London Group Farming Lavender Plans
Zero Energy Development
By David Wilson
It sounds improbable: derelict London land transformed into fields of lavender. But you can see and smell the crop planted on two-and-a-half acres of abandoned Sutton Council allotments by the visionary ambitious BioRegional Development Group.
The group was founded in Sutton, south of the city, five years ago on the Green ideal of sustainably producing local goods for local needs. Unlike other Green collectives, it is market-led —— the products are designed to be desirable, rather than just things you buy to feel worthy.
Director Pooran Desai, 34, says the group decided to farm lavender for a number of reasons. It is highly in demand at the moment for beauty and health products, not just as a perfume. It aids relaxation and sleep as well as being a natural antiseptic and pest repellent. All in all it is truly a wonder plant. Resources coordinator Nicola Davies calls it "the groovy crop of the nineties".
At the turn of the last century, South London was the lavender capital of the world (hence area names such as Lavender Hill). So BioRegional are restoring a part of South London's heritage.
The group grew lavender from local cuttings in sand. As well as being sold at Sutton Library for two dollars a bag, distributors include Covent Garden Flower Market and the Body Shop. A spokesman for the Body Shop, David Newton says: "It's great to see five years of hard work come to fruition." He says it shows just what is possible when communities and businesses come together.
The volunteer input of low-risk offenders from nearby Downview Prison has been vital to the success of the project. Working in the fields for the last 16 months, prisoner Jim Devine, 39, has cleared away mountains of brambles, corrugated iron "and the odd bath tub", he adds, modest about the incredible scale of the labor.
He says he has stuffed his pillow with lavender to aid sleep and is growing other crops including lemon balm, apple mint, black mint and Cologne mint with a view to planting them in the remaining half acre of disused land bulging with brambles.
Was there ever doubt that the lavender project would come to fruition? Desai doesn't quite answer. "The lavender project has been through a number of stages —— including a time when funding was not sufficient to fund a worker and the project was run by a volunteer. The recent harvest was larger than expected which was good news, and puts us in a good position to decide the direction for the future of the project." He is optimistic. "For example we're considering whether to develop a lavender and herb plant nursery as a major part of the project."
Beyond allotments, Bio-Regional has three further projects planned. It is developing a revolutionary clean-technology paper-recycling mill readily transferable to emerging countries bedevilled by pollution from old-style industrial mills.
BioRegional also coordinates the provision of eco-friendly charcoal to 500 retail outlets —— clients include big chains such as B&Q, Homebase and BP. Does Desai ever feel uneasy about working with giant retailers? "On the contrary," he says, "our aim is to work with mainstream retailers and therefore influence them to change to environmentally-sound practices. Our aim is to bring local sustainability to the mainstream. It makes sense to have environmentally-sound product alternatives available at places people go to shop."
"Plus, our work with B&Q and BP has been instrumental in causing both of them to incorporate a local supply stream to their logistics where there was none before. This precedent means the system is now in place for other products to be supplied locally rather than centrally, thus cutting down on transport and CO2 emissions."
BioRegional's smokeless charcoal is made from the debris created in coppicing, which allows light into the woodland environment, encouraging ancient woodland flowers such as dog's mercury, butterflies and dormice. So this product is doubly sound.
BioRegional's planned sustainable Zero Energy Development (ZED) on a brownfield site may sound prosaic. But it could be the biggest of its kind in Europe, Desai claims. He predicts a price of about ££200,000 for a four-bedroom house within the development which will be almost entirely solar-powered and full of light.
Since one in four children now sufferS from asthma, ZED buildings have been designed to be allergy-free, offering excellent ventilation and minimizing the breeding areas for house mites.
Further features include "healthy living centers" for activities such as music and cooking, "sky gardens", and attractively discreet sloping sedum roofs. Sedum, a short succulent, works well because it does not need to be cut —— the idea of having grass cropped by guinea pigs had to be rejected because the animals are popular with birds of prey.
Rainwater for irrigating plants will be stored in childproof ditches and ponds, also serving as attractive landscape features and havens for wildlife.
Indoors, dependence on treated water will be reduced by collecting rainwater and recycling "greywater" from baths and sinks. All homes will be fitted with water-saving washing machines, dishwaters and toilets to keep water consumption to a minimum. Even wastewater from toilets will be treated as a resource. This is not just a drop in the ocean, but a total water strategy.
If ZED smacks of exacting puritanical standards, UK ecologists' biggest demon, the car, is not entirely banished. There will be a car pool. The idea though, is that residents share journeys and there will be facilities to charge electric cars, using the off-peak renewable energy generated on-site.
Even though the houses have yet to receive final planning permission, they are already attracting plenty of buyer interest, Desai says. But he is keeping his feet on the ground. "We're not trying to build a utopia, just make use of the excellent materials we already have. In ten year's time, I'd like to see a world where people take the whole idea of living sustainably for granted."
He believes this can happen. But isn't the image of environmentalism just too dowdy for sustainable living to become a way of life for everyone? Desai says: "In my experience people find it quite inspiring, particularly the lavender project and the concepts behind the ZED development. If anything I think people find environmental issues complex, as of course any issue is when you look at it in detail. Perhaps the best way around the complexity is with practical projects which can be seen working in action. I'm sure that when ZED is built it will be an inspiring example of environmentally-sound construction."
David Wilson is a freelance journalist who writes about the arts, environment and technology. He lives with his cat, Bud, in London. You may contact him at email@example.com
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