2- Reuse of objects in

and for Peckham

1. Remaking Peckham using waste materials

 

Besides people reusing waste materials for personal use, there are other makers following the same practice for a different end, seeking to improve their city’s public spaces. More generally, since the nineteenth century, citizens have been able to intervene locally and collectively in Western cities, creating actions to solve small-scale unaddressed problems and to assure the positive development of their neighbourhood. Do-It-Yourself urbanism has attempted to improve cities in the spirit of bottom-up activism where marginalised spaces are reactivated by a genuine civic engagement that works outside the intervention framework of public and private institutions (Talen 2015: 138). Today, a wide range of urban participants lead these initiatives to protect and enhance their common areas, raising the revolutionary right to the city as ‘one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights’ (Harvey 2012: 4). 

Figure 8: do-it-yourselfers’ possible scopes of action.

I currently live in New Cross, South London, from where I started to walk in search of throwaway objects, being the valuable source of consumption and production of these makers. As Calafate-Faria and Glucksberg (2016) investigated Peckham’s hotspots of waste and the dimensions of this localised issue, I visited the multicultural area early May 2017 taking account of their report and exploring every hidden corner with a camera in hand. In Peckham, waste proceeding from commercial occupation, construction sites or residents’ daily trash, and its accumulation on the pavements may be collected by the Southwark council and by waste pickers, who intend to sell it.

Further, waste pickers may also become informal makers, creating added value in reusing non-organic elements such as natural woods and wood-plastic composites, cardboards, plastics, glass, household furniture, and metallic elements, amongst other materials that cannot be packed in rubbish bags. In turn, these makers can be associated to local groups, who possess a communal area to organise themselves such as a nursery reusing tyres for gardening, a community garden reusing plastic bottles to scare birds and stop them eating the crops, or traders employing plastic pallets to display fruits and vegetables. Further, there is a second category led by individual citizens, who improvise with the different materials that they have at their disposal to positively transform specific areas of Peckham. Thus, the research focuses on the latter social order, presenting hereafter two unusual case studies that might serve to explore and develop a conceivable urban collective of informal makers.

Figure 9 (top left): tyres reused for common gardening, in a private space.

Figure 10 (bottom left): plastic pallets reused to display goods sold in a public space.

Figure 11 (right): plastic bottles reused for common gardening in a semi-public space.

2. The street cats' shed houses

Following the traces of waste and walking across the commercial area of Peckham, I first found a colony of semi-feral cats surrounding small shed houses in a hidden green area between Rye Lane Street and a car park. The shed houses of these cats were made of a wide range of materials, ensuring them a safe place to rest and protecting them from the wind and rain. I recognised a cat’s box fulfilling its design purpose and more interestingly, the reuse of an old cupboard, two polystyrene boxes, a rotten dog basket and a collapsing structure covered with a blue tarpaulin, all being used for the cats’ comfort. At first sight, these objects seemed characteristic of the term ‘Non-Intentional Design’, coined by Brandes et al. (2009) to describe a phenomenon in which people are spontaneously motivated ‘to use an object for a purpose other than that for which it was professionally intended’ (ibid: 12), seeking to solve a situational problem without having to design anything new. 

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Figure 12: set of images showing the cats resting on pillows and blankets.

The houses were placed over wooden pallets to keep them dry.

Although their forms and materials appeared to meet the conditions required to protect the cats, some objects experienced intentional alterations and re-design of their initial shapes. Therefore, it became essential to better understand what encouraged these anonymous makers to plan and organise an urban space by creating these structures despite the wide range of professional products available in any surrounding shop.

 

In view of this discovery, two security guards told me that the cats were fed every morning around 9am. Thanks to this valuable information, I could meet Anne, a British retired woman in a wheel chair that was kindly open to discuss the street cats’ shed houses in a short interview. During the conversation, I had the feeling to talk to a professional designer able to debate about technical matters and knowing exactly what were the suitable structures for animal welfare. Accompanied by Mary, another ‘official feeder’, they both come along every morning and evening to feed the cats and to change their blankets, facing occasional challenges due to the weather or people’s misbehaviour towards their voluntary work. Moreover, the ladies have been helped by an animal charity thanks to which the cats have been neutered and vaccinated. Some neighbours, traders and road sweepers have supported the project in building some of the informal shelters and protecting the cats with the limited resources at their disposal:

 

This fence here is from one of the shops, and they got a hole in this fence so the cats have an escape route. Because some people put dogs down to chase the cats […]. And also inside there, he’s built a lean-to so the cats have got somewhere to keep out the rain and the wind.

This civic engagement has also been authorised by the Southwark council as long as the public area is not transformed into an animal garden, recalling that personal and cultural practices in urban spaces must please all stakeholders and they ‘cannot be separated from political-economical processes and structural contexts’ (Douglas 2014: 20). 

Figure 13: images showing solutions undertaken to protect the cats.

The project began seventeen years ago, when Anne started to feed one starving cat on her way to work until she could gather thirty-six cats, most of them abandoned by traders having lived in the area. Anne has never been a rich person and she was ‘brought up to not throw things away for the sake of throwing things away’, by making another use of any found object. She has also insisted that the project ‘wasn’t planned and was all spur of the moment’, improvising with what people dumped or waiting for ‘the right thing to appear’ that would be suitable for the cats. Further, Anne and Mary’s experience in taking care of animals has enabled them to know that sharp edges need to be covered with tape given that cats are curious and love to climb any box’s roof, or that wooden materials are easier to find and safer to use for stable and waterproof structures, making clear that any new idea should not be misplaced to avoid calling the council’s attention. 

 

Once the interview ended, I spontaneously proposed my help to face some of the challenges discussed, establishing a relationship of trust, coming at least twice a week and making clear that my intentions were transcending the purpose of this research.

Figure 14:  before and after the bushes were cut.

Late May, the car park had an inspection and the owners had to cut back the bushes that were protecting the cats from the weather and hiding them from passers-by, in order to clean up the area. As some shed houses have a short lifetime due to dirt accumulation and moisture, Anne and Mary seized the opportunity to remove them. They were also both particularly pleased to see that I was doing ‘my homework’, helping them to sketch ideas, carrying materials, co-designing new steady shed houses for the cats by considering seriously the project’s time-pressure in its context.

 

Thus, my role as ethnographer evolved to become an involved designer thoughtful to the ladies’ needs, and to the cats and neighbours’ evaluation of the research (Seymour 2005: 61). Far from being clustered in a workshop, the ladies corrected my sketches and validated positively my best intentions, although making sure that the problems translated were truly their problems and that the decision-making processes were transmitted to them (Callon et al. 2009: 105), in order to anticipate further possible constraints.  Therefore, the openness of this non-hierarchical situation was allowing us to communicate as equals, to better learn from each other and to share a common responsibility for the place. 

Figure 15:  the library’s structure is waterproof and fixed to the wall whereas the

board is protected by an umbrella. The board’s message is changed every morning.

3- The creative front garden

 

Early June, my continual walks between New Cross and Peckham to visit Anne and Mary were followed by visits to Brixton, where I discovered colourful planters, a collaborative library and inventive benches that were beautifying the built environment. With these in mind, coming back to Peckham, I unexpectedly found a small front garden full of reused furniture, including a collaborative library made from a wooden speaker box and a meaningful handmade blackboard that aroused my curiosity and invited me to meet Johanna, an illustrator from Eindhoven, who progressively transformed her front yard from a bin where ‘everybody used to chuck things in it’, into a creative garden perceived as a sacred place by most of her neighbours.

The day after, we meet again for an interview that lasted more than two hours, in which we discussed her past experiences in reusing raw materials, her continual search for authenticity, and her genuine motivation to invite people around the front garden, a private space that has now become a sort of public or community area. For Johanna, the act of reusing communicates one’s own identity and it is a message of seeing worth and beauty where other people do not see it anymore. 

Figure 16:  Johanna writes the message over a table and always signs it with a heart.

If she cannot do it because she is away, her husband or neighbours will do it for her.

 

Beyond necessity, the reuse of waste materials here seems to be an aesthetical choice in order ‘to create a warmer and closer sensation by avoiding synthetic materials’, and it may empower the maker by making the self in the act of reusing, engaging ‘psychological mechanism, cognitive arousal, and emotion’ by seeing change in the object’s value (Camic 2010: 83). Thus, these non-users of new-market-products can be distinguished because they do not always access to goods, as for the street cats’ shed houses, and because they might also resist or reject industrial commodities as in the case of the front garden (Wyatt 2003: 76). One case study derives from realising economic benefits whilst the second case study relies on Johanna’s self-empowerment in undertaking the project, along with her quest for uniqueness and being part of a community, all motivations being highlighted in the interview.

Johanna’s interactive project began three years ago, provoked by the sudden necessity to transform the garden’s appearance. First, she cut a ‘massive plant’ blocking light from entering in her living room, and she was helped by an unknown passer-by. A week later, she needed his help again, and she put a sign in her garden saying:

If it was you that helped us getting rid of this, please get in touch with us. We have another job for you. Put your mobile phone through the letterbox.

As many neighbours proposed to help her and reacted positively to her spontaneity, Johanna realised that people were ‘really reading this’. From this experience, she started to write a message every morning on a black board, influencing successfully the neighbourhood’s mood by giving them a sense of belonging. The unusual blackboard is at the core of Johanna’s alternative way of life and it has become a ‘mirror to the world’, by holding the positive experiences of the community, helping people to redefine their daily reality, provoking them and enabling critical reflection on how things could be different. 

Figure 17: Squarehead is the main character of Johanna’s books.

Since then, Johanna has received many different reactions, as when a priest came to her door and said that she was ‘lifting the spirit of Peckham’ or when a lady revealed that she ‘wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for the board’. People have looked for connection, enjoying the roughness of her garden and motivating her to pursue with new creative ideas. 

Unlike the first case study, the objects were in better condition and there were not major challenges to resolve because the project’s time-pressure mostly depended on Johanna’s motivation, who did not necessarily need my involvement. However, as she was ‘open to ideas’, I read several times the transcript of the interview I had with her and I realised that my role had to change from an involved designer and problem solver for street cats’ shed houses to a problem finder that would facilitate reflections on the front garden. Equally motivated to bring a new contribution, my attitude and research methods had to vary depending on each of these two projects of collaborative research. 

© 2014 2020 thomasverbal