Railroad gardening flourishes amid pandemic in London
Energy Garden founder Agamemnon Otero tends to a section of herbs and vegetables near the platform at Brondesbury Park Overground station in North West London.
LONDON: A busy suburban train station is an unlikely place to find refuge for flowers, bees and hedgehogs.
But a ten-year-old project in London, bringing an eco-friendly combination of gardening, horticulture and so-called reforestation in the urban jungle, is bearing fruit during the pandemic.
Hidden in plain sight, 34 solar-powered sites created by the Community Energy Garden project are dotted around the British capital, alongside the rail platforms used daily by hundreds of thousands of commuters before the coronavirus hit.
With the lockdowns easing, passengers are returning, and the project’s general manager, Agamemnon Otero, is hopeful that its success can help meet a longer-term challenge.
“Energy Garden is really about building resilience in communities. It’s about how we directly address the issue of climate change that everyone feels powerless to do,” he told AFP.
“Most of the time, rail operators will shrink huge swathes of trackside space and leave it bare of all kind of life.
“These are corridors for the entry of biodiversity and so it is very important that part of every garden is still wild.”
Community interest has grown steadily since the initiative’s launch in 2011, but has increased during lockdown as more volunteers have joined in to work – socially remote – tending to the gardens. .
The first site was established at Brondesbury Park station in north-west London, part of the Overground network which typically serves outer suburbs where the tube does not reach.
‘Out and help’
Layers of rubble were dug out and the site was replanted with vibrant flowers, fruit trees, fragrant herbs, tea plants and a range of vegetables including potatoes, kale and Jerusalem artichokes.
There’s even hops from which Energy Garden brews its own beer.
Jaylyn Miguel, in her twenties, was one of the volunteers who joined in the lockdown last year.
“I guess it was for my own sanity, I just wanted to be out there and help the community,” she says.
“I want to know more about sustainability. Collectively, this is really important, so that we can make sure that people have access to organic food.
“I certainly had no experience in growing food, and learned a lot during that time. It’s good to learn from others.”
Solar panels in the gardens feed water pipes that help cultivate the various plants, and excess electricity is sold back to transport companies to offset their carbon footprint.
This, in turn, generates a source of income to fund more community gardens, with Otero planning to expand nationwide.
Funding also comes from investments by businesses and communities.
Individuals can be part of a “one vote, one share” cooperative system that gives each shareholder a say in the operation and development of their garden.
The designs of each site are formally approved by the Transport for London agency, which manages the capital’s vast network.
The project also runs school workshops and youth training programs to teach young people about sustainable practices, and the gardens are maintained by more than 300 volunteers.
Volunteer and project investor Terence Tehranian regularly visits Brondesbury Park garden with his young children to lend a hand.
“I think it really makes London a better place to live. It makes the environment a better place because more plants means less carbon dioxide and it brings people together,” he said.
“I think these things are important for a big city like London where that often doesn’t happen.”
Otero said it was appropriate for the gardens to be part of the transport network, offsetting a sector that in 2019 produced 27% of Britain’s net greenhouse gas emissions – although most of it was from the road traffic rather than rail.
“What we wanted to do was really have a discussion around who is the biggest consumer of energy and the biggest generator of emissions,” he said.
“I’m really excited that people are getting involved and joining a garden, and even becoming investor members.
“This is our space. We have to take the spaces back and do with them what we want to see.”