One of the oldest public transport systems in the world, London’s is certainly ahead when it comes to many things. One of the first cities to introduce smartcard-based ticketing, the British capital’s network of trains, metro and buses is among the widest-reaching in the world. And, lest we forget, it’s London that gave us the world’s first underground train, those iconic double-decker buses, fancy black cabs and reminds us to ‘mind the gap’. While the megacity is very much characterized by movement and mobility, when you imagine Londoners flitting across the city, the image is a dull one. Injecting some much-needed green relief to London’s train stations is an impressive project dubbed Energy Gardens, co-founded by social entrepreneur Agamemnon Otero MBE. “It started when I saw a notice posted on a derelict piece of land, saying it was going to be developed,” he explains. “I grew up knowing that through doing, we create the characteristic or mental muscle of willpower. Raised in the countryside, I had a garden, built a house, fixed my own car, created the art for the walls, and this gave me the strength to grow and build willpower and thus our capacity to flourish. I wanted those around me to have that too.”
A network over 120 stations, the London Overground is a suburban railway which acts as an extension of the iconic London Underground, connecting to the latter at various points around the big city. Energy Gardens are community gardens dug and planted on and around Overground station platforms, powered by solar energy, in cooperation with Otero’s Repowering, and nurtured by locals. Winning a grant from the People’s Post Code Lottery, Otero and his team have already mobilized local communities and station managers at four London Overground stops to create beautiful, vibrant gardens that not only bring locals together, but provide vegetables, honey, mead and even beer. “’Heat or eat’ is a big issue in London, and in some cases, food is a bigger issue than paying energy bills. For many families on [social housing] estates I work with through my other company, Repowering, it literally comes down to a person, who is in the UK definition of fuel poverty, spending 20% of the average annual income heating their home having to choose to either heat their home or feed their family,” explains Otero about the importance of sustainability for a society often considered rich or privileged.
The success of the first four gardens have paved the way for the remaining 46 in the plan, as Energy Gardens are poised to grow to nearly half of the Overground map. “Energy Garden is about taking control of our cities and about turning concrete allies and grey streets into living corridors – turning them into places where charities, B-corps and do-gooder friends can provide community activities at a moment’s notice,” writes Otero in a powerful piece. With an aim to “stop developers from eating up the black beautiful soil that could be so productive and educational,” this is in fact Otero’s third project focusing on community gardens. “The Edible Bus Stop and Edible Overground were first and over the last four years I have piloted Energy Garden. Combining the financial model from Repowering community energy development program and the community gardening model of the Edible Bus Stop and Edible Overground, we have created a financially robust model for communities to have a safe place to learn, eat and be empowered,” he says.
However well-intentioned and well-planned a project is, something on the scale of Energy Garden – especially since it uses public infrastructure – is not without its obstacles. “Collaborating with other organizations is always a challenge. Everyone is extremely busy, and it just takes time. The more people in the organisation the more time it takes. Transport For London has 15,000 employees… It took four and a half years to get permissions,” says Otero. When it comes to the local community, however, Otero and his team have dug their ways into their hearts. “Over the last four years, we have developed an excellent engagement strategy with communities and now find that to be the least difficult element of creating an Energy Garden. This is not least due to the fact that there is a large appetite for this type of work already in existence in the community. All we are doing is giving those people a means to do things they already want to do.” With each station’s manager engaged at every stage of developing and maintaining their platform-top Energy Garden, making sure there’s a watchful eye to fend off vandals and thieves, the group has not experienced any negative responses from commuters and surrounding communities. “A 14-stage engagement programme which allows local people to decide what they want to have on their own station, how it should be designed, developed and giving them ownership and an on-going budget for plants and seed for the next 20 years. People get connected and they are keen to make sure it is taken care of,” assures Otero.
While community engagement and civic activity have been the main products of Energy Gardens, Otero and his team insist that the urban agriculture pockets they’re growing are having a deeper social, educational and even nutritional impact on their surrounding populations. “In a time when many children don’t know that milk comes from a cow, Energy Garden is putting food growing back into the local consciousness,” says Otero about the educational impact they’ve introduced in their first phase. Meanwhile, the social entrepreneur recognizes that communal tending and harvesting tends to increase participants’ willingness for sharing, citing an example of one Energy Garden community which decided to send all surplus food grown on site to local soup kitchens and homeless shelters, noting the widening circle of impact. “We have had an old aged pensioner helping out [at an Energy Garden] and taking the cabbages [home]. She said it was her greens for the week. Everyone felt that it was right and was proud of her. I will never forget the drought of 2012 when she carried a pale of water from her garden 20 minutes round trip every day to water the cabbages,” describes Otero about a direct benefit to a member of the community.
When it comes to environmental impact, Energy Gardens of course provide clean air and add biodiversity to previously barren spaces. When all 50 Energy Gardens are operational and thriving, the team predicts they can generate “10 megawatts of renewables from solar and anaerobic digestion [the conversion of biodegradable substances into biogas]. That would see 20,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year, the equivalent of taking over 4,000 cars off the road annually,” as Otero points out. Meanwhile, the joint work between Energy Garden and Repowering will continue as the CEO of both enterprises lets us in on an upcoming, large scale project: “the largest social enterprise delivering community gardening and energy sharing across a city. A world first.”
Always thinking outside of the box, when asked about which other public infrastructure can, like Overground stations, be repurposed or used unorthodoxly in the name of sustainability, the visionary has one simple answer: rivers. “London has the Thames. Cairo has the Nile. Paris has the Seine and New York has the Hudson. Bangkok has the Chao Phraya…Opening up rivers to electric boats and growing vegetables and water and air cleaning plants is an obvious choice.” Never one to sit idle, he’s already making that happen.