Inside the Off-the-Grid Ecovillage Fighting London's Airport Expansion

On the site of Heathrow's planned third runway, these protesters have built a sustainable, environmentally conscious community.

Photograph by Jonathan Goldberg, INSTITUTE
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A resident of Grow Heathrow, posing with her partner, carries the first child conceived at the site. The pair lived at Grow Heathrow for years but moved to a houseboat before the baby was born.
Photograph by Jonathan Goldberg, INSTITUTE

Nestled between London’s roaring M4 and M25 motorways is an ecological utopia, born out of a political struggle against climate chaos. Its wooden houses, DIY turbines, and vegetable patches stand in defiance to environmental damage.

Grow Heathrow started as a protest site. Campaigners created the space to support the local community’s fight against a proposed third runway at London’s Heathrow airport. In 2010, activists reclaimed nearby derelict land and, though the soil was full of dumped toxins, they gradually nurtured it back to health. Now, this disused scrubland has transformed into an ecovillage of 25 residents with strong roots in the local community.

Photographer Jonathan Goldberg first visited Grow Heathrow a year after its inception and has returned on and off for seven years. “I saw it grow in the early days from a small community to a place of permanence,” says Goldberg. He also witnessed a changing personality; as characters came and went, so the spirit and purpose of the site morphed and developed. “There can be some really inspiring people who are there who are wanting to change the world,” he says. “And other people who are just trying to live peacefully.”

For many, Goldberg included, Grow Heathrow is kind of a makeshift utopia. Community and togetherness is prioritized. There is no hierarchy and progress is made through consensus decision-making. Food is not wasted; instead, the community relies on homegrown vegetables, foraging, salvaging for discarded food, and donations from local food markets and warehouses. It exists entirely off-grid, with energy sourced from wind turbines and solar panels and structures built using sustainable methods. (Read More: This Man Has Lived Off the Grid For 20 Years—Here's How)

The site mostly attracts people in their 20s and 30s. Some are students while others hold conventional jobs like teaching, Goldberg says. The site has also been home to young children who have lived there during the summer months. “It attracts a certain type of person,” he says, “those who are interested in activism regarding global warming and housing and also the squatting movement as a way of life.”

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Grow Heathrow is a transient community, with most residents living at the site for not more than three years. Houses are often passed down from family to family, as this one was. Previously occupied by a pregnant couple, it is now home to a Hungarian family of four. When they moved in, the family's two young homeschooled sons became the community's first resident children.

Eddy Arthur, who lived at Grow Heathrow for four years starting in 2013, says he was first drawn to the community because “it was walking the walk as well as talking the talk. This was a politics that demanded everything of you.” For him, the site merged his interests in alternative living along with his commitment to direct action against “climate chaos.”

“I really didn't know this kind of place existed,” says Arthur. “You come out of 15 years of schooling and work in paid jobs and the hierarchy is just entrenched in our culture and our economy. Here was a group of people self-organizing, self-managing their lives, and trying to add value to the local community as well as to the politics, the economy, and ecology. It was an incredibly empowering and liberating experience.”

This heady mix of self-determination and compassion was captivating for Goldberg, and though his purpose was to document, he often felt caught up in the raw experience, forgetting to pick up his camera. One time, when the group was gathered in spiritual ceremony around an elder tree, he felt so connected to the experience, he decided not to document it. “I thought this moment was so special I couldn't leap out and grab my camera, but, at the same time, I regret not doing so,” he says. (Read More: To Study the Stars, This Town Went Off the Grid)

While some squatting communities can isolate themselves, Grow Heathrow has taken great efforts to open its doors to local villagers, politicians, students, and anyone interested in learning about alternative ways of living. But, as with most squatted land, the threat of eviction is never far away. Arthur was a main defendant in Grow Heathrow’s successful resistance of two evictions, the largest of which happened in 2015. “We didn't want the land to belong to us,” says Arthur. “We were against property ownership, but that's an antagonistic relationship to be in with the state.”

Plans to expand the third runway were approved by Parliament in June of 2018, and if it goes ahead, the site—along with hundreds of surrounding homes in the area—is set to be demolished. Still, Arthur and Grow Heathrow remain defiant. “There will be a legal challenge among local councils to fight it, and if that fails, I think you will see the mother of all direct action campaigns, with people coming from across Europe to occupy and resist,” Arthur says. “It's the duty of our generation living on this Earth right now.”

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Two residents stand under a wind turbine that towers above Grow Heathrow. The turbines and solar panels are used to source most of the energy used by the community.