More or less 12 years ago, we were commencing the regeneration of two parcels of land, about as different as it is possible for them to be, as were our approaches to their regeneration. The first, and smaller of the two, was the footprint of a former 20 storey tower block, a pair of which were brought down at the same time, leaving a scar in the landscape, and an opportunity for new developments. The tower blocks were being brought down as part of the regeneration of a ‘difficult’ area. The other land parcel was a former 1.1 ha (3 acre) allotments site, which had gradually fallen into neglect and dereliction over about 15 years or so, save for a stalwart group of first generation immigrant Jamaicans, huddled together on one part of the site.
The tower block land was a mess, as you can imagine – Brownfield with a capital B. It was contaminated, a mix of all sorts – rubble, live power cables, etc, and far from the kind of land that you would imagine could produce stunning gardens to support a professional standard therapeutic horticulture programme. Part of the development land had already been dedicated to the development of Sandwell‘s flagship Independent Living Centre, bringing together public authorities and a user led organisation of disabled and disadvantaged people, now known as Ideal for All (IFA), about which I will write more in future posts. The people that made up IFA had put forward a proposal for a garden on the neighbouring brownfield site, and as hard cash for regeneration was flowing into deprived areas under the New Labour government of the day, IFA was able to secure a capital grant to develop the infrastructure of the gardens (later known as Malthouse Gardens) in more or less once lump.
In contrast, the second site was a greenfield site, in the sense that all allotments, along with public parks, cemeteries, etc, are designated as ‘green’. We had found out in the first round of investigations, in 1999 or thereabouts, that a greenfield site can be badly contaminated, and a brownfield one not necessarily so, harking back to layer upon layer of use through the industrial revolution and beyond. This site, which became Salop Drive Market Garden, was a mess of abandoned sheds, sofas, bed frames, broken bicycles and supermarket trolleys, all thoroughly overgrown. We had no money, and had to set about raising the investment we estimated we needed through a focused campaign, trying to convince funders that our ideas for the transformation of this land parcel into a thriving, multifunctional, community resource, through gardening and food growing, were not completely barking mad. And so we did, but the funding packages for each phase of development were assembled from multiple pots of funding, all stopping and starting at different times.
With this site, our first task was to strip off all the overgrowth, and the understorey of junk. Which produced us rather large piles of a mixed up mess of green waste liberally interspersed with all sorts of debris. We realised that it would be impossible to separate the waste, so we had it compacted into a ‘bund’ around parts of the site, soiled it over, and planted a mixed native species hedgerow on top, which is now fully fledged, and rather lovely. Following this was a topographical survey to map the lie of the land. The soil was ‘riddled’, to separate out some of the sticks, stones, broken glass, and other sundry junk. All the while we were fundraising madly for the different elements of an urban market garden, alongside a fully inclusive community development process, within which the masterplan for the project was developed by members of the local community.
Incredibly, it all more or less came together, and a properly managed ‘build’ began. Not so luckily, in the few weeks before the autumn sun shone daily, and the land was relatively dry, but the day the plant and machinery went on site, the heavens opened, it rained for weeks, and the combination of heavy machinery and heavy rain turned parts of the site to porridge. As a former farmer and grower, this was horrifying to watch, as I knew we would have problems further down the line restoring the (once good) land to productivity, but I could not pull the machinery off site as funding agreements and financial year ends meant we had to carry on. We put in drains, water supplies, a pressurised irrigation system, power, polytunnels, a large greenhouse, built roads and pathways, and craned in prefabricated buildings, which gently settled down onto all of their service connections, and were connected up, just like that. Amazing.
But then we had to reclaim the poor, battered soil. In the first year, we did no growing on outdoor land at all, while focusing attention on the soil structure in the tunnels, getting them cropping. Outdoors, we allowed the weeds to grow, and sprayed them off, once. From that moment, we used organic methods. We used green waste compost, deep rooting green manures (rye and vetch), and careful cultivations to nurse the compacted land back into life. I’d guess it took about 18 months, much quicker than I had imagined, before productivity was starting to build, as the soil was a quite decent medium loam before the bulldozers got to it.
And now we have to do it all over again on the new 1.2 ha site. This last week we tracked down and met up with the civil engineer (whom colleague Veronica describes as ‘unflappable’) who helped us put Salop Drive Market Garden together, as we are now beginning again to consider the many and intersecting parts of developing a robust new community agriculture project, most of which have to be thought through in painstaking detail, as you don’t get a second chance to get some things right.
It’s not glamorous, and it keeps you awake at night. I’m entering into that phase where I eat, drink, and sleep drains, mud, easements, leasing, fencelines, and much more, knowing full well that all sorts of things can crawl out of the woodwork to stop you in your tracks. Being able to think yourself out of all sorts of boxes, and deal with multiple problems, continually, becomes normality. But this time, my hair is already white, having given up to the ghost last time around. And I’ve given up trying to fight it, finding it somehow rather cool to be a silver surfer, so that’s one less thing to worry about.