The recently publicised findings of the Davies Commission Report (1) have put airport expansion in the UK into the media spotlight once more. Plans to expand either of the two main London airports, Heathrow and Gatwick, have been spoken of for some years now (2); and there is at least one group of people who do not entirely agree with the plans.
Grow Heathrow was established as part of Transition Heathrow on a squatted plot of land almost four years ago, on the site of Heathrow’s proposed third runway (3). Since beginning they have grown to a self-sustaining community, with off-grid power and heating, extensive gardens, a diverse range of skills-sharing, and strong links to the local community and beyond (3). On December 21, 2013, I went to find out more about this project.
Planting the idea
In many ways Grow Heathrow’s story is one of community and self-empowerment. The idea to begin the project began amidst fears of the third runway expansion, which would mean the destruction of Sipson, the village the project is located in, and most of nearby Harmonsdworth and Colmbrook (3) (4). “There was a sense of lack of stability”, said long term member Heather, who I spoke to. Many residents were thinking of moving away, as they could not be sure that their homes would still be there in the future. Amidst all this one of the ideas from the group who started Grow Heathrow was to create more of a sense of community; in that people were still willing to do something creative with the land, in spite of threats of eviction.
It could be argued that the group were taking a risk in squatting on such a tenuous piece of land. But a key part of permaculture is energy efficient planning, and it seems that this was put into action. Before deciding to move onto this particular plot of land, the instigators observed it for almost a year. During this time they asked local people about what their reaction would be if they were to squat on an abandoned plot of land nearby and use it as a community project. (They did not mention the specific plot of land when gauging the support level of the residents as they did not want to put anyone in awkward situations.) Only after getting highly positive reactions from many locals including the resident’s association did they decide to go ahead and move in.
How it’s organised
Currently, around ten people live on-site at any one time. Non-hierarchical organisation is in place, with all decisions made by consensus. Any problems or conflicts are solved by talking; if this is in ineffective then someone acts as a mediator between the conflicting parties. As Heather observed, all problems eventually boil down to poor communication; and mediation is usually very effective. This may be more the case than in other situations as, since everyone is living together as part of the same project, they are all normally very motivated to solve any problems which do come up.
When organising a community in this way I have found it to be highly beneficial to have some kind of guiding principles in mind, to which everyone involved more or less adheres. Such things do not have to be rules; but merely illustrations to make clear to everyone involved what they are actually involved in, and Transition Heathrow does have some very clear definitions of what they are about on their website (5). To me this seems a great aid in ensuring ease and clarity of communication between members.
Reviewing and renewing session
As part of the organisation structure there are a number of working groups: among them the growing group, finance group, media group, energy group and bike workshop group. On the day I visited, the growing group, whose responsibility is the garden, were meeting as part of a ‘Reviewing and Renewing’ session. The session, organised by Heather, was a chance to reflect upon the past year or so of growth and to share ideas for where to go into the future. Based on Looby Mcnamara’s ‘Design Web’ (6), the session guided us through twelve stages, with the aim of looking back on previous work, visioning for the future, and using practical steps to devise how to integrate the various visions and put them into action.
As a means of bringing a group together to look at the past and plan for the future, the Design Web seemed very effective. Communication levels were high and ideas flowed thick and fast; I left the meeting with a distinct feeling of inspiration.
Having looked at the finances for the past year, Heather concluded that £150 out of £200 was spent on compost. As a direct result of this, the compost which Grow Heathrow have been making is now ready to go.
Some people mentioned the advantages of adding biochar to the compost and with this in mind a willow coppice has been planted which has the aim of producing biochar for more energy efficient compost production in future.
One thing which came up in the meeting as needing improvement is that currently all of the watering of the plants is done by hand, with watering cans (the site has mains water, with two taps). With a view to solving this, an exciting project being embarked upon is the water collection project.
This aims to have the water catchment container already in place at the top of the land joined by another one of equal size. Then the land will be re-landscaped using logs and other organic material in order to create a series of hugels (see Sepp Holzer’s hugelkultur)(7) (8) and swales (see for example Bill Mollison , Toby Hemenway ).
The water from the water butts will then be channelled through these lumps in the land. In this way the garden can gradually collect and store water itself; thus making the entire plot of land more fertile and reducing the need to manually water anything.
Water Management Plan: Water butt
Water Management Plan: logs for hugels
The above ideas are only a tiny example of the growth going on at Grow Heathrow. Last year some of the things achieved were the building of a straw-bale house, the digging of a new water pipeline and lots of community outreach activities such as the joining of the Community Food Growers Network. All of this is happening despite the recently re-aired plans for airport expansion in the area.
But in a way, these plans seem really beside the point. When I mentioned the Davies Commission, Heather commented, “does it cause us any immediate concerns? No not really, to be honest, because it’s been such a long, long battle; and we’ll continue to oppose it.”
She says that court proceedings began a few months into the occupation; but they have not let this deter them.
A big idea I took from the project is one of bringing something positive to the community as an alternative to what the land was before, instead of simply condemning with no solutions. Perhaps they will get kicked off the land; but they are not prepared to sit around waiting for lengthy bureaucratic processes to trundle through to their conclusions in order to decide what will happen to it. The completed Davies report is not even due until summer 2015 (1); whereas before Grow Heathrow moved in, this particular plot of land was used as a dump for old cars and other rubbish. The message is simple; as Heather put it, “I’m going to take this bit of disused land and I’m going to turn it into something good. I’m going to make something from this. I’m going to turn it into a community resource. We’re just going to do it, and that’s it.”
If you are interested in beginning a project like this, a very key part of it is to see what community support is like. For Heather, the most important thing is to see if what you propose to do is actually needed in the local area. Can it help to improve the local ecosystems or the community links? Will it provide something which the community demands or is lacking? Do the people who live there actually want such a project in their midst?
When scoping out any area for a possible community project research is essential; however, research into who actually owns a certain plot of land can be difficult and also unnecessary. According to Heather, the group who began Grow Heathrow researched into the land’s history – it has been previously used as a plant nursery and for orchards, which was encouraging for what they were planning to do. However, when they received considerable local support, even though they mentioned that they were planning to squat on the piece of disused land, they felt adequately prepared to begin without the need to research exactly who owned the land.
Every situation is different and these methods may not apply to everyone who is considering beginning a project like Grow Heathrow. One of the most inspirational aspects of the project, however, is the strong community presence, both within the local village and within wider networks. Any project existing in isolation is always going to have a much more difficult time; if for nothing other than energy efficient planning it is of paramount importance to build links with those around you. As Heather succinctly put it, “approval from local people is really key”.
A Temporary Situation
When considering whether or not such a project will be worth it in terms of being moved on, it can be difficult to judge if you should go for it or not. Squatting is by nature a temporary situation; but then, it could be argued that the presence of squatters on this piece of land has made the situations of many residents, who were threatened with their village being paved over for a runway, more stable. It is impossible to predict exactly what will happen; but this is the case for all projects, regardless of legal objections.
There are many projects which begin and then have to end before such a time that those involved may have thought ideal; by eviction, weather, lack of funds, or any one of a myriad other reasons. Despite this, if you believe in something, it is always worth putting it into action, no matter the potential risks. Because if you think about it, what doesn’t count as a temporary situation? We are only on this planet for a finite period, after all.
Find out More
Grow Heathrow is still growing and from February will be running a range of weekly workshops, regular events and celebrations. If you are in the West London area it might be worth a visit to see for yourself what the project is all about. But if not, there’s no need to worry. There are many other projects out there with just as exciting and inspirational activities. And they are growing all of the time. Who knows; perhaps the next one will be yours.
- BBC Business News, 17/12/13: “Airports Commission Reveals Expansion Shortlist”.
- BBC News, 17/12/13: “UK air capacity: Pros and cons of runway proposals”.
- Transition Heathrow: Grow Heathrow, 2014.
- Guardian, 17/12/13: “Residents Reject Heathrow and Gatwick Expansion Plans”.
- Transition Heathrow, 2013: “About Us”.
- Mcnamara, L, 2012. People and Permaculture: Caring and Designing for Ourselves, each Other and the Planet. Permanent Press, New York .
- Wheaton , Paul, 2012. “Hugelkultur: The Ultimate Raised Garden Beds”.
- Permaculture News, 2010. Miles, Melissa: “The Art and Science of Making a Hugelkultur Bed – Transforming Woody Debris into a Garden Resource”.
- Mollison, B, 1988. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari Publications, Tasmania.
- Hemenway, T, 2009. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. Chelsea Green, London.