Grow Heathrow is an off-grid community and protest site that has, for 8 years, occupied a few acres of vacant land in the village of Sipson, just north of London’s Heathrow Airport. Established in 2010 in response to the UK Government’s plans for the building of a third runway at the airport, a group of around 20 activists, local residents and people already living off-grid squatted on vacant land where three dilapidated greenhouses stood – remnants of a long-abandoned market garden. Grow Heathrow emerged from a coming together of two earlier political groups: the Transition Network (2005-) and Camps for Climate Action group (2006-11) – in essence, it’s not simply a protest camp (important thought that is); it’s also an alternative eco-community committed to sustainable ends that operate outside the world of commodity capitalism. Thus, even though Heathrow’s new runway was finally approved by Parliament in June 2018, Grow Heathrow has quickly transcended its function as a protest site so that, today, it presents a radical alternative to urban life that is based on autonomous ways of building, non-hierarchical, consensus-based communal living, and sustainable ways of sourcing food and energy and disposing of wastes.
On the four acre site, residents have, over time, built their own homes out of salvaged materials and, taken together, these dwellings illustrate in diverse ways what kinds of architectural forms might be produced by an entirely autonomous building process – a Barratt Homes development in reverse, if you like. The building materials used are all similar – a mixture of recycled timber, pvc windows, tarpaulins and other plastics; each dwelling also has a fire pit connected to an improvised metal chimney. Yet the resultant forms are radically different: current houses include a rectangular-plan shack, mostly built out of wood; a yurt, resting on piles of scavenged palettes; a bender – a tarpaulin-shrouded stick-framed ovoid that barely emerges from the ground; and a more conventional two-storey house complete with a porch. A new home/community space currently under construction is rather more sophisticated: a Buckminster-Fuller inspired geodesic dome supported on a well-crafted wooden base. Despite this rich variety, each house also features a conventional wooden door, acting as both a place marker and structural support, the doors themselves sourced from skips – discarded remnants of other, far more conventional, homes and other buildings. No one person or family owns any of the houses – they are built for occupation for a limited time only (a maximum of four years) and then passed on to others when that occupation ends. In this way, the houses develop incrementally – new features are added when they change hands; stewardship takes the place of ownership.
In between these dwellings are a network of other structures built for communal living: a shipping container repurposed as a guest house; a striking shower block supported by scaffolding found in a skip and powered by a wood-burning heater built out of discarded oil tanks; a timber-clad compost toilet raised high above the ground; a communal library of alternative literature and zines contained within a meeting place warmed by an efficient scavenged stove; and a salvage area enclosed in the remains of one of the existing greenhouses. Overflowing with scraps of timber, plastic and metal – the ‘Dump Starz’ testifies not only to the ingenuity of the community in sourcing its building materials – but also to the extraordinary quantities of waste generated by urban living and waste that usually ends up being hidden from us in landfill sites. Here, each material is sorted into constituent piles for future usage – a DIY version of B&Q. Such a profusion of scavenged materials puts pay to the idea that conventional forms of recycling are effective in reducing the quantities of waste in our cities.
Despite this abundance of materials sourced for re-use, the community is still reliant on donations, whether solar panels that provide half of its electricity, or battery units to ensure a reliable supply, and drinking water supplied for a fee by the local water company. Although Grow Heathrow offers a frank demonstration of a kind of urban living that takes the idea of sustainability completely seriously, it also shows that a truly self-sufficient lifestyle is impossible – indeed, the very effort of achieving this only serves to reveal how dependent we are on connections with what is outside.
Self-built communities like Grow Heathrow are vital in cities because they demonstrate how to actually construct something radically ‘other’ to an urban life based on gargantuan consumption of non-renewable fuels, excessively authoritarian planning regimes, rigid social hierarchies, and building practices that are completely out of the hands of users. Yet in maintaining the community for so many years, the residents of Grow Heathrow have also shown how connections must be maintained between the subversive and the conventional, between autonomy and cooperation, and between starkly different urban communities. It may be very small in its extent, but Grow Heathrow is very big in its radical ambition.