If you’ve not come across Vincent ‘Vinny’ Walsh from the Biospheric Project yet, you need to. The Biospheric Project is the brainchild of Vinny’s; a vision that grew out of his PhD research to create something that brings together education, commerce and the environment.
To house the project Vinny initially went to considerable lengths to find the right place, looking at over 30 locations before deciding on a large, disused, red-brick mill in the heart of the Salford community. It sits adjacent to the River Irwell, with a triangular piece of land, perhaps 100m long, sat between the two. Vinny spent 24 months living on site to develop it, and along with his team of local volunteers, has created an innovative, working plant and animal based urban farm filled with big ambitions.
Myself and my colleague Olivia were lucky enough to be treated to a pre-opening tour of the project which has launched as part of the Manchester International Festival (MIF), and is offering free tours right up until 20th July.
Our tour started in the garden, a thoughtfully laid-out, multi-level, woodchip-covered area overlooked by the mill and neighbouring high-rise residential blocks.
It included a worm-box housing 100,000 worms which were there to work their magic into the soil, strategically placed trees and other plants, including a sun-loving native lime tree which has been given the sunniest spot in the garden following a solar scan of the area, and the promotion of many historically significant but largely forgotten British plants, including a spindly looking green leafed variety that none of us could identify. It was in fact a variety of spinach called ‘King Henry’, a personal favourite of Vinny’s which he blends into smoothies each morning along with some natural oats before starting work.
A keen advocate of healthy, natural living based upon locally sourced produce, Vinny was determined to show us many different examples of historically popular British produce that grows fairly easily and abundantly once encouraged, but which over the years, like the King Henry spinach, have been usurped by the promotion of more sun-dependent Mediterranean fruits and vegetables. So enamoured with the spinach was Vinny that he offered to provide cuttings for us to take back to our own gardens. Another fine example of the best of British is the English crayfish, an animal that used to thrive in the UK until its bigger, bolder cousin came along, the American crayfish. One of the teams’ ambitions is to breed a healthy enough stock of the crayfish so as to be able to re-introduce them into the newly sanitised River Irwell.
From the garden we were led around the corner to 78 Steps, a community run grocery store which was only conceived 16 weeks ago, with the premises themselves becoming available 12 weeks ago. For a number of months the project has been delivering food boxes to local residents as a means of promoting healthy eating and community involvement. These have proved very popular but a demand for the produce beyond just the Thursday and Friday delivery dates has naturally led to the opening of the store.
We visited it the day before its official opening and people were frantically scurrying around stocking the shelves with co-operative pasta, ripe tomatoes and cucumbers, organic apple juice and eco-friendly cleaning products. Despite being housed on the ground floor of a 1980’s high rise, the interior of 78 Steps, with its chunky wooden scaffold board shelving and tin bucket lampshades, smacks of earthy shabby chic at its finest. Vinny told us that there were great plans for the store, the intention being that it would eventually be used to sell many of the fruit and vegetables produced by the rest of the project, and the profits from which would be fed back in to the farm. Beyond that it would hopefully be used a career springboard for some of the local residents, as well as long-term employment for others. By working this way it is hoped that it will create a harmonious circle which encompasses social, economic and environment benefits. This was great to hear and see in action; it is precisely the type of ‘business model’ that we at Gaeia believe in, as do the majority of our clients.
The last part of the tour was the main building. We were led up to the second or third floor, and on entering the large white-walled room, the first thing you noticed was the noise. This particular room houses the aquaponics area, an example of a symbiotic process at its best. Housed in large wall encased fish tanks are a number of different fish varieties including tilapia and carp. These are grown to be eaten, but all the while their waste is filtered through tubes to run down between individually bagged plants that were hanging down in rows in front of the windows. The water constantly gushes through them causing an attractive gurgling sound, from where it is then fed through stacked, foot long white tanks where the waste is finally stone filtered and recycled back as a rich source of plant food which promotes further abundant growth in the garden.
Around the corner from the fish sits a cutting edge example of sustainable business management. Effectively, layers of 2 feet wide miniature vegetable gardens have been created within the structure of the wall fabric, encased on either side by glass. A fantastically inventive and apparently world-leading way of pushing the ergonomic usage of buildings, from which it is hoped that inspired architects and building designers will incorporate similar measures into their own future builds.
At this point our tour came to an end. Unfortunately we weren't able to visit the roof as the stairs were still being constructed at the time, but we were assured it was full of happy chickens and umpteen more varieties of garden produce. And there is plenty of research happening there which we never had time to see, involving everything from city design to mushroom analysis!
After our two hour tour I left feeling lifted by such a positive and well thought out initiative which addresses so many important areas - community and social development, jobs, the environment, sustainability, responsible consumerism, education, localisation. The list goes on.
I think the talks being held as part of MIF are now all sold out, but I would still urge you to visit the project for the tour, as well as drop into 78 Steps next time your cupboards are running low. The project isn’t just here for the Manchester International Festival; it is set to run for at least the next 10 years and to do so will rely on it being commercially successful, which is something I hope you can help support.