World", which provides an issue for each day of the year, interesting facts, inspiring case studies of people doing things to address the issue and ideas for action. Originally published in the UK, versions with local content have been published in Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and the USA. To find out more visit our website:

30 May 2008

A garden in a bag

Two London architects, Ulrike Steven and Gareth Morris, started WHAT IF: projects to develop ideas for the urban landscape. Their aim is to build on what’s already happening in local communities, and to unlock resources and enable people to find new ways of doing, thinking responding to everyday issues.
Through their architectural practice and as college lecturers they are testing ideas through small-scale interventions. A particular interest is Void Spaces and the opportunities that these could offer neighbourhoods and cities.

Vacant Lot: one question they have tried to answer is “How might you meet the demand for ‘grow-your-own’ within dense urban areas where available land is scarce?” 
 Together with local residents of an inner city housing estate in Shoreditch in East London, they have come up with a novel solution. They have transformed a formerly inaccessible and run-down piece of vacant land on a housing estate into a beautiful oasis of green. Seventy 500kg bags of soil have been arranged to form an allotment space. The bags are the sort that builders use for the delivery on site of sand and gravel. Within their individual plots, local residents are tending a spectacular array of vegetables, salads, fruit and flowers. A new sense of community has emerged as a result of this... plus fresh, healthy and virtually free food for them and their families. They have called the project “Vacant Lot”, and it was commissioned by the Shoreditch Trust, funded by the Arts Council and developed for the London Festival of Architecture in 2008 in association with the Charles Street and Pitfield Tenant and Resident Association and Groundwork East London. What a lot of organisations for a little project! But a really creative way of growing vegetables on your doorstep.

Other WHAT IF projects include:

Out-Post: a shipping container wass placed on some unused land in the Toxteth area of Liverpool to be used for meetings, exhibitions, rehearsals. Workshops and gatherings of all kinds.

During the Liverpool, European Capital of Culture Year 2008 unheard voices were given a say through an exhibition of stories exhibited at the Out-Post and in the surrounding streets. The collection of personal stories from within Toxteth aimed to give expression to the different cultures and identities within three marginalised neighbourhoods. These areas lacked amenities and meeting places, so the container provided a central public space for local people who were invited to fill it with their experiences, memories, fears and aspirations.

Also in Toxteth, the Cow: the Udder Way project brought 5 cows, 5 calves, 3 milkmen and a milking parlour to a piece of green space in Toxteth for 9 days. Imagine waking up in the city, and seeing a farm suddenly appear nearby!

The Travelling Shed sought to promote environmental awareness. A garden shed appeared at shopping centres offering people digital garden make-overs so that a more sensible use of their gardens would help them reduce their ecological footprint. Each person’s ecological footprint is about 800 times the size of the average suburban back garden. 60,000 square metres is the area needed to produce the resources each of us consumes and to absorb our waste. If the earth’s available land was shared evenly between the global population, we would each have 18,000 square metres of space. This is the space available to us sustainable living (as a planet).

Using more than our fair share will eventually lead to ecological overload. If every country had Britain’s level of consumption we would need 3.1 worlds to cope with the demand for resources.
 Reducing our “ecological footprint” means becoming more aware of the origin of our food, how our energy is produced, where our waste goes, where water comes from or drains to… and then taking action to reduce it. For 3 weeks the Shed advertised the beauty of a productive plot or a wildlife habitat in our back gardens, with the slogan: “Don’t mow it, grow it!”.

Also on the WHAT IF: projects website are ideas for constructing low-cost greenhouses out of bamboo and polythene to grow tomatoes, and green roofs to grow things which also retain water during periods of heavy rainfall and act as an insulator helping keep the heat inside the house.


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