London’s Urban Acupuncture: The Urban Physic Garden

6 Aug

There’s a meme I’ve been hearing in design and sustainability circles for a few years now: urban acupuncture. Despite its trendiness, I find it — and the phenomenon it describes — irresistible. The term refers to a theory (developed by Finnish architect Marco Casagrande) that melds urban design with Chinese medicine. Boiled down to a simple statement, “urban acupuncture” means focusing on small, subtle, bottom-up  interventions that harness and direct community energy in positive ways to heal urban blight and improve the cityscape. It’s meant as an alternative to large, top-down, mega-interventions that typically require heavy investments of municipal funds (which many cities at the moment simply don’t have) and the navigation of yards of bureaucratic red tape.

The Guardian ran a very good article on urban acupuncture last month (which I received via Planetizen).  An excerpt:

…while conventional wisdom dictates that urban redevelopment requires the overhaul of entire city blocks, Southern and de Monchaux insist that street medians, foreclosed homes, and vacant lots allow for more sustainable, democratic, and ecological development. Southern believes that instead of new parks that are destination spaces, residents can benefit from a series of “micro-parks” or “urban lounges” that are enjoyed while they walk to that favourite cafe or restaurant. Click here to read in full.

I was fortunate enough to see some of these types of efforts take root in Seattle in recent years. Creativity is a hallmark of such projects, and I have huge admiration for the many dedicated urban healers who have realized them, including Liz of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Green Lab, Sean of Alleycat Acres Urban Farming Collective, Sarah of Pollinator Pathways, Amanda of TiLT Community Design Build, and Todd of the International Sustainability Institute. I was even fortunate enough myself to work with the Cascade Land Conservancy last summer on a kind of urban acupuncture effort called Creative Crossroads, which is a drive to create community cultural space at the planned transit-oriented development sites on Capitol Hill.

One of the most satisfying elements of projects like this is the joy of a true grassroots, barn-raising kind of collaboration. Equally as important is their effectiveness, which often outstrips their size and use of resources. While passing a referendum to create a new city park can easily become a controversial ballot-box showdown, rallying support to quietly but steadfastly transform a neglected lot into an urban food crop produces results more quickly, with a ripple effect that’s joyful and inspiring. That’s not to make it sound easy. Successfully implementing urban acupuncture takes a heart full of courage and a ton of work. But — like those skinny needles from which it derives its name — it can often gain access where a blunter tool just won’t reach.

Here in London urban acupuncture is absolutely off the hook, which makes life at the neighborhood level all the more creative, exciting and dynamic. Projects range from the large to the tiny; the temporary to the permanent; the independent to the well-funded; the nonprofit to the highly profitable. It seems like I learn about at least one new pop-up intervention every day, whether by word-of-mouth, the media or just wandering down the street. I never get tired of checking these projects out in person, and I plan to devote a lot of these pages in the future to just those kinds of finds (some, including the Towpath Cafe, the Dalston Curve Garden and Red Market, have already appeared in previous posts).

But today, in order not to get in over my head in just one go, I will stick to one project that has brought me a lot of happiness lately: The Urban Physic Garden.

The Urban Physic Garden is a temporary intervention on a vacant lot slated for development in the borough of Southwark. Like so many other construction projects, this one was stalled when the global recession hit England. Instead of leaving the large space to become a neighborhood  blight, however, the owner has allowed a nonprofit group called Wayward Plants to take it over and create active, artistic installations meant to attract people and events. Last fall the space blossomed as an urban orchard, and this summer it’s been home to the Urban Physic Garden, devoted to the enjoyment of medicinal plants and healing spaces.

I learned about the Physic Garden by chance just after we moved into our flat, and was immediately moved to answer their call for volunteers. Since mid-July I’ve been making weekly trips to the garden to water and care for the plants — a very modest job, but the tiny crew responsible for maintaining the space says they greatly appreciate the weekly hour that I save them. I like going for a lot of reasons. First, it’s nice to spend summer days outside spraying thirsty plants with a hose. Second, the garden happens to be just a few blocks from Borough Market, which facilitates my weekly olives-and-wine run. Third, as I learned after showing up early on my first day with friends Nathan and Talia, the space itself is simply a really fun and beautiful place to be.

A few things I love:

Themed planting areas (this is the neurology "ward")

gorgeous vertical garden beds

Moss art -- extra-fun to water because it soaks up the spray like a sponge

The cafe, which is managed by chef Abi Siri Anderson of Rambling Restaurant, an underground supper club. Its central hub is a re-purposed ambulance. The tables are always in use, and there are lots of tempting dishes and drinks on offer.

The farm has a waterless toilet system designed by a company called Loowatt. It’s very clean, and not smelly (I speak from experience!). The loowatt’s anaerobic digestor converts human waste into cooking fuel, which is used in the cafe kitchen. Wired wrote about it  last month.

The garden also hosts interactive art installations.

Nathan and Talia try out the creative see-saw installation

I gave it a shot as well. Via that central metal bar, we are actually balancing each other — fun with physics! 

The garden is used throughout the week for one-of-a-kind events, both daytime and evening. My first afternoon happened to be on Bastille Day, so I got to enjoy an absinthe tasting. It was delicious — really — and so stylishly presented:

Tips from the absinthe expert: Don't drink it if it's luminescent green, and definitely not if your bartender sets it on fire.

Last Tuesday I was able to contribute to the events mix by offering a free Garden Flow Yoga class, right outside among the plants. We practiced as the sun set on the garden, keeping time with a custom playlist of ambient tunes curated by my very talented husband. I’m looking forward to teaching again next Tuesday.

This coming week is also the Urban Physic Garden’s last week in existence. It will be dismantled over the weekend of August 13-14, during which time all of the plants will be up for adoption into good homes, and construction will move forward on the site in the fall.  No doubt the many people who have enjoyed visiting and using the garden will be sad to see it go. But I suspect that the transitory nature of the garden has also been an essential ingredient for its success. I’ve written about temporary spaces before — I like to call them “creative infill” — and the instant ambiance that comes from impermanence. Participating in something as everyday as visiting a garden becomes a new and different, more deeply appreciated experience when you know that you, the place, and the people you share it with may not connect in the same way again.

As I told my students, that quality also makes it a wonderful setting for practicing a core principle of yoga: uniting mind and body in the present moment. What’s important in this moment isn’t the vacant lot of the past, nor is it the building that will be here in the future. It’s the garden; the ingenuity and hard work that built it; and the community that fills it with life each day.

6 Responses to “London’s Urban Acupuncture: The Urban Physic Garden”

  1. Sid Steinberger August 15, 2011 at 2:15 am #

    This a wonderfully written and informative piece. Thanks for such great work.
    A secret male admirer on Yellow Creek West, Yisroel :)


  1. Quiet Riot « This Old Street - August 10, 2011

    […] leave the hospital immediately. A few hours later, when I showed up to teach my yoga class at the Urban Physic Garden, I was instead drafted to help clean and close up the space early, because neighbors had been […]

  2. How to Have a Yard Sale « This Old Street - August 15, 2011

    […] for a few things — a bike basket, some flowerpots for our newly adopted houseplants from the Urban Physic Garden, interesting art for our apartment — that seemed like they’d be fun to hunt for at a […]

  3. FARM:shop — Grassroots Vertical Farming in Hackney « This Old Street - August 17, 2011

    […] week I posted about London’s Urban Acupuncture, and promised that I’d have more to share soon on the topic of human-scale, ground-up urban […]

  4. urban physic garden « inquiline - August 21, 2011

    […] A blog about the project on This Old Street […]

  5. Eating Our Way Through East London’s Markets « This Old Street - August 21, 2011

    […] the same thing again the next day at the Borough Market, following my final yoga class in the Urban Physic Garden: More vegan salad mess from a vendor called The Veggie Table, washed down with a raspberry […]

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