Far from being bad for nature, London’s development can bolster London’s claims to become a National Park City.
By Terry Farrell
When Daniel Raven-Ellison came up with the idea that London might become a National Park City, I was immediately very interested and supportive. Daniel and his colleagues have collated a compelling list of the reasons why London could be a national park and a city at the same time, and these statistics are part of their manifesto (see the map overleaf).
Densification and development does not in any way conflict with the concept of London as a national park: in fact, quite the opposite. I have been a long-time advocate of making national parks creative projects rather than merely conservationist. The conservationist approach traditionally looks at landscapes and develops legislation and planning processes to prevent their perceived natural beauty from being ruined by inappropriate development. But we have to recognise that all our national parks are the result of man-made intervention. For example, the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales were woodland until sheep farming created what we now perceive as their ‘natural’ beauty by changing the landscape with dry stone walling, grassland, scrubland and bracken. Today as a nation we ‘preserve’ the landscape and its management frozen at a particular point in time.
Around 12 years ago, I proposed that the Thames Gateway, where we were later appointed as the government’s masterplanner, should be made into a national park. The landscape of the Thames, and particularly its estuary, is very much man-made and it benefits from interventions that have been made over the years. The Dutch drained the land for sheep grazing, filling in marshlands and wetlands. Man-made flood barriers at strategic points have facilitated nature reserves, such as those run by the RSPB, and other wetlands projects that help protect the surrounding landscape. New industries, particularly eco-industries, could work in tandem with nature to improve the landscape. There is work to be done on the regeneration of existing power stations, on the creation of waste disposal facilities, sewerage, flood defences and new forms of power generation such as tidal barriers. All of this could contribute to the creation of a sublime new landscape all along the seawardestuary of the River Thames.
Urban London has created a biodiversity and richness of nature within our great city that exceeds that of much of the “natural” countryside around it. The countryside has been depleted of its hedgerows; industrialised agriculture has exterminated so many species with pesticides. But there is also a positive reason for London’s biodiversity, which is that there is a greater richness of habitat in and among the human inhabitants.
The interaction between the natural and the man-made continues to benefit both. The manifesto for the National Park City states, for example, that there are almost four million back gardens. I know from experience that these are spaces of enormous richness. And yet what are these gardens a creation of? They are a direct result of building development. Without houses there would be no gardens. Human development creates its own microclimate and its own green infrastructure to go with the infrastructure of roads, sewers, street lighting and utility supplies. In most of London, the residential streets have wonderful mature trees of great diversity: one thinks particularly of the plane trees in central London.
Building development is not an enemy but a friend to nature. London’s environment has been created by builders, developers and councils over a long period of time, hand in hand with nature, whether that was the avowed intention or not.
Reclaiming industrial landscapes
At Farrells, we have undertaken a study of intensification, including of the ways that development improves people’s access to parks, rivers and canals and increases the amount of greenery in the form of parks and squares in London. Thoughtful development of this kind has been particularly prevalent in the last 50 years. If you compare the aerial photographs of the docks, railyards, gasworks and power stations from half a century ago (when all the infrastructure of the industrial revolution was still in place) with those areas today, it becomes immediately obvious that post-industrial development has improved the state of nature and access to it all over London.
Even the often-criticised Canary Wharf and its managed environment is still light years better in terms of public access and nature than it was up until about 1980. Prior to that, it was a walled enclosure protected with gates and customs officers. The land was saturated with railways and cranes. The public couldn’t get access to the water and there probably wasn’t a single tree growing on this vast area.
The same is true of Kings Cross Goods Yard, until recently full of gasworks and railyards and coal chutes. You can now walk along the canal and through public squares; there are trees along the new streets and even a nature reserve, created in 1984. Another example is the former gasworks at Greenwich Peninsula, on what was highly polluted land, which now boasts parks, river walks, marshlands, water gardens and trees galore. The river walk itself is probably a couple of kilometres long, with public access throughout an area that was once heavily policed and inaccessible.
We have witnessed this with some of our own projects. With the same developer we are working on Lots Road Power Station and on Convoys Wharf, which, until recent times, was a walled, inaccessible dockyard. These two schemes combined will create one-and-a-half kilometres of river walk, as well as squares, trees and gardens. At Elephant and Castle and in our masterplan for Earls Court there are proposals for new parks of a considerable size. Some of them will be the largest created in London for over 100 years.
There has been much comment of late about the privatisation or the privately-managed aspects of these newly built developments, but we should remember that London has a great and positive tradition of mixed private and public management. Even the Royal Parks have rules and regulations: many shut at night. Historically, the residential, tree-filled squares of Bloomsbury and Belgravia, an urban form so popular that they have been repeated all over London, have only been accessible by the local residents with keys.
The true extent of London’s transformation was brought home to me when I watched a film of Churchill’s funeral procession through London, an event I remember from the distant past. The footage shows a London of cranes and dockyards. In the Pool of London, no one but the daytime industrial workforce had access to the river. Now, that whole area is part of the South Bank walkway; in fact, where the cranes were in the film is now Potters Field, with imaginative new landscaping, fountains, seating, trees, greenery and cafes – all fully accessible to the public either side of City Hall. It may seem counterintuitive that man-made development has improved our landscapes so substantially, but it has.
Those who say that high densification means ‘concreting over London’ are quite wrong. Development has created a more varied, more accessible and richer natural landscape, and this has become more and more the case over the last 50 years. It should continue to do so – meaning, providing we do it right, that no one should be frightened of development. I support the National Park City project and the rejuvenation of London’s post-industrial land, and I support the extension of development to many underutilised and, until now, often polluted wastelands that are currently inaccessible to the public.