Tucked away in the Cape Town inner city, between a barren parking lot and a bustling Food Lover’s Market, lies the Streetscapes Urban Farm and the home of LaundReCycle, South Africa’s first off-grid, eco-friendly laundromat.
At the entrance to the urban farm, I meet Florence Nobebe – a mother of four who has been working at the farm for two months. “Welcome to our beautiful garden,” she says.
A Khulisa Social Solutions flagship programme, Streetscapes was born out of necessity in 2015. Founder of the project Jesse Laitinen says there were no support services for people suffering from long-term homelessness, substance misuse, and mental health issues. “They seemed to be a group of untouchables. It wasn’t just that there weren’t services, it was as though this group was not deemed deserving of services,” she says adding her organic waste from home to the farm’s compost heap.
After interviewing 40 people suffering from long-term homelessness, the Streetscapes programme was created in response to what their clientele said they needed. Seven years later, they continue to run Streetscapes by listening deeply.
The Streetscapes project reintegrates clients back into society by offering new opportunities that also foster human-nature connections. When we think of sustainable cities, perhaps lush greenbelts with unpolluted waterways and efficient public transport systems come to mind. But, cities are made of people too. Jesse says, “We look at the whole ecosystem.”
The approach is one of long-term community-based rehabilitation that combines housing, work, and necessary psychosocial support. Streetscapes currently employs 120 people who can offer gardening and cleaning services, and work in an outreach team. They have weekly recreational activities such as yoga and soccer. The timeline of healing and reintegration is different for everyone. Some stay for two years, others for five.
“It is quite powerful what work does. By having the opportunity to work, people feel they have value and that they have something to offer,” says operations manager Andrew Tulloch.
The farm is a hive of activity with people harvesting, planting, tidying, and packaging. Nearby residents buy produce. The laundromat is used by residents in the area as well as the people who are part of the Streetscapes’ work-based rehabilitation programme. The water from the laundromat is used for showers for the people who are part of the programme too.
Launched in January 2021, the LaundReCycle laundromat is part of a three-year research project conducted by the Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland and Water Rescue in Paarl. “The aim is to improve the water cycle so that no external water and energy are needed, and the system is self-sufficient,” says Regina Barmettler who is currently analysing the water quality of the LaundReCycle for her studies at the university.
Lulama Mgijima pictured working at the LaundReCycle eco-laundromat.
Everything about the laundromat is eco-friendly – down to the detergents. The technology in the LaundReCycle is based on a natural and resource-efficient closed-cycle water treatment process, using biological treatment methods. Water losses are replaced by rainwater and the whole system is powered by off-grid solar power.
Now, they are developing a similar system that will be built into a residential building and will clean and recycle the greywater for roughly 28 people. If these pilots go well, the hope is for these off-grid, eco-friendly laundromats to be replicated across the country. “This technology can help address water shortages, growing urbanisation, lack of infrastructure and save water,” says Regina.
The integration in this public open space happened seamlessly. But a glance to the other side of the fence is a reminder of what this compact oasis once was.
“The land on that side of the fence is the same place. The only difference is what our clients have done here. The same discarded problem land can become a beautiful luscious space. And, the people who are regarded as “problem people” on that side of the fence can become incredible community members,” says Jesse. “If everyone is cared for, we have fewer issues. You suddenly have much healthier, happier relationships and a more beautiful city.”
The Streetscapes Urban Farm is located on Roeland Street, Cape Town, adjacent to Food Lover’s Market (Fruit and Veg City). They are open Monday to Friday, 8am to 3pm, for organic vegetable and egg sales and use of the laundromat (R20 per kg). They also stock a variety of compost, mulch and manure for gardening or farming purposes, as well as a small nursery.
Streetscapes have three other farms, with the same ethos, in the Mother City – in Vredehoek, Kuilsriver, and at Trafalgar High School. The idea is to replicate these off-grid spaces that combine urban farms with housing, showers, and kitchens across the city and country. Andrew shared that they are also working on accessing organic certifications for their fresh produce.