The power of creating an edible high road
On Saturday 18 May a river of fruit and nut trees appeared along Salusbury Road as part of the Chelsea Fringe Festival in an initiative of Transition Town Kensal to Kilburn (TTK2K). Shops and businesses along the street sponsored 22 edible trees which were placed outside their premises for the three weeks of The Chelsea Fringe. After three weeks brightening up Salusbury Road, the trees were planted out in local schools and community gardens. I spoke to Molly Fletcher, one of the drivers behind the project, to ask her about the project, how it came about, and how being part of it affected her sense of what's possible. You can either listen to this podcast of our conversation, or read the transcript below:
So Molly, what is an ‘Edible High Road’?
We did a fruit and nut tree outside all the shops on our local high street in a tub, with salad and herbs around the base for 3 weeks of the Chelsea Fringe Festival. After that, in the autumn when the trees go dormant they will be planted out all over our local area and will be producing fruit and nuts for the next 50 years we hope.
What was the thinking with doing them on the high street?
I've been quite active with our Food Group, and have been growing food on our flat kitchen roof which isn't very big but it's really light, and there are no slugs and snails up there. I just got interested in it! I run some chutney workshops as well in our Transition group and foraging... So wanting to promote local food growing and get down food miles.
Was it difficult? Did you have to get lots of complicated permissions in order to do that?
Well no. The amazing thing was... maybe I wouldn't have had the confidence to do it off my own bat but it was the idea of Abundance London. Karen Liebreich came up with the idea last year for the Chelsea Fringe on Chiswick High Road and she got 55 shops and businesses along there to get involved and so really it was from all her pitfalls that she came up across last year ... she'd ironed them out so we didn't have to go there this year. We just followed her pattern, her template as it were ...
How was it received? What was the impact?
It was really good, such a positive thing. All the people passing by loved it, the high street looked amazing, it was all pulled together with having fruit trees and nut trees in blossom outside. It just pulled it all together and made it look wonderful.
It was outside the library so that was part of it. The library put on a display for us all about the fruit and nut trees and things for the week before the launch day and – it was great!
Do you think there's any hope that it might become a permanent fixture on the high street?
It's quite a narrow pavement there but also they're large, half-size trees which means that they're going to produce a proper amount of fruit and nuts. They're not going to stay in their tubs, they're going to be planted out when they're dormant. In the autumn, they're going to be planted out in the area, in parks, in a local school, the farmer's market, on a station platform near us. Brondesbury Park have asked for one. Also Kids Company, a local organisation helping deprived children.
How does a project like this help Transition Kensal to Kilburn reach out and become more visible?
We put up a big banner during the 3 weeks when all the tubs with the trees were lining the high street, so it looked like a river of trees really. That was the idea and it really did look like that. We put up a big banner and then people also saw us planting out the trees in the local park when we were planting the trees into the tubs.
People were asking about it then and who we were and what we were doing. I was quite surprised how positive people are. They really like the idea of trees and tree-producing things.
How long have you been involved in the group for, in the wider Transition Kensal to Kilburn?
It's quite a long time now, about 7 years or something like that? It was when people from the Transition Town were giving out flyers for the film The Age of Stupid. We saw it in our local cinema, the Tricycle Cinema. I took my two sons along and that was it. That for me was completely... it had such an impact on me. I just thought – right, everything I'm gonna do from now on has got to be to do with trying to get our carbon down and trying to make a difference and change things.
The title of the new book is The Power of Just Doing Stuff. From your involvement over those 7 years through Kensal to Kilburn and this tree-planting project, do you feel there's some way in which you feel like there's some kind of power that you've taken back? What's that experience been like for you?
It's been a really positive experience actually. Just for instance, The Age of Stupid was talking about flying and how bad flying is. We just started to look at our transport, and then we started taking the train everywhere instead of flying, wherever we could we'd take the train instead. It was just brilliant, it was so much better than taking the plane. You can really travel.
We've always loved travelling but you can really see a country if you travel by train and you're sitting talking to people from that country. Then we gave up our car and started walking and talking to our neighbours more, started cycling everywhere, we got fitter. In lots of ways – we've just become more local.
One of the questions I remember I was asked at a talk I did recently was “where do you get the confidence to do that?” Where do you feel that idea of “let's plant loads of trees in the high street and then plant them in other places”; that takes a certain degree of confidence to do that. Where do you feel that's come from?
I think it's a sense of urgency. I really feel a sense of urgency. All of the people saying “you can't do it” and “this terrible thing will happen”. Like with the Edible High Road, people said “oh, the pavement's too narrow, it's going to block up the pavement, you'll never get permission, and anyway the trees will get stolen and they won't last a minute outside the shops”. You just have to ignore it. You just have to ignore it and get on with it and do it. Especially as somebody else has already done it, as they had in Chiswick, that gave me the confidence.
Also I was struggling with getting the money together from the shops and library and various cafes and things. It was January and February and people were really struggling and trying to visualise a river of trees growing in the high street in January was quite difficult. It's very hard. Times are very hard at the moment so it was tough going round asking for the money but they could see that there was a vision here. It was some sort of hopeful thing happening.
Did you find that that's kind of infectious, that sense of hope?
It did... I think the fact that other shops were getting involved, so that sense of “well, somebody else is doing it, it must be worth doing”. And if everybody does something then we can change things.
If you were talking to somebody who was thinking about doing a project like this, what would your advice be to them?
My advice would be to get somebody who's already done it and then take it on from there. Add to it or take away what you don't want to do. It's like a chain effect. You're not really starting from the beginning, there's nothing new about planting trees. Actually, for me, I'd never planted a tree before and didn't know anything about it so I've learnt a lot about trees and how they're fertilised. I didn't even know that you had to have a certain other tree that pollinates a certain other tree!
A plum tree doesn't just have to have a certain type of plum tree, but has to have another type of fruit tree to pollinate it. I've learnt a lot. Also going into all these local shops and businesses: I've made a personal connection with them which I didn't have before which is really quite eye-opening. I really feel like I'm becoming connected to the area more.
Also, get a group of 'yous' together. Groups have much more elbow than individuals. I could not have, would not have, even attempted to do an Edible High Road without the Transition Town back up. I had a right hand person all the way through who I met through Transition Town and a willing group of 5 - 10 helpers for the hands on stuff like the planting, label making and the launch day.
There was a pivotal point in the beginning of the project when I thought I'd never be able to get the shops to pay up, athough they'd all said they would. I was ready to give up, then I got backup from the Transition Town core group and it was just enough to keep me going. So my advice is to get a group together, dont go it alone although you'll still probably land up doing a lot more than you thought you would.
What other changes have you made in your own life?
Lastly I wanted to add to the ways we've changed our lives since seeing The Age of Stupid and realising how 'carbon' we were:
- Joined the local residents association and got recycling of kitchen waste established
- Stopped flying, except for essentials like work or family
- Given up the car and taken up the bicycle and the train
- Put solar panels on the roof and insulated our windows with home made double glazing
- Only buying food grown locally from supermarkets and from the farmers market and we have a not-for-profit organic food bag that we collect
- Cut down on meat and dairy - now we eat meat for a treat once a week on Sundays and we eat a lot more nuts
- We're growing spinach and beetroot on our flat kitchen roof - more sunlight and no slugs
- Stopped buying physical presents and buying trips or experience presents instead
- We're running childrens workshops in solar and wind powered sculpture and through Spacehive we're crowd funding Dandelion - a wind sculpture made from recycled bottles for our local high street
We're not being do gooders with all this, I just feel a low carbon future will be better and worth fighting for, so our grand children will have one.
My last question is what's next for Transition Kensal to Kilburn?
I think I'm going to recover for a bit! The Food Group is carrying on with the fruit picking so I'll join in with some fruit picks and also juicing: for various public occasions, we take the juicer along and juice apples and pears that we've picked, so I'll probably be doing that in the autumn.
Thanks to Jonathan Goldberg for his wonderful photos.
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