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Concrete Designs to Thrive  >  3 Regenerative Garden Design in the inner city

Walk by Design - 3 Regenerative Garden Design

NEST - Part 3 of CONCRETE Designs to Thrive 2021


This encounter explores the contemporary design of places and spaces for living well. The realities of zero waste, circular and regenerative design are all core to our exploration in this programme.

Homes & Neighbourhoods

10 June 2021 
Old Town Garden, Royal Mile, Edinburgh 

Ed and Paul, Edinburgh residents and design activists


In the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town, we move from an original Patrick Geddes small town garden into a verdant oasis created by Ed and Paul from the tarmac back yard of their tenement. We discuss the nature of neighbourhood and how shared garden spaces can unite and engage. The pair discuss the work involved in creating their new garden including the canny reuse of tarmac slabs and using rubble from the garden to fill Gabion cages to create a new dividing wall, all examples of zero waste and circular design. Regenerative design principles are at work too, a new garden space increasing local biodiversity for the greater good.

The encounter also introduces the theme of NEST with its exploration of Homes and Neighbourhoods.

Here you can watch the full video, and you can read the full text adapted from the transcript of the conversation below.

Introduction: Welcome to Concrete Walks by Design 3 - "Nest"

John Ennis: Hello and welcome to a lovely warm early summer evening in Edinburgh's Old Town. My name is John Ennis, curator producer at Journeys in Design. You join us on the third of our encounters as we introduce our new program - Concrete Designs to Thrive - with a walk in Edinburgh.


If you've had a chance to join us in the last couple of nights you'll know that we're doing a little bit of a riff on the work of Sir Patrick Geddes, a wonderful 19th into early 20th century town planner and polymath. If you're familiar with Edinburgh you'll also know that the "back green" is common. Whether you're in the medieval Old Town, the Georgian New Town with their additional squares, or the Victorian tenements. 

Happily, planners and developers since then have maintained that wonderful notion of gardens in the city. The Old Town represents a particularly interesting area in terms of our program, Concrete Designs to Thrive. As well as drawing on the work of the pioneer Patrick Geddes we're giving a focus through essential walks of life to our work. We're going to look at Play, which will take us to pavilions and parklands. Learn - to libraries and campus buildings. And also Meet, Pray, Heal, Vote and Nest.

Tonight we're focusing on Nest, And how regenerative design can improve Homes & Neighborhoods


Before we meet our encounter our hosts this evening; Paul and Ed who are residents of the old town, a little bit more about Patrick Geddes. We heard on Tuesday evening a couple of wonderful phrases which i think i'd like to think about again. The first one is "conservative surgery". This part of the old town, built in the 16th, 17th, and 18th century, by the night end of the 19th century had become a slum - very poor housing. Conservative surgery was Patrick Geddes' approach to this. He took himself and his young family and moved into one of these slum areas. Working with the neighbours, he regenerated these buildings.


The greenest building is the one that already exists. That's a very important concept that we'll look at again as we travel through Scotland's seven cities and out to our European collaborations.


The second principle is one that he summed up in Patrick Geddes' farewell address as Professor of Botany at Dundee University, "by leaves we live". This phrase encapsulates a rather beautiful notion that, by designing in tandem with nature - by going out of one's way to include nature at the design table as well as nature in the final products - we're all enhanced, and our well-being is more secure. So it was thanks to Patrick Geddes that many of the slum areas were  given little gardens during the regeneration of them under his masterful design principles. More than 70 small gardens exist often with children's play areas. "By leaves we live" seems to be an absolutely contemporary notion thanks to Patrick Geddes, over 100 years ago.


So please join me as we move now to a wonderful new garden. Tonight I'm really delighted to let you in on a rather beautiful example of regenerative garden design. I'm just going to let you enjoy this for a few moments; let you dwell in the joy of this new garden before we meet Paul and Ed, local residents and the garden's makers.


When i first came across this garden and was invited in by Paul, it was quite an extraordinary experience to hear the story. I'm so privileged that they've let us join them this evening to talk about that experience and the wider notion of home and neighbourhood, as it relates to green spaces in the inner city.


Lovely to see you both again. Good evening John and Paul, welcome to the third of our encounters in our Concrete Designs to Thrive series. I feel like i'm saying too much now because in many ways the garden speaks for itself!

We've talked a little bit about lockdown having affected us all. This is a lockdown garden project would you like to tell us a little bit about it?


Ed: (06:40) It certainly was a lockdown garden project, for a number of reasons. In this part of the city - the city centre - lockdown affected us in a very particular way. Because the old town is, in a sense, a holiday town disguised as a town, the whole place emptied out. Except very small groupings of people around a variety of greens or back greens off the Royal Mile. We were one of them and it was a bit like being a kind of Brigadoon in the middle of nowhere. You're used to walking out on the Royal Mile and there being hundreds of people - and suddenly there was nobody at all. 


A number of things happened which brought us as neighbours closer together and partly it was that absence of anything else around us. One of our neighbours put speakers out in the window at lunch time every day. Then after about a week we started dancing to the music that she was playing. 


John: I'm gonna intercept here - I know Paul and Ed to be lunatic dancers so i'm sure that went very well!


Ed: Yeah i can tell you it ended up going further than that! Then every weekend it was fancy-dress dancing and it became this most extraordinary kind of internal spectacle... the three or four people that walked up and down the Royal Mile would come and peer in and then run away again! [laughter]


But one of the things it did do was of course, well, you can't go anywhere else. We were looking out of the window of our flat down onto a drying green made of tarmac. It didn't take long for us to think, "well I really can't look at this tarmac anymore, and it's about time we did something with it." 


John: I'm just going to pause there. We are not quite a year on from all this activity. This was a tarmac plane...? 


Ed: Very much. I suppose all these backyards in this part of the city, and a lot of victorian tenements were exactly that. They were for drying clothes and that was all. And this garden was definitely one of those. We'd talked about doing something with it for 15 years since we lived here. I thought right, well, you know our excuses have run out, and it's about time we started doing something.


The first move was to start addressing the tarmac that was in here.


John: (9:15) I know you both worked hard at this point. You were talking to me recently about how that happened and the first tools that you started using when the genesis of the whole thing came around.


Paul: Well we looked on gumtree and found somebody selling a angle grinder. So we drew plans up. We had loads of plans, to see what it would look like. And actually it looks like nothing like plans we made at the end of the day because it just started. And then you think, 'oh should we actually make this bit wider', 'why don't we put that there', so it grew like that. Every day i was chopping the tarmac. We chalked them out first and then I cut them up. 


John: I think this is the first thing to notice. We're sitting on the slabs of tarmac. Anyone who's interested in sustainable or even regenerative design is just going to be thrilled by the fact that this didn't go anywhere. Maybe that was because it couldn't go anywhere - but in fact there it was, it was used immediately


Paul: That wasn't at the very beginning. We had a headache for days thinking, “how are we going to get rid of this!” but then as Ed came up with the idea he just started using the tarmac and that was it.


Ed: It was definitely the condition of lockdown. There were no deliveries, there was nobody taking things away, you couldn't go to the dump; and actually that does focus the mind. You go, “Okay, i've created rubbish but I can't take it anywhere else, particularly in the city centre”. It is an extremely salutary thing, you realise how much is rubbish is just removed without us ever thinking about it. It doesn't mean it ceases to exist, it just means it's removed out of sight.



as much as 40% of landfill in Scotland is from the construction industry so small projects like this actually do make a significant difference


John: Exactly, in fact as much as 40% of landfill in Scotland is from the construction industry so small projects like this actually do make a significant difference. When you're reusing what would be would the rubbish.


Underneath the tarmac was lots of rubble - we repurposed that into a new wall of Gabion cages


And underneath the tarmac? I can't imagine there was much healthy soil.


Ed: (11:30) Nothing. It was just rubble - builder’s rubble, and grit. You couldn't actually get it out with a spade either. You couldn't just dig into it, we had to sit on the edge of each hole and just pull out all the stones, one by one, with your hands or with a little hand trowel! 


Paul: The rubble ended up here [points to Gabion cages full of rubble behind him]. 


Ed: Our mail order wall from Amazon. The cages for the wall were ordered online because of course that's the only way you were going to get anything. The stones came from here. There was one point at which we thought we were running out of stones, so all the neighbours started providing bottles. So we have a bottle or two here in the wall.


Paul: Also, because there were piles of grit, we bought some small sandbags and we filled those up with grit. They were put down in the middle of each Gabion cage - piled up in the middle. So there's a core of these sandbags, then we poured the stones on the side of them.

gabion cages
Gabion cages filled with rubble from the garden.png

Photo: Paul points to the Gabion cages filled with grit and rubble which they cleared from the garden.

You can see the benches made from reclaimed tarmac

John: Now that's probably not even half the story but looking around, there must be something a micro climate in here because it's so green. 


Ed: It's amazing. Because of the tarmac, the stone walls and the buildings, it's a real heat trap in here. It’s South-facing and actually the design of the garden is very much about following the sun. It's not here right now, but the sun moves from where we are at the moment in the morning, to down at the other end of the garden in the evening. So this is morning coffee (in my dreams!), and the other end is gin and tonic. 


John: I think that's the cue to head for a gin and tonic - or at least a little walk. So let’s have a little walk and talk through some of the planting.

About the planting scheme in this regenerative urban garden


Ed: (13:40) The origins of the planting were in another regenerative garden project that took place here, about 10 years ago? Sponsored by the festival, which was called Jardin Publique. Again kind of a Geddes-inspired thing where an artist came along and her art is to solve people's problems. So people in the city centre were saying, “I haven't got any garden” so she went, “right, I’ll give you a garden”. So she gave the courtyard loads and loads of plants. And actually, the origin of lots of the planting here is plants from there that came out of the pots that we got from that garden. Hence some of the mature bits and pieces. 


The big crab apple tree for example was in a pot, there's a number of cooking apple trees, and those kind of things as well.


Paul: About 15 years ago I cut a metre square out of the concrete, so this crabapple tree has been by itself there for 15 years, so that’s already established.


Ed: Loads of stuff came from the neighbours. All of the aquilegias and geranium. People were bringing things around - we had to turn them away after a while!


John: Neighbourhood fellowship over what you put and grow in the garden! The views down onto this, as you said, you've been looking at it for years and now it’s just a joy. 

It appears from one or two of the plants to be quite a seasonal garden?


Ed: We sat here a lot in the winter actually in the kind of “après ski world” - or so we like to imagine. But the balance is between the veg, and putting veg in the middle of the garden. So there's a productive element to it. It grows. For example, the great thing about potatoes is that you look at them and you go, “That is dinner in three months time”. That kind of gives a sense of rhythm. These Jerusalem artichokes from the grocer, we just put them in the ground and hopefully they'll shoot right up. By November they'll be up there, [about 6 feet tall], by which time the potatoes will have been replaced by the kale… And what's lovely about gardening is watching wave after wave of plant life, as the months advance.


John: I also love the the temporal nature of it. Not just the seasons, but the next year, and the two years after that. There's something wonderful about having what can be such an express train of activity. Just to sit and linger, and dwell and be planning that far ahead is wonderful for the mindset i think.


Paul: That's true. And the wildlife! These are covered in bees, butterflies… and we have a rat! [laughter


John: Oh you have a rat okay i'm thrilled - biodiversity of everything! Well it's a joy to see this, it really is. You have your little stone head there, but it feels a meditative space regardless. You know, the garden’s got a wonderful sense of pace and beauty to it.


Congratulations. We’re continuing our encounters and we'll be looking more at Geddes’ famous “by leaves we live” notion, and visiting one or two other gardens and initiatives on this route.


Can you tell us a bit about the variety of plants that it’s possible to grow in a town garden? There's no doubt there's a lot here and of course in gardening we make mistakes, so if it doesn't work out it goes, I guess!  


Do you have a big hint or tip about what not to try

Ed: One thing is really, really think about the path the sun takes, and be incredibly aware of what plants enjoy being in the dark and what enjoys being in the sun.


At the southern end, in the shadow of the wall, that's the ‘jungle garden’. We really tried to respond to the different areas of light and shade. For example, if you've got a mediterranean plant, don't give it any water and just put it in rubbish soil - and there you go.


Oh, and don't plant your spinach too early - there's a lesson!


John: There's a lovely rhythm to the planting, you've got plants punctuating that all those beds and it's very vibrant.


Paul: There are some weeds which come up which we really like. They're very big and beautiful so we let them stay there before they flower and seed. We’ve got  alliums and this stunning iris - she just came up about three days ago, and is beautiful. So we're timing it well.


John: Just to finish, let’s have a look at the fire pit. Because nothing says ‘come together with our neighbours’, like a fireplace. It's not lit just now, but i feel we may be lingering…! 


Thank you so much for your time this evening. Congratulations on this wonderful job. 


Please join us again tomorrow, when our chosen theme is “Pray”. We’ll be looking at sanctuary in the urban space. So do join us then, thanks very much.

Next video: Pray - Faith Buildings, Art and Sanctuary >

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