Among the concrete sprawl of the inner-London borough of Hackney there is a community garden that any council would be proud to show off as a testament to community cohesion.

Entering under an iron arch reveals a dozen neatly defined vegetable plots surrounded on three sides by 120 flats that make up the Warburton and Darcy Estate, a typical low-rise inter-war council block.

Hackney’s waste prevention officer Ander Zabala explains how the estate tenants use the garden to grow vegetable and herbs from where they have come from.

“Each plot is a different country where they grow vegetables they can’t get locally; they buy seeds online and they grow them,” he says. “There are Turkish, Kurdish, Vietnamese, Jamaican foods and many more all grown here.”

Centre stage is what looks like a large old-fashioned tombola. Zabala demonstrates the Scotspin community composter, a wooden hexagonal box that is rotated by hand on a metal frame to turn two tonnes of community food waste into compost each year.

Installed as a pilot in 2009, the Warburton-Darcy project illustrates just how successful urban community composting can be. While social cohesion is difficult to measure, Zabala describes how residents have been using the community garden to combat gang rivalries between estates.

“There have been issues with gangs in this neighbourhood and so tenants have run summer days to engage the kids and keep them occupied, they do estate fun days where they try to bring everyone together with foods from around the world,” he says.

“We have not yet done a study on how the project engenders community feeling, but we have talked to tenants and they themselves say it leads to more talk between people and that it builds community cohesion.”

The irony of the Warburton-Darcy project is that when the estate applied for a composter in 2009 Zabala was sceptical that there would be enough participation.

It is a scepticism shared by many in local government, ever since Defra concluded that it was too difficult to incentivise people living in urban estates after running pilots in 2006.

It is not a belief that he shares now. Since 2009 Hackney has set up 12 community projects, seven on estates and five in primary schools.

Zabala admits that not everyone will come on-board but as long as at least 15% to 20% of tenants participate a project can be a success. The key, he explains, is not to impose composting on a community but to empower residents to get involved.

Firstly, an estate needs champions, at least a couple of motivated residents who will spread the word and motivate others. Then, everyone needs to be made aware that it involves community participation and work.

The composter needs to be regularly rotated and emptied every few weeks into a “hot box” where waste compacts down for up to a year. Dry material such as wood chip needs to be regularly added while those who use the composter need to be disciplined about what they throw in.

Zabala believes it is a good idea to get tenants to sign a service level agreement so they are made aware that if the composter is not used there is a cost to it being removed.

The basic composter plus hot boxes used on the estate costs £1,500 to install while the more efficient Ridan composter, which allows air to flow through the compost, costs up to £4,000 to install. Hackney has estimated it takes three years in saved disposal costs to recoup the capital outlay.

But for both the community and local authority composting pays dividends. Hackney calculates that across the borough over 24 tonnes of food waste is turned to compost by its community projects annually while residents on the Warburton-Darcy estate get to enjoy authentic home cooking.

Stuart Spear is a freelance writer

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