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Reuse Practice
in Peckham

An alternative solution to local issues, 2017

In a worldwide context of overconsumption, an alternative practice that reuses waste materials to solve local issues might allow people to reflect further on their material reality. This is how, in 2017, I collaborated with waste pickers in designing shed houses for street cats and a creative front garden for the local Peckham community, in South London.

The researcher, the designer and the waste pickers

In our contemporary, post-industrial society, the controversies over the causes and consequences of overconsumption undeniably advances the need to exchange and debate with a wider range of social groups on our current modes of production, consumption and disposal. While wandering the streets of New Cross and Peckham, where I have lived for a year, the abundance of furniture and materials discarded by residents was often astonishing to see. Given these observations, from May to August 2017, I delved into two urban projects where residents ingeniously reused waste materials to solve local issues of their area. As social researcher, I initially interviewed these waste pickers, documenting and analysing their work to then, as social designer, enhance their project through small-scale actions in a collaborative decision-making process.

In the first case study, I built shed houses for a group of street cats after interviewing Shirley, a dedicated woman for whom the cats were her life project. After identifying her challenges, I collected materials from the streets of Peckham to create shelters, feeding areas, and a food storage for their supplies. Simultaneously, in another part of Peckham, just a fifteen-minute walk away, I engaged with Margit from Peckham Bird, who had decorated her front garden over time by using found objects, a place that had surprisingly engaged her neighbours. Taking this second case study as example, I facilitated an educational and speculative activity wherein eight participants envisioned how their own front garden could look like with reused materials and found objects.

 

In Barcelona, I uncovered the value of walls and, on a broader scale, our urban environments, through conversations with homeless people, while in London, I saw worth in discarded objects by engaging with waste pickers, both often misunderstood groups of people. Further, my role as designer changed significantly. Firstly, by incorporating collaboration in the early phases, the traces of asymmetry in the researcher-researched relationships with waste pickers were removed. Secondly, my role evolved contextually, initially moving from ethnographer to designer, and later from problem solver to problem finder depending on the case study—a process that reminded me the artefact when it had to be functional or communicative, as solving a problem differs from communicating one. Thirdly, I researched on the practice of reuse in literature, but perhaps more significantly, I became a waste picker myself. I noticed that designers often prioritise making over intellectual thinking, while social researchers could write a whole paper on insignificant experiments. Here, I had to find the right balance.

Where to find waste materials in Peckham?

Do-it-yourselfers’ possible scopes of action.

Artists and designers reusing objects

With the development of industrial societies, the avant-garde art movement developed assemblage methods to dismantle, juxtapose and re-structure objects. Marcel Duchamp perfected the concept of found object when he used unaltered everyday articles to make his series of ready-made, transforming them into art works by modifying their function and context. This process of re-appropriation incorporated found objects in multiple and diverse ways, adopting a conceptual approach of playfulness and provocation, while opening a wider reflection on their associative properties. In the sixties, Lawrence Alloway discussed urban practices of the ‘junk culture’ where the source of artists’ works was the throwaway material of cities. To him, what seemed worthless for some people could become a treasure for others, as objects could evolve from goods to possessions, and finally, as waste, even after use, they could become valuable and accessible once more.

In the design field, the increase of waste is a consequence of unintelligent design, chasing economic growth at the expense of human health and ecological footprint, which pushed few makers and design collectives from the sixties onwards to reflect critically upon the relationship between users, objects, and their social contexts. From the Castiglioni brothers’ Mezzadro stool to Curro Claret’s La pieza T300 or Martino Gamper’s 100 chairs in 100 days, the transformation of traditional shapes through the reuse of object’s components has sought users to question their own attitudes towards their material reality. Even if nowadays sustainability has become a condition, the design discipline remains a strong advocate of consumption and materialism—what Victor Papanek already called a ‘Kleenex culture’ in the eighties. Further, the political separation between designers and users imposes the expert’s language and worldview as the only one to follow, which discredits the dissemination of alternative but valuable practices that might enlarge the understanding of use.

Examples of repurposed objects when walking in the streets of Peckham.

Everyday people reusing objects

If gleaning is from another era, the gesture remains unchanged in our society that eats to satiety. Rural or urban gleaners, they all stoop to pick up. The gleaners & I. Agnès Varda, 2000, min.2.45

 

In pre-industrial societies, the reuse of old possessions through people’s practical skills and common knowledge was a usual habit, and it is with the rise of technological innovations and people’s throwaway behaviours that reusing became a socially marginalised practice and an indicator of lower economic and social status. However, in 1962, Claude Levi-Strauss defined the bricoleur as an ordinary person who undertakes odd jobs, collecting and rearranging limited sets of materials at hand, a do-it-yourself person who projects himself in his work. Charles Jencks developed the idea of ‘ad-hocism’ in 1968 as an innovative assemblage of material resources, already at hand, to solve a specific purpose with immediacy and efficacy. By applying this concept, the design process could be accessible to everyone who chose the right tools and readily available components to build up new, meaningful articulations. The possibilities of reusing would make any single form able to become multiple-functioning objects, allowing people to envision new narratives of use.

The Ad-hocist sensibility encouraged improvisation and spontaneous behaviours, whereas from the 1970s onwards, objects’ re-purposing increasingly became a planned practice, through which the Do-It-Yourself movement (DIY) acquired great potential in supplying informational power to consumers on how to produce intuitively their own objects. Today, through the spread of the Internet, DIY has become part of a lifestyle, where a sense of meaning and fulfilment is recovered through making. Although modernity has made invisible the processes of bricolage, this buried lay knowledge based on messy and collaborative practices has never been totally replaced. Across Europe, Vladimir Arkhipov encountered different inventors of ad hoc solutions to everyday practical problems, who sought to economise money, solve needs, or share their creative impulse. These catalogues of human resourcefulness through objects are found in many existing communities, from hippie and so-called alternative areas to individuals living in contexts of war, scarcity or non-developed societies. Therefore, reusing can be planned or, even more interestingly, non-intentional, as when Brandes et al. (2009) observed people from any social class or context to be spontaneously motivated to use objects for a purpose other than that for which they were designed, allowing them to solve situational problems without designing anything new.

What seems worthless for some people may become a treasure for others

The street cat’s shed houses

Inspired by these trajectories and inventories, I soon started to search for real examples of urban repurposing in my neighbourhood, where I recall a nursery using tyres for gardening, a community garden reusing plastic bottles to scare birds, or traders employing plastic pallets to display fruits and vegetables. Following the traces of waste across Peckham, I 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 houses were made of a wide range of materials, ensuring the cats a safe place to rest while protecting them from wind and rain. I recognised a cat’s box fulfilling its purpose and more interestingly, the reuse of an old drawer, two polystyrene boxes, a rotten dog basket and a collapsing structure covered with a blue tarpaulin, all used for the cats’ comfort. I immediately wanted to know more about their anonymous makers who could organise such urban space by creating newness from the old.

Two security guards informed me that the cats were fed every morning around 9am and, thanks to this valuable information, I could meet Shirley, a retired British woman in a wheel chair who was kindly open to discuss her intentions. During the interview, I felt like talking to a professional designer able to debate about technical matters and knowing exactly what were the structures necessary for animal welfare. Accompanied by Maureen, another ‘official feeder’, they both attended the cats every morning and evening, changing their blankets, facing challenges posed by the weather or passers-by occasional misbehaviour towards their voluntary work. Moreover, the ladies received assistance from an animal charity, which facilitated the neutering and vaccination of the cats, as well as from neighbours, traders and road sweepers, who contributed to the construction of informal shelters and assisted in protecting the cats with the limited resources available: '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'. The Southwark council authorised the project as long as the area was not converted into an animal garden, emphasising how personal practices in urban spaces must please all stakeholders.

The project began seventeen years ago, when Shirley started feeding a single starving cat on her way to work until she eventually gathered thirty-six cats, many of whom had been abandoned by local traders. Shirley has never been ‘a rich person’; she had always repurposed found objects because she was ‘brought up not to throw things away for the sake of throwing things away’. She insists 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, Shirley’s expertise in animal care has led her to take precautions, such as covering sharp edges with tape given that cats are curious and love to climb any box’s roof, while preferring wooden materials as they are easier to find and safer to use to create stable and waterproof structures, making clear that any new idea should be considered to avoid calling the council’s attention.

Once the interview ended, I moved from ethnographer to designer by spontaneously offering my help in addressing some of the challenges discussed, thereby establishing a relationship of trust, coming at least twice a week and making clear that my intentions were transcending the purpose of this research. In late May, the car park had an inspection and the owners decided to clean up the area by cutting back the bushes that provided shelter to the cats. Shirley and Maureen seized the opportunity to remove some of the houses, given their short lifespan due to dirt and moisture. They were also both pleased to see that I was doing ‘my homework’ by looking at my sketches and validating my intentions, while ensuring that the problems translated were truly theirs and that the decisions taken were transmitted to them, anticipating potential constraints. The openness of this co-designing dynamic facilitated equal communication, mutual learning and a shared sense of responsibility for the place.

Photographs of the first time I encountered the cats.

The hole in the fence, mentioned during the interview.

Before and after the bushes were cut out.

The creative front garden

In early June, while on my regular walks between New Cross and Peckham to visit Shirley and Maureen, I unexpectedly found a small front garden full of reused furniture. The sight of a library made from a wooden speaker box aroused my interest, leading me to meet Margit, 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. During our interview, we discussed her past experiences in reusing raw materials, her continual search for authenticity, and her genuine desire to invite people around her garden, converting a private space into a sort of community area. For Margit, 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.

Margit’s project began when she decided to remove a ‘massive plant’ blocking light from her living room, and she received the help of an unknown passer-by. A week later, she needed him again, and she placed 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. To her surprise, many neighbours proposed to help her and Margit realised that people were ‘really reading this’. Encouraged by these positive reactions, she started writing a message every morning on a black board, shaping the neighbourhood’s mood by giving them a sense of community belonging. The unusual blackboard had become a ‘mirror to the world’, by holding positive experiences and helping people to redefine their daily reality, provoking them and enabling critical reflection on how things could be different. Over time, Margit 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 sought connection, enjoyed the roughness of her garden and inspired her to continue exploring new creative ideas.

Unlike the first case study, Margit’s project did not present significant challenges to resolve and she did not necessarily need my involvement. However, given her openness to new ideas, I could shift my role from an involved designer and problem solver for the street cats’ shed houses to that of a problem finder in facilitating reflections on the front garden. Beyond necessity, the reuse of waste materials here seemed the aesthetical choice of a collector, in order ‘to create a warmer and closer sensation by avoiding synthetic materials’. Waste pickers can be distinguished by their limited access to goods, as for the street cats’ shed houses, or by their deliberate rejection of industrial commodities as in the case of the front garden. While one case study seeks to save money, the other relies on Margit’s pursuit of uniqueness and aesthetic rawness, impulsed by a desire to foster a sense of community.

Photographs of the first time I encountered the front garden.

From problem solver to problem finder

Designers possess the ability to materialise ideas by closely observing, listening and learning from the people they collaborate with, which, in turn, should be seen as researchers in their own right, able to identify, formalise and resolve problems single-handedly. When Shirley and Maureen asked me to move the cats’ houses against the wall because they were heavy, and to cut half of a useless rabbit box to create a clean dining area, our relationship started to evolve. From there, I could take more challenging initiatives, such as transforming a speaker box into a steady and comfortable shed house, following the ad-hocist thinking in keeping the primary form of the found object, to later design a waterproof house made of wooden pallets and foam polystyrene found on the streets of Peckham, following a DIY approach by planning each manufacturing step.

In the first case, when the speaker box suddenly appeared in a corner, I had to think quickly about its potential utility for the cats, while in the second case, the intentional idea to make a house preceded the search of suitable materials, requiring consideration of dimensions, quality and weight. People perform their identity and ideas through the materials they re-appropriate, the strategies they employ during the making process, as well as the final structure and appearance of their objects. While I had initially associated the speaker as an ideal house for cats, two guys suggested ‘Hey man, now you could use it to put beers inside!’ This ambiguity based on association showed me again how, as users, we interpret differently the possible functions of an object.

Observing the cats’ usage of the houses taught me how to improve them, as when they slept inside, rested on their roofs and ate in the dining areas as expected, or when they used the foam polystyrene to scratch their claws, bringing then an unpredictable application to be learned from. While the cats seemed satisfied, Shirley and Maureen expressed concerns about non-official feeders stealing the food they stored in an old polystyrene box. To solve that, I associated a chair with a wooden container and a security lock in order to dissuade potential thieves. As the chair was elevating the container, Shirley was grateful to have the food storage at her height, as she could now reach it from her wheelchair.

Her second request to improve their everyday practice was to replace two dirty feeding areas. While the first replacement was straightforward, requiring only the reuse of a solid plastic box, the second posed a challenge as it needed to display three dishes for the cats within specific dimensions. Convinced that a plastic pallet structure attached with cable ties would work due to its rugged properties, I overlooked whether it met the ladies’ expectations. The structure was unstable, impractical, and unsafe for the animals, not without mentioning its colour, forcing Shirley to remove it on that same day arguing that she was ‘more council than the council’. In a bid to rectify it, I found a wooden drawer and made some adjustments before covering it with a tarpaulin. After mutual apology, this incident served as a reminder of the differing perspectives among socio-technical actors regarding precautions and risks, highlighting the value of collaborative work.

While the first case study sought to exercise discretion, the second one aimed to call people’s attention. Therefore, I invited eight participants from the New Cross and Peckham areas to take part in a half-an-hour exercise where they had to imagine how their own front garden would look, using reused materials and involving neighbours as Margit did over the years. Each participant selected photographs of waste materials I had captured during my Peckham walks, to then sketch the appearance of their idealised front garden, specifying the grounds of their choice on individual devices that I had previously made from reused cardboard. As ethnographer, I guided participants through their creative process, insisting on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of their proposals, while as designer, I challenged the feasibility of their projects. The outcomes revealed the authors’ personal preferences, intentions, and the practicality of the found elements. Combining their outcomes into a folder, I presented it to Margit as a visual representation of potential worlds and identities. She was touched by this ‘inspiring gift’, which sought to motivate her to produce further actions and sustain this shared revolution of consciousness that she began from her creative front garden.

Reusing tomorrow

Things that are thrown away or lost tell us as much about the past as many of those carefully preserved for posterity. Mundane everyday items, discarded long ago as rubbish, can tell some of the most important stories of all in human history. A history of the world in 100 objects, Neil MacGregor, 2012, p.22.

 

In late August 2017, both projects continued to solve local issues by intervening positively in their respective areas of Peckham; one addressing the needs of the cats and the other uplifting the mood of the neighbours. The authors of these projects advocated for a reusing practice that challenges formal design structures, and this is why their voices should not be dismissed, simply because they represent an alternative approach of self-sufficiency. It should also be remembered that neither project was planned, relying first on improvisation, with their authors acquiring expertise through their daily experiences. My role as ethnographer in observing, interviewing and documenting the process, complemented my role as designer in solving problems and stimulating reflections, where theory and practice fed each other in a project rather seen as a tribute to the remarkable work of these ladies.

There are two final aspects I would like to highlight regarding the practice of reusing waste materials. Firstly, the symbiotic relationship between those who pick waste and those who discard it will continue to exist as global capitalism continue leading us to a worldwide environmental crisis. With increasing austerity measures, social inequality, refugee displacement, and the intensifying competition for natural resources, such dynamics may worsen in the coming decades, leaving some people with no choice but to make objects and structures by themselves. Secondly, today’s industrial production has rendered more products increasingly harder to disassemble, repair or repurpose due to their manufacturing complexity. It is within this context, where products lack customisation and emotional attachment, that people may seek greater authenticity and explore alternative practices. In a sense, these two reflections are extensions of the directions taken by each case study, with the potential, from the local to the global, for reshaping dialogue and organising new frameworks of action.

Gifts from Shirley, Maureen and Margit after I offered them my research report.

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