Parkland Walk is an extraordinary thing to find in London — it removes you from the city and carries you through it at the same time. You catch glimpses of buildings through the trees, everywhere little paths join it, allowing people to enter and exit from their streets of concrete and brick and stone. Each such path or stairway stands as a tantalising road not taken.
Never do you lose the feeling you have somehow escaped the city for a while into a cathedral of green.
It carries you along with quite a number of other people.
Past these wonderful ruins of the old train platforms
Through tunnels of leaves
Through tunnels of stone and brick, covered with a generally higher quality of graffiti art than I am used to in this city
past alcoves with sprites [as we found out later, a spriggan] smiling down on you
rounded towers and stairs Trees intertwined with brick
And nearing the end in Highgate, a meadow, with a dirt trail that invites you along
To find the bats:
Surely we can do this with all of our disused railway lines. A welcome breath of peace and beauty, a place for birds and wildlife, and a safe place to walk that many people can integrate into their daily routines, and the rest of us can enjoy from time to time.
In my mind there are two quotes that really encapsulate what the Marmot Review is. The first is the epigraph, and for me it was breathtaking to find it here:
Rise up with me against the organisation of misery.
The second? A clear outline of where exactly the researchers began:
The starting point for this Review is that health inequalities that are preventable by reasonable means are unfair. Putting them right is a matter of social justice. A debate about how to close the health gap has to be a debate about what sort of society people want.
Surely it is time we started there and moved forward. It does note (and I chuckled at this, I’m not sure why):
It is sometimes difficult for many people to accept that serious and persistent health inequalities exist in England.
By ‘many people’ I assume they mean the happy middle and upper classes with reasonable health. But on the other side of the class (and race and nationality and gender and sexuality) lines, it is no real surprise that the WHO (World Health Organisation) Commission on Social Determinants of Health should have ‘surveyed the world scene and concluded that “social injustice is killing on a grand scale.”‘ Is that the kind of world we support?
Most would answer no. I also think most would agree with this:
Economic growth is not the most important measure of our country’s success. The fair distribution of health, well-being and
sustainability are important social goals. Tackling social inequalities in health and tackling climate change must go together.
I like too this call to the health profession to begin to engage with the fact that our socioeceonomic position is more determinative of our health than any prescription or therapy that they can give — as well as to policymakers and politicians to lower our NHS bills by increasing equality and opportunity in our society:
People with higher socioeconomic position in society have a greater array of life chances and more opportunities to lead a flourishing life. They also have better health. The two are linked: the more favoured people are, socially and economically, the better their health. This link between social conditions and health is not a footnote to the ‘real’ concerns with health – health care and unhealthy behaviours – it should become the main focus.
The two main policy goals they propose are these:
To create an enabling society that maximises individual and community potential
To ensure social justice, health and sustainability are at the heart of all policies.
Wouldn’t that be great? These break down into 6 more concrete policy suggestions (and these are made more and more concrete for implementation at the end of the report):
Give every child the best start in life
Enable all children young people and adults to maximise their capabilities and have control over their lives
Create fair employment and good work for all
Ensure healthy standard of living for all
Create and develop healthy and sustainable places and communities
Strengthen the role and impact of ill health prevention
The evidence they marshal in support of these positions is so impressive, beginning with the weight of these first two graphs as shown below. The first represents over ten years difference between the wealthiest and the poorest in how long they may statistically expect to live. Over ten years. More sobering, perhaps, is the number of years available to us to live in fullness of life and health, without disability. For the very poorest, they can expect age and ill-health related disabilities in their early fifties — it breaks my heart.
For the heartless, imagine the fucking economic cost of that.
Direct NHS healthcare costs in England associated with treating the consequences of inequality amount to £5.5 billion per year for treating acute illness and mental illness and prescriptions.228 These activities represent approximately one third of the NHS budget. In consequence, it is likely that the full impact of health inequalities on direct healthcare costs is considerably greater than this.
The review also notes:
As further illustration, we have drawn on Figure1 a line at 68 years – the pensionable age to which England is moving. With the levels of disability shown, more than three-quarters of the population do not have disability-free life expectancy as far as the age of 68. If society wishes to have a healthy population, working until 68 years, it is essential to take action to both raise the general level of health and flatten the social gradient.
Ah, to be 68 and working for the bosses while disabled, I can’t wait.
The power of the second graph is the difference in mortality between regions. This also breaks my heart. Surely the point of a nation and a national government is to aim for some level of parity in opportunity and life.
The graphic below is crazy too, it shows the effect of wealth and environment on intelligence (or at least, the ability to show intelligence through testing). This is about class and education, which of course intersects with health but also with our ability to become the person we want to be, live the lives we are capable of living. The review explains:
As Figure 6 shows, children who have low cognitive scores at 22 months of age but who grow up in families of high socioeconomic position improve their relative scores as they approach the age of 10. The relative position of children with high scores at 22 months, but who grow up in families of low socioeconomic position, worsens as they approach age 10.
Are you ready to change the world yet?
From education you move into work — and poor people’s work is killing them. Worse, though, is that the lack of work is also killing them.
Getting people into work is therefore of critical importance for reducing health inequalities. However, jobs need to be sustainable and offer a minimum level of quality, to include not only a decent living wage, but also opportunities for in-work development, the flexibility to enable people to balance work and family life, and protection from adverse working conditions that can damage health.
Another graphic to blow your mind — the direct link between employment and mortality:
The dramatic increase in unemployment in the United Kingdom during the early 1980s stimulated research on the link between unemployment and health. Figure 8 shows the social gradient in the subsequent mortality of those that experienced unemployment in the early 1980s. For each occupational class, the unemployed have higher mortality than the employed.
It’s community that I’m most interested in, perhaps because I think it is a way to mitigate all of these things while we fight to make the world more fair, and because everything goes to show that the closer and more supportive a community is, the healthier its members are. Building that kind of community where I live and work feels like something I can actually do to make a difference (that and join a union). But thinking geographically, the physical neighbourhood we live in also has a huge impact on our lives, both in terms of quality and length:
In the poorest neighbourhoods of England, life expectancy is 67, similar to the national average in Egypt or Thailand, and lower than the average in Ecuador, China and Belize, all countries that have a lower Gross Domestic Product and do not have a national health service.
Now ain’t that something? Here’s another set of bullet points on environment and health:
The conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age are responsible for health inequalities.
Early childhood, in particular, impacts on health and disadvantage throughout life.
The cumulative effects of hazards and disadvantage through life produce a finely graded social patterning of disease and ill health.
Negative health outcomes are linked to the stress people experience and the levels of control people have over their lives and this stress and control is socially graded.
Mental well-being has a profound role in shaping physical health and contributing to life chances, as well as being important to individuals and as a societal measure.
This evokes the complexities shaping these things a little better:
the distribution of health and well-being needs to be understood in relation to a range of factors that interact in complex ways. These factors include: material circumstances, for example whether you live in a decent house with enough money to live healthily; social cohesion, for example whether you live in a safe neighbourhood without fear of crime; psychosocial factors, for example whether you have good support from family and friends; behaviours, for example whether you smoke, eat healthily or take exercise; and biological factors, for example whether you have a history of particular illnesses in your family. In turn, these factors are influenced by social position, itself shaped by education, occupation, income, gender, ethnicity and race. All these influences are affected by the socio-political and cultural and social context in which they sit.
These are many of the things that determine where we live, and the kinds of support we can expect. Once our place of residence is decided, the other health issues kick in. So much of this is really about the physical hazards that exist in poorer neighbourhoods (and there is more work on this than is shown here), but also the mental hazards of poverty, and the lack of power and control that comes with it. The lack therefore, of even the possibility of true wellness.
There is substantial evidence of a social gradient in the quality of neighbourhoods. Poorer people are more likely to live in more deprived neighbourhoods. The more deprived the neighbourhood, the more likely it is to have social and environmental characteristics presenting risks to health. These include poor housing, higher rates of crime, poorer air quality, a lack of green spaces and places for children to play and more risks to safety from traffic. In the 30 years between 1970 and 2000 Britain saw a substantial increase in the geographical concentration and segregation of poverty and wealth. Since 2000 there seems to have been little progress in reducing this. Urban clustering of poverty has increased…wealthy households have become concentrated on the outskirts and areas surrounding major cities. During the same period, major restructuring of the British economy has led to the loss of manufacturing and traditional industries, with high levels of economic inactivity becoming concentrated in particular localities and neighbourhoods.
It is this segregation of poverty and wealth that is also the problem, a writing off of estate and neighbourhoods and what looks like the whole Northeast of the country.
Since reading Appleyard’s Liveable Streets, I’ve also been thinking a lot about how community is destroyed by streets and cars and traffic, and it is the poorest that suffer most — this graph really brings it home:
I do like the fact that they point out that these are not just issues for the poor, however, although they clearly suffer most and resources should be targeted accordingly. They write
…everyone beneath the very best-off experiences some effect of
health inequalities. If the focus were only on those most in need and social action were successful in improving their plight, what about those just above the bottom or at the median, who have worse health than those above them? All must be included in actions to create a fairer society.
This also means health providers and community workers actually working together closely in taking on some of these problems.
Community engagement on a systematic basis is an essential element in partnership working for addressing health inequalities. Without this, reducing health inequalities will not be possible.
This approach requires mapping community assets, identifying barriers to participation and influencing and building community capacity through systematic and sustained community development.
They look at different ways this could happen. One is through focusing on building stronger social support networks to fight the high levels of stress, isolation and depression found in communities facing high level of deprivation, which can lead to ‘increased risk of premature death’. They note the effectiveness both of social networks and participation in improving mental health generally, but also the importance of including communities and individuals in the design of interventions.
They give some recommendations on how to go about things, which in the end lead to local individuals and communities being able to have power over their health, their lives, and the neighbourhoods they live in.
First, identifying population needs better quality information from communities. In theory this can lead to health improvements and reduced health inequalities through an increased uptake of more effective services, particularly preventative services, and/or more effective interventions.
Second, improving governance and guardianship and promoting and supporting communities to participate in directing and controlling local services and/or interventions. This will help to improve the appropriateness and accessibility of services and interventions, increase uptake and effectiveness and influence health outcomes.
A third way to reduce social isolation is to develop social capital by enhancing community empowerment. This helps to develop relationships of trust, reciprocity and exchange within communities, strengthening social capital.
Lastly, increasing control and community empowerment may result in communities acting to change their social, material and political environments.
Somethings about what not to do (but what gets done all the damn time), because the point is empowering people which in itself creates better health:
To achieve this goal community engagement practices need to move beyond what are often routine, brief consultations, to involving individuals in partnerships to define problems and develop local solutions to address those problems.
Building active and sustainable communities based on principles of social justice. This is about changing power structures to remove barriers that prevent people from participating in the issues that affect their lives.
Promoting this approach sets a new task for political, civic and public service leadership in creating the conditions which enable individuals and communities to take control of their own lives, and in developing and sustaining a wider range of capabilities across the life course.
I like this idea of the life course, it is not one of the ways in which community organisers or planners tend to think, but makes perfect sense when looking at how negative impacts — in health and everything else — accumulate over our lifetimes and those of our children. I’ve also run into a few people, women for the most part, really trying to think about this in architecture and planning, how people age through housing and community, how their needs and desires change.
I also like how this review ties health in to climate change. They never say out right that all of this is academic in the face of massive environmental catastrophe, but it was in my mind at least. They do relate community and social health to increased green spaces, more walking, healthier work, more use of public transport and etc which all contribute to making everything more sustainable.
I had a few quibbles of course. Any review of this kind, looking at the big picture, will have the problem I think of speaking in big categories, lumping categories of people in together as though they are all one thing. Sometimes I was a bit troubled as it threw around generalisations — such as the study of kids receiving free meals at schools and how terrible their outcomes were by whether they were irish, black, gypsy/ traveller/ roma children. That shit bothers me. I was one of those kids. Every now and then the language starts to shut our potential off, to overcome, to think bigger, to improve our lives and others like us. To set poor kids apart as if they can’t have a hand in changing this.
That might just be me on my high horse, some of this came a little close to home. It’s always a fine balance though, between recognising the power of structural injustices and constraints, and respecting the abilities of those who most suffer under them.
Even as it did make some of the distinctions above, and never forgot to mention the complexities of race and class in this picture, it also failed to look at them in any real way. Gender too is absent. It does, however, provide a good foundation for exploring these equity and justice issues further.
There’s also some technical language that highlights the bureaucratisation of the field. I quote you as an example ‘middle-level Super Output Areas (MSOAs)’ which I suppose are required for policy discussions to change public health practices as they are existing realities, yet they make you want to hit the person who coined them.
And for those in the non-profit world (and increasingly other areas) always in search of how to stay funded, there are a couple of nice passages on some things I wish all funders and policy makers could understand. Principally that things take time, projects need to grow organically and be tailored to different people and institutions in different areas, relationships and trust only come after years, not days or weeks.
Reviews often look for new interventions, particular policies that may help turn the corner or make significant impact in improving service quality. However, a stream of new initiatives may not achieve as much as consistent and concerted action across a range of policy areas. A social determinants approach to health inequalities highlights how it is the intersection between different domains that is critical – health and work, health and housing and planning, health and early years education. Success is more likely to come from the cumulative impact from a range of complementary programmes than from any one individual programme and through more effective, coherent delivery systems and accountability mechanisms….. achieving reductions in health inequalities requires coherent, concerted, long-term, cross-cutting policies, backed by sufficient investment.
There are also some practical points on how funding is killing smaller organisations, despite the fact that they are highly committed, flexible and most integrated into the communities they serve, making them most likely to be the most effective.
There is increasing concern that the current commissioning environment disadvantages the third sector generally and may even threaten the survival of smaller voluntary organisations. The range of factors includes:
The inability of smaller organisations to marshal the resources, including the time, skills and knowledge, to effectively compete for tenders
Commissioning practices favouring larger organisations and the statutory sector, for example, clustering services to be put out to tender in a single contract can lead to smaller and niche providers being squeezed out
Short-term contracts with insufficient time for development and consequences for staff recruitment and retention
The growing requirement for contracts to be delivered on tighter funding, leaving little scope for developmental work and innovation.
Recipe for disaster really, and the unhelpful bureaucratization of exactly the kind of community work that bureaucratization strangles dead and can never on its own get right.
Anyway, this report is mostly wonderful. You can download it here.
This is a splendid book of studies, both of traffic and of community. It opens with my favourite sentence of the whole book:
Nearly everyone in the world lives on a street. People have always lived on streets. They have been the places where children first learned about the world, where neighbors met, the social centres of towns and cities, the rallying points for revolts, the scenes of repression. But they have also been the channels for transportation and access; noisy with the clatter of horses’ hooves and the shouts of their drivers, putrid with dung, garbage and mud, the places where strangers intruded, and criminals lurked. (1)
I think in many ways Appleyard proves many of the things we fighting to improve our cities instinctively know, these studies should have formed a baseline for all community building and traffic interventions in all countries.
They clearly didn’t.
Look how long this was written:
Neighboring: One of the most significant and discussed aspects of street life is the amount and quality of neighboring (Suttles, 1972, Gans, 1968 and Jacobs, 1961). Its interruption or “severance” has been identified as one of the primary measures of transportation impact in Britain (Lee, 1975). (35)
Traffic as the Most Widespread Problem The dominance of traffic as a problem on all street types is the most salient–and counterintuitive–finding of the study, since crime is commonly perceived as our major urban street threat. (59)
The photographs are wonderful:
Mrs. Hampton from Camden Town, attempting to get home in 1976:
These good old days of fashion and street life:
But the real innovations were the ways he made visual the data from questionnaires and observations.
There are a few people still fighting for livable streets, for instance you can see quite a splendid animation of his ideas here on the website StreetFilms, or here, a roundup of other ways these ideas continue to live on and how they are struggled over where I found the map below:
Because I am not alone in loving most of all these wonderful illustrations, the way they show the city as it works, the city as it is lived.
My favourites were from this study of traffic and community:
This is the same illustration I found in Jan Gehl’s book and that brought me here:
Here people drew the area they felt was their own territory, in light traffic it included both the home and the street, the common spaces shared between neighbors. This could not exist on the heavily trafficked streets.
How wonderful are these, another representation of how we life in our homes, how we use our rooms and the ways that the external environment changes those patterns. It’s something I never really thought of before:
To end, this fabulous illustration that looks so innocent yet contains some rather radical ways to improve the street.
The forest invites, sun dappling leaves and winds softly blowing, heat driving you deeper and deeper into shade.
The brook gurgles now on your right, it will follow you throughout, or you will follow it, bending back on your tracks, crossing and recrossing it and snaking alongside it through the trees.
Then the ruins come, singly, in brick
then stone and iron
Then enshrined mystery without a visible guardian god.
Gaping mouth that cannot speak.
Cannot warn of incipient destruction.
Hollow but for stone.
The same stone shaped into bridge form in the medieval age.
The same stone built to mark a holy well, once venerated, cared for by St Anne who welcomed pilgrims and believers. These stones now fill it, there is no room for wishes or prayers now. Something still crowds the gaps and crevices, ignoring the iron bars that attempt to hold the ethereal prisoner.
Goats most domestic are followed by Victorian devil-may-care power imposing straight lines and railways and bridges in the air.
You stumble across rusting memories of a more modest aspect of some decade of our modern age, flaking paint of white.
The woods end, spitting you out into sunlight and fumes and paved roads once again. Unsure of where or when you are.
Until you suddenly remember. Time resumes its flow towards our ending.
We needed an adventure this Sunday, stared at the map trying to find it and we did — in the form of the Brislington Brook, a winding piece of water that starts and ends abruptly and not too far away in a little loop of the Avon.
Without wellies we couldn’t jump in and follow it — a bit sad perhaps. But we did our best, starting from a small footpath leading off the giant Tesco parking lot that led into an unexpectedly beautiful path and brought us to the water.
Looking up towards the far end of the brook that we didn’t quite reach from a little bridge:
And looking down towards the long stretch we would seek to follow that very afternoon, and a rare bit of natural bank here:
It is beautiful, as is the path leading up to Water Lane, but so soon you hit asphalt and fences. Roads. The brook is channeled beneath them, almost invisible to cars I should imagine:
From Water Lane you look down the next stretch…but you cannot follow it:
So we walked down Hulse Rd to Kenneth Road, and another little footpath that crosses it there:
Looking back where we’d come, the concrete canalisation method is not quite as nice, but it looks as though this is one of the places water might busily be carving away at the bank were it left to its own devices. Instead it goes exactly where we tell it, for now…
We turned around, had to leave the brook again and trace it in parallel back down Kenneth Rd to the Bath Rd where it disappears for a short distance under this large-traffic filled way, though we found an old pub if only we’d been crawling:
The only wildlife we saw apart from the giant bird soaring in the skies above us:
More privatised space. Sadness. I hate these signs. I hate that they have taken the name of badgers in vain. But this tall and very thin engine house with the church up a curving road behind it was amazing:
These cottages lovely:
Imagine this place in the 1700s, pub and engine house and cottages, church, a little village here now swallowed by the city. And then we find another glimpse of the brook, a sedate trickle now:
Another pub, a memory of this part of England as a place of pilgrimage to St Anne’s Well:
Perhaps that is partly why it has such a lovely feel here, we reached a series of streets I would be so happy to live in, they are somehow removed from the city and have an openness to them:
An alley took us back to the Brislington, beautiful stone walls draped in flowers though the brook looks so much sadder and smaller in its bed of concrete and we couldn’t really hear it — there seems to be little babbling with this configuration:
A dead end, but a picturesque one:
Back to Jean Rd (my grandmother’s name, I think she would have loved this place too), a look back down the brook here with a house overhanging it, beautiful, though possibly a bit damp.
School Rd to Clayfield Road and an estate that we thought brought us to the end, but we found a long remembrance of a public right of way, fenced and a little unfriendly but still taking you back to Brislington Brook:
It is beautiful here:
the brook flows on, still channeled behind high walls
We cast around, thought about heading back, headed uphill a bit but realised it would take us round too long a way. Still, it is beautiful, still doesn’t feel too much like city:
But in the end we found a way up towards Allison Rd:
Reached the park where the Brislington continues its flow more as it once used to:
Though we decided to continue it another day…a good thing, because deciding otherwise we would have missed this guy:
There is also a lovely Friends of Brislington Brook project and website, so you can read more here.
Catchy title, eh? Lambeth’s Cooperative Council put out a call for a project to fill the site of the old ice rink, and the bid to create Grow: Brixton won the competition that ensued over a year ago. Their plan looked like this:
The bid was put forward by a partnership between Carl Turner Architects and The Edible Bus Stop, and you can see more of the original plans as covered by the Brixton Buzzhere. I liked it, containers are very cool.
And then in December, everything changed as the name became Pop: Brixton, the Edible Bus Stop pulled out of the project. The scale became grander, with less emphasis on food and environment more on business and entrepreneurship.
From the website you can see that the community partner is now The Collective, a property development and management company ‘formed by a group of Millennials on a mission to redefine the way young people live, work and play’ and ‘targeted at ambitious young professionals.’
Their mood did not improve through the evening. Interesting though, was that the muttered outburst and eye rolls and shared knowing smiles weren’t quite in synch, signalling some different sources of frustration and different groups of Brixtonites.
Or Brixtonians. There were some debates about who was more Brixton than who in that upstairs room in the Market House, complicated by not being able to see much less hear everyone, and large sofas that ensured a large physical distance between us.
I failed to get a beer or a seat which would allow me to hear well, as I had trouble getting out of work and arrived a few minutes late. I really needed the beer.
There was a lot of talk from Castaing and Cllr Hopkins about lofty ideals, the councillor used the phrase ‘getting on and up in the world’ three times. Phrases like that grate on me just a bit.
They talked about how hard they have tried to help local people get space there — and if their figures are right they did all right on that count. 85% of businesses owners are Lambeth residents, and 58% from Brixton — those are the figures I noted, but twitter says 65%. I checked the FAQs passed out at the meeting and I am correct.
This first phase is the commercial one, the one where they have to let all of the allotted units at market rates to ensure their own viability and the provision of the subsidised units which have not been filled and will come soon. Even for the commercial units, they scored applicants by (and this also from their FAQs):
the quality of their business plan
their locality to the project
their alignment to Pop’s ethos of supporting the local area
their commitment to the local community
Each business also must donate one hour of time to community projects (4 hours a month, it’s hardly going to move mountains is it?) through some kind of time bank, but that clearly is the bit that has not been thought through.
There is no mechanism in place yet, nor any plan for evaluation of if its working, how it is working or its impact. A bit shoddy really, as this aspect of ‘social value’ is the whole point.
The audience was certainly disapproving.
The two key questions the Buzz has been following were answered, though not particularly well. The first: What exactly happened to Grow Brixton?
Cllr Hopkins answered. He stated there had been a public bid won by Grow Brixton, a partnership between Carl Turner Architects and the Edible Bus Stop. The two fell out. Lambeth tried to help them hold together, brought in mediation, it didn’t work.
Carl had the money to step forward and carry on alone, and because this is a pop-up venture the clock was ticking in terms of its time on the site before the major development commences. Given that, they decided to have Carl Turner carry it forward.
He noted nothing was lost from the original bid.
The second question, is how has the plan changed and grown since planning was approved? Carl answered this one.
The original plan was for 33 containers on site, but it was just a sketch design and they were surprised, though delighted to win. They then had to really figure out how to make it happen and how they were going to pay for it.
The planning application was for 50 containers. Since then there have been another 4 or 5 containers added, for a total of 55. He didn’t sound so sure about that as a total.
He said it’s a big site, they went through a long process, and there were no objections in planning. Back when they were still partners with the Edible Bus Stop.
There were questions about how this will affect neighbouring businesses — the response was they believe it will impact them positively, as it will drive increased footfall into this ‘forgotten’ corner of central Brixton.
Cllr Hopkins noted that the council sacking a 1000 workers had had a huge impact on local businesses as it had driven down their takings during the week. No more lunches, no more drinks after work. Anything is good that brings more workers into Brixton.
I mourned a little there for my friends who have lost jobs, and this off-hand acknowledgement of the multiple ways their loss has hit us.
On this same topic, the first audience question was whether they had approached the businesses in the arches about relocating. The answer was yes. Jose in the audience confirmed it, and noted he didn’t follow up on the invitation as he had heard that the rents were quite high.
Anyway, he’s staying in his arch.
Another set question was on how much public funding was in this project, and why. Cllr Hopkins stepped forward.
The funding is mostly in kind as they are giving use of the land free. There have also been ‘small pots’ of money accessed. The one he mentioned was through the move of the Impact Hub now in the Town Hall, and the 166 people currently working out of it, into Pop Brixton. There is some money from the mayor keeping that going, matched by the council.
Will it still be public space? they asked. Oh yes was the reply, everyone is welcome. The gates will only close when the whole complex is closed.
There were some questions and complaints about prices — information not currently available on their website and people felt that for transparencies sake it should be.
Castaing stated that the ‘affordable’ units are currently set at £9 a square foot — while the commercial rents range from £800 to £2500 for a whole container.
Different pricing systems, I am still not sure of the maths. Later a figure of about £60 a square foot for commercial space was thrown out there. This does seem to make the ‘affordable’ space actually affordable, however.
Even if it will come too late to help tenants moving from the Piano House, which is being converted into flats. One of these tenants being thus forced out of Brixton was there.
An artist who felt insulted by the process she was involved in while consulted on the project was also present.
It wasn’t the outcome hoped for by the folks of Pop Brixton. I couldn’t help but feel it was the clash of two different worlds though, and they weren’t being challenged here on what is actually what has everyone so angry.
Within their own frameworks — acceding to austerity and the demands of development and profit and trying to squeeze out of gentrification a few drops of what they can for the community — this is in fact a good project, and they are doing their their best.
Of course, if you started from what the community needs rather than what little we can do with what we can scrape off of an enterprise that needs to earn a profit, this is not the project that would have emerged. But what the community needs is not going to come out of the neoliberal tool box.
Cllr Hopkins can point to the Tories and say in truth their cuts are devastating, and he has very little power to do anything. What he can’t say is that his party is leading the fight back, has an alternative, or is remotely capable of coming up with one.
Brixton will be lost under their watch, and they don’t even recognise it.
So no one up there understood the anger of the people they were facing who are steadily getting pushed out of a place they love, nor the fact that this development will just help push property prices and rents up even higher. The fear that this will just be another place catering to (and attracting) the wealthy. That the harm it causes in this sense, will most likely far outdo any good it does.
Anyway, in a few years it will be swept away. We need to be asking what happens to those local businesses. As the final speaker noted, pilot projects mean ‘people come in, do their thing, and jet.’ In the face of the massive development about to hit Popes Road, we may almost remember Pop Brixton fondly.
So it was a depressing walk home, and uphill all the way.
[a version posted earlier on Brixton Buzz with more pictures of the containers, I’ll get down there for the opening I think, and take my own]
Stratford station spits you out, once you find how you get out, into the mall. You strive to get out of that too. To find grass.
You are ordered to be in charge. You do not look like any of the people inhabiting these artistic depictions of their ideal person.
You find a theme park after the plague has destroyed humanity.
The architecture of overpriced (at any price) ‘luxury’ feels as apocalyptic, though this one is vaguely authochthonous.
You feel unreal. A two-dimensional drawing in architectural renderings. It is not pleasant.
Architectural renderings, however, would hold more life than the real Olympic Park on a warm and sunny bank holiday in Spring.
You cannot slide down this monumental absurdity charging extortionately for access to its top. Ah, public art.
I came here seeking public space. So what did work?
The cafe far away down the other side of the stadium. Made of containers (which I do quite love and have written about before), containing potential art and potential performance space — yet another of those pianos you can just walk up to and play, but these facilitate performance rather than opportunities for learning and practice which I might prefer seeing given how few kids have access to a piano at home.
No one was playing the piano, no one was in these ‘art’ spaces.
The bike shop seemed to be doing well however.
It was decently busy, but not what I expected for this kind of day. You have to search it out, if I hadn’t known it was there and wanted to visit, I don’t think we ever would have made it this far. The food and coffee were good, the cake quite nice, the feel of it comfortable if small. What I loved most was the space round the back, raised beds full of plants, the feeling of being in a garden and a little piece of breathing green in the middle of the city:
I loved these places for sitting and eating — the railroad ties were quite comfortable, the concrete somewhere to rest cups and plates and bags and books, also extra seating. I love good design.
After lunch we walked back, tried to get to the train station taking a direct route and avoiding the mall — it was not signed and it was not easy, at one point we realised we were on the wrong sidewalk curving down beneath the road we wished to travel and they didn’t bother creating a place where pedestrians could cross from one to the other. We followed two builders as they dodged round the car barriers and nimbly leaped the narrow depressing ditch full of rubbish between the two. Pedestrians enjoying a sunny day are not really the user group this park planned for somehow. Or else they decided all paths must go through the mall.
In no scenario there is the planner a winner.
This road was clearly not really meant for much pedestrian traffic, yet provided the best view of the owl-like aquatics centre and this look out into the wastelands of Stratford.
I rather liked the empty and open nature of it, but they could do so much more with this green space. Instead I imagine they will build more terrible buildings.
I thought I liked this bridge once, but from this view it felt uncomfortably like watching ants…
All in all this entire space makes you feel small, two-dimensional, shallow. I am not surprised it sat almost empty for the most part. Where they have done well is along the canal banks, which were beautiful and where possible it did invite people to sit and enjoy…though mostly on the grass. There were also some fabulous large wooden seats big enough to stretch out your legs and sit two to a seat. But not enough. Some of these small details were delightful, but not enough to make this space work as somewhere you would much like to just be.
St Patrick’s day. My dad’s birthday. I am missing him so much. Him eating his big chocolate cake and my family all around and all of us in the adobe house my parents built in the desert. In my sadness I remembered this short book I found on Project Gutenberg I’ve been meaning to read forever. Cottage Building in Cob, Pise, Chalk and Clay (1919) by Clough William-Ellis. I knew it was right when I read this from the introduction by J. St Loe Strachey:
My deep desire was to find something in the earth out of which walls could be made. My ideal was a man or group of men with spades and pickaxes coming upon the land and creating the walls of a house out of what they found there. I wanted my house, my cottage in “Cloud-Cuckoo Land,” to rise like the lark from the furrows.
Or like our dream in the desert:
I never knew how deep this kind of building tradition ran here in England, or that some architects looked towards it for a brief time in the 1920s to help overcome the lack of materials and the desperate need for housing after WWI (I greatly enjoyed Strachey’s overblown rhetoric):
In this dread predicament what are we to do as a nation? What we must not do is at any rate quite clear. We must not lie down in the high road of civilisation and cry out that we are ruined or betrayed, or that the world is too hard for us, and that we must give up the task of living in houses. Whether we like it or not we have got to do something about the housing question, and we have got to do it at once, and there is an end. Translated into terms of action, this means that as we have not got enough of the old forms of material we must turn to others and learn how to house ourselves with materials such as we have not used before. Once again necessity must be the mother of invention, or rather, of invention and revival, for in anything so old and universal as the housing problem it is too late to be ambitious.
It is the object of the present book to attack part of the problem of how to build without bricks, and indeed without mortar, and equally important, as far as possible without the vast cost of transporting the heavy material of the house from one quarter of England to another.
In the spirit of the time, he began work on the fruit house above, building it of rammed earth (pisé de terre) following a manual for Australian settlers. It worked and they built a dinning hall. Built it collectively, which also reminded me of my house, and how homes can and should be built:
Everyone worked at that wall; the nursing staff, the coachman, an occasional visitor, a schoolboy, a couple of boy scouts, members of the National Reserve who were guarding a “vulnerable point” close by, and even some of the patients.
There is, of course, a fairly large distance between the two of us. He was a member of Brook’s Club, known to me only through my long-ago reading of my grandmother’s Georgette Heyer regency romance novels, he writes:
Happening to be sleeping in a bedroom at Brooks’s Club in 1916, I noticed a charming Regency bookcase full of old books. Among them was a copy of a Cyclopædia of 1819. I thought it would be amusing to see whether there was any mention of Pisé de terre. What was my astonishment to find that what I thought was my own special and peculiar hobby and discovery was treated therein at very great length and with very great ability, but treated not in the least as anything new or wonderful, but instead as “this well-known and greatly appreciated system of building, etc., etc.”
And even better:
At the end of my researches and experiments I found that Pliny has got it all in his Natural History in six lines! There is no need for more words.
“Have we not in Africa and in Spain walls of earth, known as ‘formocean’ walls? From the fact that they are moulded, rather than built, by enclosing earth within a frame of boards, constructed on either side. These walls will last for centuries, are proof against rain, wind, and fire, and are superior in solidity to any cement. Even at this day Spain still holds watch-towers that were erected by Hannibal.”—Pliny’s “Natural History,” Bk. XXXV, chapter xlviii.
It all started in Africa, of course.
Architect Clough William-Ellis (he built The Village from The Prisoner) doesn’t have quite the same gift of words or the happy enthusiasm, and as he starts in on the housing question he set my back up right away:
In a recent speech the Registrar-General said: “War does not only fill the graves, it also empties the cradles.” This is no less true of bad and inadequate housing.
Only the most reckless and thick-skinned of the poorer population will adventure on marriage and the bringing up of a family whilst the odds against decent and reasonable housing persist as at present.
It was that embarrassing period for the upper classes when open discussions of eugenics were floating around, and they blamed the poor for their own poverty with a little more directness than they do today. Much of this little book is made up of letters from around England and the colonies giving precise details of other projects — very useful indeed actually, for those experimenting, but also serving to show the casual racism of Imperial Britain:
My experience of all black labour is, that they won’t put any ‘guts’ into it. They therefore want fairly heavy rammers, which they can lift and drop, say a foot, and which will do the rest for them.
–Major Baylay, Peter Maritzburg, Natal, South Africa
This signals the larger problems of Empire and the resulting oppression, exploitation and consumption that have played such a large role in getting us into the current ecological crisis that bears such similarity to the period immediately after WWI when this was written, but I shall note them and then set them to one side.
This passage shows the effect the war had on building, and probably exactly the kind of development rules we should have today:
Formerly, he who wilfully carried bricks into Merioneth or the Cotswolds, or slates into Kent or ragstone-rubble into Middlesex, was guilty of no more than foolishness and an æsthetic solecism.
Under present conditions such action should render him liable to prosecution and conviction on some such count as “Wasting the shrunken resources of his country in a time of great scarcity, . . . in that he did wantonly transport material for building the walls of a house by rail and road from A to B when suitable and sufficient material of another sort and at no higher cost existed, and was readily accessible hard by the site at B.”
That indeed is our one chance of salvation, the existence and use of “the materials of another sort hard by the site.”
If only we had really taken that on board in the 1920s, our towns and cities would look completely different (though he makes the point, and it’s a good one, that this kind of architecture is better suited to the raw materials found in the countryside rather than an urban setting, this requires more thought).
He starts with cob — only recently I saw an article about a man who had built his home of this, but had no idea quite how far back it went or what beautiful homes you could build:
It is a mixture of shale and clay and straw, well-mixed through treading and then built in courses upon a stone foundation, lifted on and then trodden well down. It is allowed to project over the foundation, and then pared down and left to dry.
It creates places of beauty built of the very earth they sit on:
Clough-Ellis’s design has a bit of the fairytale about it — ruined a bit by the assumption that its tenants will have servants. This search for alternative building materials has not quite yet joined with a deep desire to live better on the earth:
You can imagine what it would be like inside…and no corridors or hallways. Interesting.
The versatility of it as a building material is clear, though this is rather too grand for just one person — it could be one of the future hostels like in News From Nowhere:
If well built it keeps the house warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and stays lovely and dry…living in a block house of the 1840s, I can’t tell you how much I like the sound of that.
I particularly loved this sentence:
Cob, like every other material, should have a certain say in the design of any building in which its use is intended.
And quoting an unnamed but old authority:
In Devonshire the builders of cob-wall houses like to begin their work when the birds begin to build their nests, in order that there may be time to cover in the shell of the building before winter.
There are some interesting historical touches in here as the authors collected every reference they could find:
There is this on the astonishing lateness of the use of wheeled carts, the methods of payment, and the skills passed down from generations:
Mr. Fulford, of Great Fulford, near Exeter, whose own village and estate can show as many good examples of old cob work as any place in Devon, writes as follows:
….Wheeled carts which began to creep in about the beginning of 1800, were not in general use until twenty or thirty years later. As a boy I knew a farmer who remembered the first wheeled cart coming to Dunsford. In 1838 the Rector of Bridford (the ‘Christowell’ of Blackmore’s novel) recorded the fact that in 1818 there was only one cart in the parish and it was scarcely used twice a year…In the northern part of the county the common price of stonework, including the value of three quarts of cider or beer daily, was from 22d. to 24d... Cob-making was, like many other local trades, carried on in some families from generation to generation and developed by them into an art, but apart from these specialists, practically every village mason and his labourers built as much with cob as they did with stone.
A second, the quality of the buildings:
Mr. S. Baring-Gould, in his Book of the West, writing on the subject says: “No house can be considered more warm and cosy than that built of cob, especially when thatched. It is warm in winter and cool in summer, and I have known labourers bitterly bewail their fate in being transferred from an old fifteenth or sixteenth century cob cottage into a newly-built stone edifice of the most approved style, as they said it was like going out of warm life into a cold grave.”
Another example of the comparison between old and new — and my retrospective fury with utopian planners (as unfair as that may be, yet they surely should have paid attention to these things — besides, it burns me up to thing of dockers being ‘imported’):
I can endorse from experience the comfort of these old buildings, and the affection of Devon people for them. The thick walls give all that a house should—protection from heat in summer and cold in winter. For the contrast, visit the new Garden City at Rosyth. Many of the houses are attractive, but their thin brick walls, tile and slate hanging are not suitable to the north and east coasts. Ask the opinion of the occupants of these new houses. Many of them are Devon born and bred, and imported from the dockyards of the three towns. They nearly all complain of the cold, and their views form an interesting comment on modern construction.
–Extract From a Letter to the Editor of Country Life, July 27th, 1918
A third is that Sir Walter Raleigh was born and raised in a cob house — this cob house:
Writing of Raleigh and his home, Mr. Charles Bernard says:
Sir Walter Raleigh’s House.—“He had great affection for his boyhood’s home—the old manor-house at Hayes Barton where he was born, and did his best to secure it from its then owner. ‘I will,’ he wrote, ‘most willingly give you whatsoever in your conscience you shall deme it worth . . . for ye naturall disposition I have to that place, being borne in that house, I had rather see myself there than anywhere else.’ But alas! it was not to be, and the snug and friendly Tudor homestead passed into other hands. The house at Hayes Barton was probably not newly built when Raleigh’s parents lived there, and it says much for the character of cob that the house is as good to-day as ever it was; though for all that it has, to use Mr. Eden Phillpotts’ words, ‘been patched and tinkered through the centuries,’ it ‘still endures, complete and sturdy, in harmony of old design, with unspoiled dignity from a far past.’
You can see the outside but not within, and it troubles me that Raleigh too was exiled from the home of his childhood.
Cob has one curious downside though, that honestly I wasn’t expecting:
Rats.—Where the surface rendering of cob-walls has been omitted or has been allowed to fall away, an enterprising rat will sometimes do considerable damage by his tunnelling.
A little powdered glass mixed with the lower strata of a wall will discourage any such burrowing…
This made me think immediately of an episode of Nigel Kneale’s Beasts, or Terekhov’s The Rat Killer, but neither has been enough to put me off these wonderful homes.
Now, to move on to Clough William-Ellis’s second method: ‘“Pisé de terre” is merely the French for rammed earth, and rammed earth is an exceedingly good material for the building of walls.’ You built a stout form of wood and ram earth down into it and it is as strong and impervious to weather as anything.
The kind of earth is key of course — unless you’re actually building, much of this section is a bit boring — but then there is this:
The material used for the walls at Empandeni is one-third sand, one-third ant-heap, and one-third soil, all pulverised and put through a sieve.
Ant-heaps seem to provide a perfect leaven, and there is more discussion of how to keep ants out. I can attest to the importance of this.
There was a demonstration building put up at Newlands Corner, near Guildford…I am curious if it is still there unsung, I can find no mention of what happened to it. But there is a lovely article in the Spectator from 1919.
The coolest thing, though, is that you can do this with chalk, as well as build of chalk blocks.
Those who may wish to see buildings in chalk conglomerate, both old and new, would do well to visit some such typical chalk district as that lying about Andover in Wiltshire.
It should, however, be constantly borne in mind that most of the old cottages were somewhat unscientifically erected by their original jack-of-all-trades occupiers, that damp-courses and Portland cement were unknown, and that the advantages of proper ventilation and the causes of dry-rot were discoveries yet to be made.
Secondly, a large number of these cottages have been sadly neglected either recently or in the past, and they bear the disfiguring marks of their ill-treatment upon them now.
But a chalk cottage that is well found in the beginning, and that is reasonably well cared for subsequently, has nothing to fear from comparison with cottages built in the most approved manner of the more fashionable materials.
I particularly love chalk because
In its purest form chalk consists of over 95 per cent. of carbonate of lime in the form of fine granular particles held together by a calcareous cement, its organic origin being clearly traced in the remains of the minute sea creatures with which it abounds.
I am looking forward to hunting some of these old buildings down, it never occurred to me you could build with it.
At Medmenham there are cottages both old and new of hewn rock chalk, and both the Berks and Bucks banks of the Thames have many buildings to show of this beautiful material.
Gertrude Jekyll did the gardens there. And then there is:
The Deanery Garden, Sonning — another place you can no longer go, because it is owned by Jimmy Page, guitarist of Led Zepplin. Yet another odd resonance with my youth, and I felicitate him on his choice but damn, I’ll never get in there now.
And finally — there are buildings of adobe! They may be known unflatteringly as ‘lumps’ at this point but still, amazing find unburned clay bricks here.
Mr. Skipper of Norwich writes of the material as follows:
“Who, travelling from Norfolk to London, whether by the Ipswich or Cambridge line, has not noticed the numerous colour-washed or black (tarred) cottage, farmhouse and agricultural buildings scattered practically all along the countryside? Some of these are of studwork and plaster, some of wattle and daub, but many are built of clay made up into lumps, sun-dried, and built into the walls with a soft clay-mixture as mortar.
These made me happy, I will go find them also. Wish my dad could’ve seen them, because there is something about living in a building made of the earth itself, and this was my parent’s gift to me.
Once upon a time I was lucky enough to move into a house with a small and completely overgrown garden. So my then-partner and I decided we would reclaim it and try to grow as much of our own food as possible. Just to learn what that would take.
We grew some delicious vegetables — and if you know me that will make you laugh — but I deeply enjoyed them after they were cooked. We also had loquats and kumquats and pomegranates. We had fresh eggs from the chickens we also raised up there in the Forgotten Edge, perched between Echo Park and Chinatown. But what we managed to grow? I’m afraid it was nowhere near enough to sustain us and this is partly why (apart from size, as of course that does matter).
Grocery stores have brutally erased the agricultural seasons for us, so you have to relearn a lot (which also means your diet and your cooking repertoire have to completely change). You can’t plant seeds all at once, rather you have to do it in waves, so as to have a continuous harvest. Preparation of the ground is key: digging deep, breaking up clay (of which we had tons and it sucked but it sure as hell was better than caliche), adding what you can to improve its lightness along with your organic fertilizer which should come as much as possible from your own compost pile.
We aimed for all organic but it was rough, and involved things like wiping down each individual plant to get rid of aphids and other pests. We bought ladybugs, but did not have a garden they seemed to enjoy sticking around in. That required more thought and work and planting. We had to water; to do it efficiently required putting in a drip system or a way to collect rainwater, and treat and reuse gray water, which we investigated but never managed to do. We didn’t have money even for the drip system all at once, so watering regularly was one more thing (though adding mulch reduced that burden). We had to fertilize regularly. We had to tie up our tomatoes and our cucumbers, and insulate our squash from the ground. We had to rotate crops as we constantly planted new ones. Planting certain combinations — like the famous triad of squash, corn, and beans — helps ensure each variety grows better than they would alone and puts them at less risk of pest infestation, so we planned that into our rotations. And every day we had to be out there weeding, watering, tending, planting. Every. Day.
All of it required planning and thought and work and more planning. It was joy and pain all mixed together, even if we didn’t do it all that well and I discovered I’m lazier than I thought. I remember reading something in the middle of this that referred to subsistence farmers as unskilled labour, and I almost threw the book across the room. The ability to survive on what you grow on the land is knowledge passed down from generation to generation. To try and relearn it all through books that are never specific to the land you are working? I just wonder when we will awaken to the tragedy of what we have already lost, and what we continue to lose.
I started reading Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison during this grand attempt, the only textbook I’ve ever loved. I’ll acknowledge that for the present I’m far too busy, and very happily so, to reattempt such a labour intensive project for now. But permaculture as a way of being in the world has stuck with me. In it’s most concrete sense it is an approach to planning and implementing sustainability, creating systems that provide for their own needs and recycle their waste. It has very practical rules to live by. In a quote from Bill Mollison:
“Permaculture turned very rapidly into a system of design so that everything you put in had a multiple purpose and was in the right place to carry out its job. It’s a peculiar thing to say that you put the tree there to give shade; every tree gives shade; so that’s not a unique characteristic of this tree you put there, to give shade, but if it also gives you something like oranges or dates as well, that’s good, and also has an excess of oranges to feed your pig . . . then it’s doing three things. And I always say that everything you place should do at least three things.”
But more philosophically, it is entirely about getting to know your place: finding out where the sunlight spends most of its time in summer and winter, where the cold air collects, where the soil changes and moisture collects. It’s about acknowledging all of your assets, seeing how you — and everything around you — fit together, work together, improve or help each other. You can only live this way by constantly working to see the world around you holistically, deepening how you understand it. You no longer see just a chicken, but what a chicken eats, how it lives, what it produces as the picture above shows. This requires deep reflection on experience, in preparation for acting, building, creating, before reflecting again in a perfect popular education spiral.
Clearly I haven’t even scratched the permaculture surface here; I’ve just read a book or two and talked to some people and tried to implement some principles, so find out for yourself and explore! I’m particularly excited about urban permaculture, so read more here. I’ll leave you with an awesome design I look forward to one day building, as I’ve already mentioned spirals once and I surely love them:
It reminds me of this from my own hometown:
and the house I grew up, built of adobe by my parents and called at different times ‘mud house’ and ‘nautilus house’. This stuff runs deep.
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.