As the early morning sun hits the shacks of Khayalitsha on the N2 the first thing that strikes the viewer is the greenery. Rows and rows of green vines bear ripe, plump tomatoes and juicy red strawberries. White and brown mushrooms peek out from vertical tubes reaching up to the sky. It takes a moment for you to realise you are looking over an informal settlement. The people living in these shacks have adopted vertical gardening, so fashionable in wealthy New York city apartments, but so critical to quality of life in South African slums.
This is Stephen Lamb of Touching the Earth Lightly’s vision. Lamb sees no reason why nutritious organic vegetables should be a luxury of the wealthy.
“Nature is democratic and apolitical” he tells Food Jams in an interview in Kalk Bay, the seaside town where he lives and works. “Sunlight happens everywhere and it rains on everybody. The challenge is to get healthy, un-poisoned vegetables into the mouths of shack dwellers.”
The concept is simple, vertical gardening in townships. There is no reason why vegetables need to be grown on a flat plain, says Lamb. The vertical garden, or ‘green wall’ dates back as far as 600BC to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Today as more and more people move to the cities the use of hydroponics technology to grow your own food is fast catching on.
The logical step for Lamb is to put this technology to use where it is most needed. “Every shack has four walls, he points out, two of those walls will get sun during the day. Those two walls could be utilised as a vertical garden, with a low tech trickle down system of irrigation.
“I have learnt there are certain factors you can always rely on, those are gravity, sunlight and rain,” says Lamb, “some factors you should never rely on, people, politics and budget.”
The point then is to keep the human factor out of the green shack as much as possible. A large water drum is installed on the roof of the green shack. This drum will need to be filled every couple of days, but otherwise it is a question of opening the tap and setting in motion the irrigation system.
The next challenge is to get good quality soil that can produce highly nutritious vegetables. Lamb’s solutions focus on low cost, low tech natural answers. Nature has already designed the ultimate soil enricher, it’s called the earthworm. A basic composting system using organic waste materials can be very cheaply and effectively implemented.
The vertical garden also needs to be protected from the elements and possibly from the prying hands of hungry neighbours. The converted walls are covered by a transparent screen which can be opened when it is time for harvesting, but closed and locked up again to protect the future meals growing within the shack’s walls.
The green shack is about more than just growing food for the residents of informal settlements. Lamb has identified 3 catastrophes faced by South Africans living in shacks: fire, floods and access to food. The green shack aims to address these three. The goal is innovative community led design and Lamb is constantly testing and trying his solutions. It is about finding solutions that work with, rather than against nature.
In some cases it is as simple as raising the floor level of shacks above rising water levels to keep both the residents and their possessions dry in floods. He has developed the liter of light which uses solar power to light the shack’s interior to minimise the reliance on the highly flammable paraffin lamps. And for fire prevention Lamb is developing a low tech system to ensure that in the case of a shack fire that fire can remain insulated within the shack where it started, rather than setting the whole neighbourhood ablaze.
Lamb is emphatic on one point, “housing is the big elephant in the room in South Africa” he says. He points out that shacks are not going to disappear overnight. While it remains unacceptable to him that so many South Africans still live in shacks the reality of the conditions of those informal settlements need to be addressed.
Green, lush and leafy do not need to be words which describe only wealthy suburbs. Vertical gardening offers a solution for areas low on space and resources. More than just the aesthetic there is a power and freedom that comes with growing your own food. It offers a certain independence. While the green shack will by no means solve all the problems residents of informal settlements face, it begins to tackle the issues head on, rather than waiting for a solution that may never come.
– Natalie Simon