How This Community Vegetable Garden Reclaimed a London Construction Site

Skip Garden and Kitchen sits among the cranes and building debris of the King’s Cross redevelopment area. “It’s about bringing the community into a business premises,” events coordinator Gwen Mainwaring explains.

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22 September 2016, 10:54am

"When people think of skips they think of construction, building, and dirt. We didn't. We thought less rubble and more rhubarb. That's why we started using skips to farm food."

These are the words of the guys behind Skip Garden and Kitchen, a nomadic, organic vegetable site smack bang in the middle of the 67-acre King's Cross development in Central London, which shifts as the skyscrapers are raised.

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Skip Garden and Kitchen, a community vegetable garden and cafe in the middle of the urban development site in King's Cross, Central London. All photos by the author.

An urban oasis, it's got to be witnessed to be believed. There's a bee hive, bug hotels, a gardener's shed, a building made entirely of reclaimed sash windows, and even a chicken coop. It's a positive mecca of green opportunities collected together beneath the spidery shadows of sky-hungry cranes.

READ MORE: A Farm That Floats on Water Could Help Solve Global Food Shortage

The Garden was created by Global Generation, an environmentalist charity built in partnership with students from the Bartlett School of Architecture, with supplies provided by the King's Cross site's constructions companies, and is maintained by an army of green fingered volunteers. Jane Riddiford, the founding director, calls it "the garden of a thousand hands."

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Skips used to grow plants and vegetables, tended to by volunteers.

There's an apple tree and tomatoes. Ginger and chilies grow in a polytunnel, and the skips—including a poly-skip—brim with all manner of herbs and vegetables from popping corn to lemon verbena. And they're all completely mobile.

"The idea is that it's a portable garden. The skips and the portacabins can be moved, as can this," says the site's events coordinator Gwen Mainwaring, as she taps the office structure behind her, which is made entirely from reclaimed materials. "You can literally pick them up, put them on a truck, and drive them to a new place."

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The Skip Garden's office building, made from reclaimed sash windows.

The garden has upped sticks four times in the last seven years and has been on its current King's Cross location for a year, with plans to stay for another two to three. This is the first Skip Garden incarnation to feature a cafe, though.

The food is the usual vegetarian fare: carrot soup and sesame bread, cream cheese and cranberry sandwiches, a "super" salad of quinoa, fennel, and squash—all sown, grown, clipped, and cooked on the very soil we're munching it on. It's kind of like eating at Grandma's, if she had a fuck-off great allotment in the back yard.

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Polytunnels growing herbs and vegetables.

The food is good (I recommend the quiche) but the Skip Garden's ideals run a little deeper than well baked pastry and bright red ballooning tomatoes.

"Global Generation started off as a small organic project. When the King's Cross development started ten years ago, a lot of it was inaccessible, creating a barrier between the Islington populace and the construction site," Mainwaring explains. "The original project was to get young school children to come into a construction site and work with construction workers and that's where the Skip Garden ideas came in. But we're an environmental education charity first and foremost."

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The Garden is part of Global Generation's vision to connect teenagers from local schools and youth clubs with the food they eat and the land they grow it on—but also with the big business of the cities and the opportunity that affords.

"It's not about business in the community, it's about bringing the community into a business premises that is often out of bounds for young people," Riddiford says. "And in fairness, a lot of young kids we work with don't aspire to do green stuff, they want to do business so we have lots of opportunities for little enterprise projects as well as the philosophical and social aspects too."

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Kids are certainly quick learners. Before the cafe laid claim to all the produce grown on site, some of the children were encouraged to sell their crops. At one point, they were squeezing 10p a bean out of nearby chefs.

The Garden is funded by a mixture of Camden and Islington councils, lottery funding, and King's Cross property developers Argent. It was a meeting between Riddiford and Argent's former CEO that first sparked the idea for the Skip Garden.

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Riddiford had just set up her first project in London (a community garden on top of an office block on the Gray's Inn Road) and Argent wanted to know what other ideas she had up her green sleeve. This was back in 2006 and even today, Riddiford remains philosophical about the agreement, telling me: "I don't work with businesses, I work with individuals in businesses."

The arrangement has however allowed Riddiford to pursue her vision for Skip Garden. She says the "interesting thing is to take a perspective that's big enough to neither romanticise or vilify," but one that creates a space for ideas on community and connectivity in urban environments to flourish.

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There's no denying that this "enchantment of the mechanical" as Riddiford puts it, proves that business and activism can work together for the greater good. It's something Mainwaring says wouldn't be possible if it wasn't for the natural connection between nature, food, and people.

"We're creating a narrative of nature that's universal to everyone and every age," she says. "There's a need for human connection in the city and we shouldn't ignore that. You just have to put people in the right place and if you give those people a commonality such as nature, such as food, you just let them go and see what happens."

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Such an ethos has spawned numerous projects: the Lunch and Learning workshop brings school children and local businessmen and women together to learn a growing or gardening process, with lawyers turning up to muddy their shiny shoes alongside six-year-olds. The Friday Night Out Project is a collaboration with Arsenal in the Community that sees boys and girls come to the garden to cook after a football session in a nearby park.The group of volunteers at the Garden are covering the ageist angle too, currently seeking an intern with the prerequisite that they must be over 75.

It's almost surreal to think that these kind of progressive ideas are happening within the walls of one of the city's biggest ever developments, especially when we consider the whole "gold bricks for investment" crisis. Yet underpinning the Skip Garden ideas is the mantra that not all big companies are the devil. That it doesn't always have to be the environment or community versus corporations and capitalism, and that the pairs can work together, symbiotically.

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It's not a pact without its trade-offs though.

"We do get flack from the activist environmental scene," says Mainwaring. "'Why are you working with them, they're evil.' But we have to understand that there are lots of different players in the city and for the future of sustainable cities you can't just say, 'You're wrong', you have to find a way to engage."

READ MORE: How Tinder Food Apps and Dumpster-Diving Restaurants Could Help End British Food Waste

As we talk, sitting in deckchairs overlooking the garden with the cackle of pneumatic drills in the near-distance, two constructions workers enter the cafe to grab a coffee. Mainwaring tells me that electricians from the construction site did the Garden's PAT testing—and then adds, almost wistfully: "Some of these big developers are aligned with us. I mean, no one has been displaced within the King's Cross site, but if you look over there, we've got buildings with cars lift."

She pauses. "Who's need a car lift?"

London on the other hand, certainly needs a Skip Garden.