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A Green Voice for Southwark

Eleanor Margolies is standing up for Camberwell and Peckham

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community

The small stuff that matters

‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’ is generally good advice. But it’s at the small scale that high level policies are implemented, paving stone by paving stone. Things that seem like small decisions can have long-lasting effects on the way people feel and behave. So while national politics is in turmoil, a friend and I have been knocking on our neighbours’ doors to ask them about the shrubs and bricks they pass every day.

whaddon and melbreak pathThis photo shows a footpath running between Pytchley Road and Albrighton Road, on the East Dulwich Estate. It’s used by residents of the adjacent blocks, and also by parents and children heading to local primary schools, the East Dulwich Community Nursery and the Albrighton Community Centre. It’s a good way to avoid the noise and pollution of the main road, and offers the only step-free route up this part of the hill between Dog Kennel Hill and Bromar Road.

Southwark Council plans to demolish the large brick planter and replace it with four car parking spaces. Does this make any sense at a time when everyone wants to encourage walking instead of the use of private cars? What do Southwark Council’s policies say?

Strategic Policy 5 on Healthy, active lives of the Preferred Option of the New Southwark Plan states that ‘New policies for improving town centres, building schools, and providing the facilities for cycling and walking will address physical and mental health issues to improve the every day experiences of residents, workers and shoppers.Strategic Policy 6 Cleaner Greener Safer states that ‘Southwark will be a place where walking, cycling and public transport is the most convenient, safe and attractive way to move around. We will protect and improve our network of open spaces, trees and biodiverse habitats and green corridors that make places open and attractive.’

It’s good stuff. The council’s high level policies recognise the importance of greenery in tackling air pollution, unsustainable carbon consumption and public health problems. And yet in this small corner of the borough, council officers persist with a plan that flies in the face of those policies.

As residents, we’ve objected to this detail of the plan since it was first proposed in 2013. We’ve attended monthly Regeneration Project Team meetings, and made a deputation to the planning committee in 2013. As a result of our comments, the Planning department said that the plans must be revised to preserve step-free access through the courtyard (the original plans had replaced a sloping footpath with steps). But the revised plans still included new car parking spaces and footpaths that were a mere 1.2 metres wide at some points. This makes it hard for pedestrians to pass – if two people pushing buggies in opposite directions met, one would have to reverse back!

widths

Image from a Scottish Government document on designing streets. The accompanying notes state: ‘In lightly used streets (such as those with a purely residential function), the minimum unobstructed width for pedestrians should generally be 2 m’.

 

Last month an amended plan was presented to us, increasing the footpath width to 1.8m. But it still narrows the footpath significantly and would force pedestrians to follow a tight ‘dogleg’ path round Melbreak House, creating a new blindspot. By reducing visibility and increasing the chance of conflict between pedestrians heading in opposite directions, it is likely to make walking here feel less pleasant and less safe at night.

The design also depends on demolishing a large brick planter containing shrubs. Air pollution is an acknowledged public health emergency in London. Trees and shrubs play a significant role in trapping particulates and taking them out of the air, as well as producing oxygen. We should be planting more, not cutting them down. Here, the proposed car parking spaces would back onto a children’s playground – an undesirable combination from the point of view both of physical safety and air pollution. Greenery also helps to absorb sound – an important consideration since blocks of flats can create hard ‘corridors’ that bounce and amplify street sounds. And replacing a large bed of shrubs with tarmac is contrary to all the current thinking on the need for sustainable urban drainage.

So what of the assumed demand for car parking? In this part of the borough in 2011, 36% of residents owned cars. Census figures show car ownership is falling across London. Our common space should not be designed only for the presumed needs of a minority: after all, every car owner also uses pavements and footpaths to get to their front door. Residents who own cars here would also be affected by the loss of space for pedestrians and the loss of greenery; they also have children who use the playground. Though there has been pressure on parking while Albrighton and Pytchley Roads have been closed off for building work, these nearby streets will offer plenty of spaces once they reopen.

Previously, there were no private car parking spaces at this entrance to the courtyard: a ‘deliveries/emergency access only’ entrance would ensure that delivery vans and emergency vehicles can park close to the residential blocks when needed.

So far, we’ve spoken to about half the residents in this courtyard. Everyone we’ve spoken to – including car owners – has signed our petition (below). We’re now waiting to see how the council officers responsible for New Homes and Regeneration will respond.

On balance, I think it’s worth sweating the small stuff here. After all, decisions about bricks and mortar, trees and public space are likely to last for a generation.

We, the undersigned, ask Southwark Council officers responsible for New Homes and Regeneration to change their current plans for Melbreak and Whaddon courtyard on the East Dulwich Estate. We urge them to follow the council’s own policies on walking, biodiversity and green spaces. These policies are meant to protect and improve the trees and shrubs around our homes and make sure that walking to school and shops is safe and convenient. We are asking for a new design that

a) keeps the flowerbed

b) keeps a wide pavement

c) keeps access for bin-trucks, deliveries and emergency vehicles only.

Let’s have an incredible edible Camberwell

The Camberwell Community Council meeting on 18 November included a discussion on green spaces.

It was very cheering to hear from so many ‘Friends of’: there were representatives from the Friends of Burgess Park, Camberwell Green, Green Dale, Lucas Gardens, Stanswood Gardens, Benhill Nature Reserve and others. These groups are organised by volunteers and work with the dedicated staff of the council’s Parks and Ecology departments, often juggling fundraising, project management and making sure that everyone can enjoy the spaces harmoniously, alongside taking practical care of plants and trees, playgrounds and wildlife.

Ecology Officer Jon Best gave a brief but impressive presentation on the diversity of wildlife in Southwark, including birds, bats and stag beetles, and some of the measures taken to protect them. In the case of stag beetles, for example, that means providing ‘hotels’ of wood that’s allowed to decay, providing a space for the grubs to spend their early years before they emerge in armoured splendour.

cherry2013
Cherry tree in Camberwell Orchard

Eleanor Margolies asked a question about a green space that no longer exists – Camberwell Orchard. While welcoming the new Camberwell library, she noted that a significant number of trees and fruit bushes had been lost as a result of building on this site. When Camberwell Magistrates’ Court was built in 1970, it was on the site of allotments. An alternative site for 32 allotments was therefore provided (next to Lettsom Community Gardens). She asked whether the council had plans to – or would commit to – replace the food growing space that the orchard had provided.

It was deeply disappointing to hear Cllr Barrie Hargrove repeat the canard that Camberwell Orchard had been of no ecological or social value: ‘Some people call a mouldy plum tree an orchard; I don’t,’ he said.

An independent arboricultural assessment of the orchard commissioned by the council noted two fine silver maples, along with 28 mature fruit trees – fig, cherry, pear and plum – as well as blackcurrant and redcurrant bushes. A CAVAT assessment of the value of the trees gave the orchard a financial value in the region of £608,000.

Cherry jam, preserved figs and redcurrant jelly made with fruit from Camberwell Orchard, 2013
Cherry jam, preserved figs and redcurrant jelly made with fruit from Camberwell Orchard, 2013

In his response to the question, Cllr Mark Williams mentioned council plans for tree planting on Lomond Grove, an area to be added to the footprint of Camberwell Green, and the potential to reclaim some space behind Camberwell Magistrate’s Court from the highway, but he didn’t address the question of food growing. Cllr Hargrove was clearly piqued by the reminder of the lost orchard, saying ‘we shouldn’t look back’.  But talking about urban food growing is not looking back: it is looking towards a sustainable future.

For example, Incredible Edible Todmorden is an urban gardening project which has transformed a town in Yorkshire – building community, public health and sustainability. Its membership requirements are simple: If you eat you’re in.’

In Southwark, architects and local residents Katrin Bohm and Andre Viljoen have written about integrating urban agriculture into urban planning and its environmental, economic and social benefits.

Viljoen teaches architecture at the University of Brighton. In June 2015, at an inspiring event organised by Peckham Vision, 12 master of architecture students from the university showed their plans for how food growing might be integrated into a dense urban area, helping to make Southwark more resilient by providing its own food, making use of its food waste as compost, purifying its own water and so on. Their ideas were based on a period of intense research into the actual conditions of Peckham: where are there unused spaces between buildings? what do people here like to eat? who might be interested in fish-farming, growing herbs or cooking with local produce? They are bold ideas but thoroughly researched and achievable with investment and vision.

In contrast, asking the council to commit to replacing the food growing opportunities provided by Camberwell Orchard is not a huge request. Trees and bushes could be planted in small pockets and corridors around Camberwell.

A commitment to providing at least as many fruit trees and bushes as were lost at Camberwell would show that the councillors understand the importance of urban food growing.

Other residents at the meeting asked about:

  • how to make sure that contractors don’t chop back shrubs when they are flowering or covered with berries essential to wildlife.
  • how to make sure that trees planted by Southwark Council are looked after and survive to maturity.  A resident described how trees planted by the council on the Elmington Estate had died in their first hot summer because they were not watered by contractors.
  • how to make sure that volunteers’ work on parks and green spaces is protected by the council for the long term benefit of all.

Afterwards, Eleanor suggested one possible location for food growing to Councillor Hargrove. Low maintenance raspberries and currant bushes could be planted in raised beds on Daneville Road (behind Morrison’s in Camberwell). This street is open for pedestrians and cyclists but closed to cars. Some trees have been planted along the centre of the road – but it’s still dominated by tarmac.

What do you think? What are your suggestions for edible planting in South Camberwell?

Forward the Hamlet, says Sian, Green Mayoral candidate

Sian Berry came to South Camberwell to support Dulwich Hamlet FC on Saturday 3 October. Proceeds from the Pay What You Like match supported Walworth-based Cooltan Arts and the British Heart Foundation.

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