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Seizing The Reins

United Kingdom

new internationalist
issue 313 - June 1999

Seizing the reins
Sometimes you just have to take things into your own hands to green your city.
What you do might not always be legal – but build up enough people-pressure
and you may find the authorities having to follow your lead.
Jade Saunders gleans examples from around the world.

Tblisi, Russia

Alienation-inducing tower-blocks, typical of so many former Soviet cities.

‘I live here. It is a very ugly place. The whole area is made up of depersonalized concrete tower blocks, typical of modern Soviet cities,’ says Gogi Zamukashvili.

Up until recently the area he shares with 70,000 other residents was rendered uglier still by the presence of a vast illegal rubbish dump that the local council was unprepared to remove.

Then, in 1997, Zamukashvili founded a local residents’ group called Varketili. ‘The response from the local community was amazing. The community was breaking down, people were alienated from their social and natural environment, they felt disempowered by the national political situation. We needed to bring back awareness of the rights and obligations of citizenship – to encourage people to take on community responsibilities and deal with their own local issues.’

The residents’ group did just that. If the council would not remove the rubbish, they said, then why not lend residents the equipment so that they could do it themselves? When the council saw the extent of public support for the clean-up scheme, they complied. Many people got involved, including local schools. But the vision extended beyond just getting rid of the tip. The residents agreed to try to create a sustainable community park in its place.

In just two years the former rubbish dump has been transformed by local people into a park with community gardens, a tree-planting programme, an outdoor theatre and a sports ground. It’s the heart and soul of the area: ‘It is always full of people playing sports, walking or talking,’ says Zamukashvili. Putting trees where once was rubbish has greatly improved air quality too. ‘I have learned many wonderful lessons from being part of this project,’ Zamukashvili concludes.

‘I have learned to work within a community to activate people; how important it is for people to have a community identity – a sense of sharing and belonging – and how important it is for them to own the project.’


Luton, UK

More than just a rave. Exodus is on to greater and greener things.

Exodus is not the most obvious sustainability crusader. Originating as a travelling sound-system, it was committed to little more than delivering free music to ravers. But the group is now involved in one of the most exciting and radical sustainable urban-regeneration projects in the UK.

Ex-train driver Guy Jenkins explained: ‘Most of us were unemployed and loads of us were homeless. We were leaving derelict buildings after having parties in them, thinking, what a fucking shame, so much potential, sitting there rotting.’

In early 1993 they squatted two of the buildings and came up with the DIO (Do It Ourselves) philosophy, which is now central to every project the group are involved in. HAZ (Housing Action Zone) Manor and The Farm were established, providing homes for some of the group. Their horizons broadened to realizing other plans like establishing a communal organic garden, a sustainable water system and saving for a renewable energy system.

‘We wanted to challenge all those negative ideas about squatters – we weren’t the ones who had left the buildings to rot – we were doing everything we could to make them liveable again, and trying to be environmentally responsible – I’ve lost count of how many panes of glass we have fitted.’

The success of both squats gave the group confidence: ‘We took on the authorities and won. First we said to the police: “in this space for a few hours, this community’s laws apply, not yours.” They had to let us party. Then we said to the council: “We will use these buildings better than you will, and we want to spend the housing benefit we are entitled to, on regenerating them – turning the money into a great place to live, not lining landlords’ pockets.” Eventually they had to let us.’

This confidence has been vital in the conception of their next project, The Ark Community Centre based on a council estate in Luton, just north of London. It had been the scene of rioting and severe social disintegration. ‘We have put in a proposal to run the centre with 100 workers being paid benefit-level wages – by doing this we can unlock the voluntary potential of the people living on the estate – this is an assault on social alienation as well as poverty.’

And they have ‘wonderful’ plans, says Jenkins. ‘We will have a non-profit community shop – provided with organic fresh veg by the farm – getting cheap fresh food to poor people, a wind generator making energy for the whole estate, cheap entertainment for kids – all sorts. The most important thing is to remove professionals who want to “provide” for us, but expect big wages – we can do all this much cheaper than anyone else. This is regeneration by the people, for the people – we are taking responsibility for our own environment – we want to make it liveable and sustainable. We can’t leave it to people who think regeneration is about repainting a few doors and promising computers to schools. What people don’t realize is that our philosophy addresses social, environmental and spiritual poverty, as well as problems with money.’


Havana, Cuba

We provide good, cheap food for people, and free food to those who need it.

When Havana teacher Maria Felix Bonome started cultivating the plot in front of her home in the suburb of Cojimar, it was quite a revolutionary thing to do. Up to 1989 urban agriculture was unheard of in Cuba. Half the food was imported from the Eastern Bloc and the rest came from the countryside.

‘Although sustainable agriculture makes the best sense for the future,’ says Maria, ‘it came to Cuba quite accidentally.’ The ‘accident’ in question was the collapse of the Soviet Union. While some were bemoaning the dire shortages that ensued, Bonome was busy creating a family co-operative urban garden (an organiponico).

Soon others were following suit. At the instigation of the authorities the citizens of Havana began cultivating any available plots of land – including rooftops and balconies. The city authorities opened an urban agriculture department to support the growers by providing them with seed, technical advice and free land titles for cultivation only. A seed house network was instituted and chemical fertilizers and pesticides were outlawed.

Today around 20,000 inhabitants of Havana are directly involved in organic urban gardening and the results have been spectacular. Half of the island’s food is now grown in the cities with Havana providing 30 per cent of its own vegetables. The health benefits of eating locally produced fresh food with improved vitamin A and C intakes are also evident.

Bonome is justifiably proud of the success of her organiponico – the only one in Cojimar. ‘We organized a brigade of family and friends and created it for ourselves. We needed only our hands. And we have a wonderful relationship with the people around us; we all work together to make our city a good place. We provide good, cheap food for people, and free food and care to those who need it.’

The urban garden also provides on-site work programmes for students from a local youth correctional facility, sending them home every day with free food. ‘We give them an area in which to work and after showing them how to prepare the soil, to sow, to weed, to harvest, we leave them to do the work without overseeing them, although, of course, they can always come to us for advice or guidance. We never have problems with these kids. In fact, it’s wonderful to see their excitement when the plants begin to grow and they see the results of their labour pop through the ground. They stay the whole day and often don’t want to leave.’


Berkeley, US

400 people dug up part of Berkeley to release, from under its concrete grave, a river.

Rolling back North America’s urban and suburban sprawl – a million acres are sacrificed to it each year – may seem like a hopeless task. But not to activist and fruit-tree planting guerrilla, Richard Register. And the movement he has mobilized, Ecocity Builders, has a flair for effective and eye-catching campaigns.

For example, there’s the time when 400 people dug up part of Berkeley to release, from under its concrete grave, a river. Other eco-feats have included planting urban orchards overnight as well as depaving parking lots.

In recent years, however, Ecocity Builders have taken a more ‘legal’ approach. They are going for ‘a strategic legislative attack on the misuse of urban and suburban land,’ says Register. This involves getting local authority planners to stretch their thinking – and their imaginations. They are currently campaigning for ‘de-development’ rights. This means that if developed land – which has, say, a natural creek running under it – were offered for redevelopment, it would be possible to buy those rights but to ‘de-develop’ it back to its natural state. The development planning permission could then be transferred to another, more suitable location.

Another campaign aims to overturn the Berkeley planning rules that insist that all new residential blocks need parking spaces. Not so, says Register. Why not have car-free apartments, inhabited by people who agree not to have a car, and who are repaid by cheaper rents?

The most ambitious plan is to bring various initiatives together in one area in the centre of town in a ‘Heart of the City’ campaign. ‘We want to establish a car-free area with a natural creek and an urban orchard, with solar collectors and efficient resource use,’ says Register. The whole area would be open to the public, with rooftop gardens and walkways between buildings. ‘I want people to see how beautiful a place the city could be if we all reassessed the way we build and act.’

Jade Saunders is a journalist and eco-activist.

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