How we built an Urban Permaculture Garden in the City Centre

Jessica Witchell
Saturday, 1st March 2003

Look up in the heart of Reading town centre and you may just see an edible forest garden complete with wind turbine and solar panels peering back at you. Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC) has just created this amazing resource as a way of linking urban dwellers to sustainability issues, both locally and globally.

"When we rise in the morning... at the table we drink coffee from which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs we are already beholden to more than half the world."

- Martin Luther King

Food is an excellent medium to explore how our lives are intricately linked to other people around the world, and how our daily actions taken here in the UK can affect the livelihoods of people elsewhere. RISC is a development education centre, and home to the Global Café, that serves international cuisine made from organic, fair trade and locally produced ingredients. The roof garden (two stories above the café) now adds a new dimension to the 'food for thought' ethos of the café by providing consumers with a direct link to food production.

As well as exploring the origins of plants and their different cultural and culinary uses, the garden highlights global justice issues such as unfair trade rules and intellectual property rights that have a detrimental effect on some of the world's poorest farmers. The garden also provides a practical focus for finding out about alternative energy, composting, water harvesting and urban food production. It is hoped that this project will provide the inspiration and information required to enable people to take action towards making the world a more just and sustainable place (we aim high!).

Rooftop Restoration

The history of this project starts two years ago when the flat conference hall roof was in desperate need of repair as well as needing heat and sound insulation in order to keep its public entertainment licence.

With 'the problem is the solution' principle in mind, this situation presented the perfect opportunity to give the roof a complete overhaul. Soil presented the answer as both a perfect noise insulation material and growing medium. It also provided us with the opportunity to create an educational demonstration garden in the heart of a town deprived of green spaces.

After gaining planning permission, we were able to get a Community Fund grant to pay Ram Roof const-ruction company to mend the roof and install a special drainage system before placing 30cm (1ft) of soil on the roof. Another grant from the National Lottery, this time the SEED fund as well as grants from the Environmental Agency and the Environmental Trust for Berkshire, then enabled us to carry out stage two of the garden – the design and implementation.

Designing The Roof Garden

This involved consultation with lots of groups that might be interested in getting involved with the project. They ranged from schools, teachers, youth, university students, horticultural therapy groups for people with learning and physical disabilities, ethnic minority groups, women's groups, environmentalists, community artists, volunteer gardeners as well as the general public.

The response was overwhelming, and it became apparent that the roof garden could provide a practical focus for tailor-made educational programmes that explore sustainable development and urban food growing. The garden also provided a great opportunity to 'twin' with partner groups in the 'South' (often referred to as 'developing' or 'third world' countries) – to date, links have made with groups in Nepal, Cuba, the Philippines and Zimbabwe.

We used the following principles to help guide the process:

Setting up self-sustaining systems.
Harnessing natural energy.
High yielding but low maintenance.
Using local products and labour where possible.
Creating opportunities for people to get involved.
With input from the groups outlined above together with RISC's ethos the following elements were identified:

Places to display information
Interesting layout with options for different routes around the garden.
Durable and user friendly access and paths.
Culturally significant plants that relate to some of the groups using the garden, and our international partners.
Herbs and salad for the café.
Composting area for café kitchen waste.
Plants that link to cash crop and trade issues, e.g. bananas
A meeting space and places to sit.
Use of alternative technology to highlight energy issues.
Water harvesting to highlight water issues around the world.
A place for annual vegetable growing with information about 'growing it yourself' and local allotment schemes.
An edible perennial forest garden with plants from around the world, to illustrate forest gardening and biodiversity issues.
With the help of Paul Barney Landscapes and his nursery, Edulis, that specialises in edible perennials from around the world, we got started. Lots of volunteers and local trades people also helped to transform the dream into reality. The volunteer team continue to play a crucial role in maintaining the garden.

Garden Construction

We opted for two interlocking curvy paths (one stone and one bark chip) in order to maximise the edging space, to make the garden look wider and also create opportunities for an interactive garden trail. For obvious health and safety reasons it was necessary to erect an external iron staircase and create barriers on the external edges of the roof. We used a combination of bespoke railings and woven hazel hurdles and they multi-function as wind filters and growing supports for soft fruits.

At the entrance to the garden there is a decking area to provide a space for people to sit. The woven willow planters surrounding the decking also provide easy access to culinary herbs for the café staff as well as creating an aromatic panacea. Adjacent to the decking will be a compost and wormery so that kitchen waste from the café can be composted, and is again located within easy reach for the café staff.

The middle section of the garden is a forest garden and is planted exclusively with edible perennials from around the world. This is where people can find out where their food comes from and the culinary, religious and cultural significance of different plants.

You can find everything from Japanese mountain banana, Musa basjoo, to globe artichokes, Cynara scolymus, and forage for produce as you walk round. Informative labels and accom-panying workshops will also explore the development context in which plants have been reappro-priated through processes such as colonialisation, global economics and agricultural policies, biotech-nology through to intellectual property rights. There is an information display area in the middle of the garden at the point where the stone path meets the southern wall.

The far end of the garden is designed for annual vegetables (and is situated near the water source to accommodate a more intensive growing system). Also located here will be a greenhouse to house some of the more exotic species as well as providing a space to sow and nurture seedlings. This is the place where visitors can find out how to grow salad and vegetables organically and find out about other local growing initiatives in the area. We used hazel woven around iron frames in order to create curved planters around the skylights and air vents. The hot air coming from the air vents may even be used to heat the greenhouse!

Also housed at this end of the garden is a huge water reservoir to collect all the water that drains off the roof together with adjacent roofs via guttering. Attached to the south facing wall are solar panels and on a nearby chimney, a wind turbine, that provide a combined electricity supply. This is required to pump the harvested water around the garden via the drip feed irrigation system in the summer. In the winter when there is excess water, the water system will be diverted to the café (two stories below and therefore using the natural gravitational pull) in order to flush the toilets.

Linking the Garden with the City and Environmental Education

It is intended that the roof garden will have knock-on benefits to the centre as a whole, linking to the shop, the teaching resources, the events and even the website (a virtual roof garden tour is planned). We hope that anyone who happens to walk into the centre will have the opportunity to find out more about sustainability issues and how our lives are linked to those of people throughout the world.

Now the garden has been created, stage three of the project is underway which involves developing the educational potential of the garden. We have just recruited a new education worker to take this part of the project forward and involve the stakeholders in delivering the educational programs. Aside from the specific groups using the garden, there will be set opening hours and special events for the public. So if you're ever in Reading...

More details of RISC can be found at