A303: Highway to the Sun

Originally posted 2nd October 2012

nLast night one of my favourite documentaries was shown again on BBC4 – A303: Highway to the Sun.

A documentary about the road between Basingstoke and Honiton, you may think? But the beautiful thing about this documentary is that it goes much deeper than the tarmac and white lines, used everyday as a route to the West Country. It is a fascinating landscape study and cultural history of the area the road travels through, showing that roads are much more than highways but are also an important part of place-making.

If you have a spare hour, do give it a look. It is beautiful made and one of those slightly eccentric documentaries that make you grateful that we have a national broadcaster that is willing to make things like this. You can find it on the BBC iPlayer, for the next seven days, here or I have also found it uploaded on Vimeo here.

Enjoy.

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Days like this

It’s hard to be motivated sometimes. Especially on a day which is forecast to be the wettest day of what has already been one of the wettest years on record. It’s hard to be motivated when the rain breaches your raincoat and your waterproof trousers start leaking. It’s hard to be motivated when there is no longer any point wearing your glasses because they need windscreen wipers and your hands are covered in nettle stings, because all you have done is cut back nettles for over two, wet, long, soaking hours.

Some days are like this.

But what you need to remember is why you are doing this, why you are out in the pouring rain. And it’s to make something for everyone. People now have access to a bird hide, along a path that has probably been inaccessible all summer. People are now able to safely go and watch birds, maybe see a bird they have never seen before, maybe learn something they never knew before, maybe they can just be able to take some rare moments away from their normal lives and enjoy something different. With clear paths and improved accessibility you create access for all, you take access to wildlife and nature and beautiful places away from just those with privilege. And that’s something that can keep you going, even in leaky trousers.

Well at least until tea break anyway.

More on private public spaces

Last week I shared a link to The Guardian article about the increased incidence of private organisations owning and managing public space. Over the last couple of day I’ve been mullling over why this is a problem, if it is a problem at all?

Our public spaces, such as streets and parks, are typically managed by local authorities and, in a climate of reduced budgets, alternatives to this public management is naturally being sought. The management of public spaces by private organisations is not entirely new. For the last decade local authorities have increasingly used Section 106 (planning obligation) agreements to ensure that private developers are responsible for new public spaces in developments like new residential areas or business parks. The local authority is able to ensure the responsible management of these areas through a legal agreement. However, this is rarely used in perpetuity and responsibility often eventually falls to the local authority.

You also need to consider the quality of the publicly managed spaces around you. Are they really anymore accessible than the private public spaces mentioned in The Guardian? When thinking about publicly managed public spaces, I often think of concrete planters full of inhospitable spiky plants, low cost to maintain but also a deterrent to vandalism. I think of numerous ‘no ball game signs’ and the complete failure of post war developments to realise Le Corbusier’s vision of the Radiant City. What is the problem with private organisations, with their increased capital, providing and managing these spaces instead?

The problems lies in the lack of accountability privately managed public realm has to its community. The Guardian article criticises the private approach as just providing spaces that will meet commercial interests, such as increased footfall to retail areas. The function of these spaces is of great importance. What may seem today like a perfect multifunctional space, suitable for providing a good retail experience or modern surrounding for an office, runs a great risk in not being future proof.

With these large areas of public realm remaining in private ownership, they also remain within the unequal system of land distribution and their private owners will undoubtedly, eventually, try to realise their optimum land value. There is no onus for the private landowner to permanently bequeath their space to the community and community interests are rarely effectively represented through market economics. Many towns are already populated with declining retail and office spaces awaiting private redevelopment or, increasingly rare, public intervention. There is no guarantee that the kind of developments mentioned in The Guardian will not eventually meet this fate.

Today’s modern, and often beautifully designed, pedestrianised spaces provide little opportunity to respond to the changing needs of the local community if it is not controlled by a body that is accountable to them. They will provide no opportunity for the community to use that space, no opportunity to use the space to build community resilience in challenging and changing economic times. The private public space will only evolve in response to its owners and not evolve to meet the needs of people, and that is the real risk with this approach.

Wildflowers at the Olympic Park

Originally posted 21st August 2012

Wildflowers and the River Lea in the Olympic ParkWildflowers in the Olympic Park

Wildflowers and the Stadium in the Olympic Park

When visiting the Olympic Park in East London last month, the wildflower planting took my breath away. We visited the park the first weekend of the Olympic Games and I’ll admit to expecting a sea of concrete. Instead when we left the Greenway from West Ham station entered through the Park security and ticket checks, we were greeted by Nigel Dunnett’s astonishing golden annual wildflower meadows. A complete move away from the muncipal planting I am so used to.

The Olympic wildflower meadows are the largest areas of annual meadow ever to be used in a park setting and the associated promotion from the London Games Organising Committee encourages people to plant wildflowers in their own area. It will be interesting to see if there is any resulting ‘olympic legacy’ from this endeavour in the Park.

Want to know more?
More information about the planting on Professor Nigel Dunnett’s website.

More information about Wildflower Planting on the London 2012 website.

All photos by Jon Hall

The Green Gym

Originally posted 25th June 2012
An extra dose of The Conservation Volunteers this week as this morning I took part in my first session at the Newbury and Thatcham Green Gym.

The Green Gym concept is quite intreging. Most TCV activities are focused on improving local surroundings and sharing and improving environmental conservation skills. But the Green Gym also considers improving the self, both physically and mentally. The TCV website outlines these benefits:

  • 100% of participants interviewed during the current National Evaluation agree that taking part in the Green Gym has benefited their mental health, boosting self-esteem and confidence through learning new skills and completing new tasks
  • Green Gym provides moderate physical activity: People who are regularly active at this level are 50% less likely to suffer from a heart attack or stroke than inactive people
  • Working out in green spaces is a great way to relieve stress and can help to combat depression
  • Taking part in the Green Gym improves muscle strength, which is particularly important for older people, helping to maintain independence in later life
  • Participants report feeling fitter and having more energy than before
  • Almost a third more calories can be burnt in an hour of some Green Gym activities than in doing a step aerobics class

I’m really fascinated by the third bullet point, about combating depression. The Mental Health Foundation outlines a huge range of benefits of exercise from the release of mood improving hormones, to providing opportunities to meet people and having an opportunity to escape day-to-day life.

Personally, I enjoyed my first session. Despite feeling rather daft doing warm-up and warm-down in the middle of Newbury’s main park – it was hard work, but I’d rather be outside in the fresh air. Even though the focus of my volunteering has been looking at improving public spaces, I do find it uplifting and invigorating. I get home exhausted but in a really buoyant mood, feeling happy and fulfilled. It’s not something I have considered before but it is interesting that my volunteering might be improving my mental health too. If this looks like it might be working for me, it would be interesting to see what kind of health resource the Green Gym might provide for the local community.

Private Public Spaces

Originally posted on 12th June 2012

I had to quickly share this article from today’s Guardian, about privately-run ‘public spaces’. I’ll write a proper follow up post to this next week (after, what will hopefully be, my last Geosciences exam and a visit to Big Green week in Bristol), but it is quite thought provoking.

Local authorities have been less willing to take on new public spaces for the best part of the last decade, due to ongoing maintenance costs and diminishing budgets – It makes me wonder what is the viable alternative to the privately run spaces, as described in the Guardian today? I’ll give it some thought and get back to you…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/jun/11/granary-square-privately-owned-public-space

Greenham Common Peace Garden

Originally posted on 1st May 2012

I’ve lived in Berkshire for just over a year now, but have always feared that, outside of the Reading suburbs, the county is little more than a breeding ground for Princesses. Recently I’ve been determined to delve a little deeper than the royal weddings and polo shirts on the surface and get to know this area properly.

Inspired by the account in George McKay’s Radical Gardening and a recent edition of The Reunion, yesterday I ventured off to find the site of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp.

During the 1980s, and the Cold War, RAF Greenham was used for siting USAF Cruise nuclear missiles. In protest this deployment, in 1981 a group of Welsh feminist peace activists set up a protest camp, committed to engaging debate about nuclear weapons and disrupting military exercises on the air base. The Women’s Peace Camp remained, continuously, outside of the airbase for 19 years, until 2000. Today RAF Greenham is now a business park, but a commemorative peace garden stands where the peace camp was situated.

Greenham Common Peace Garden

Seven welsh standing stones surround a sculpture that symbolises the campfire, whilst a circular sculpture is bears the enscription ‘you can’t kill the spirit’. The garden is planted with British species and includes an oak sapling that was rescued from the path of the controversial Newbury bypass.

Despite its location between the business park and a roundabout on the A339, the garden is very evocative. It does initially seem strange that somewhere that feels so inherently peaceful commemorates a site best known standing for radical campaigning, direct activism and the pursuit of idealism. But as George McKay describes in Radical Gardening,

“calmer than punk, more permanent in presence than most protest camps… [the peace garden] sought to present an experience of peacefulness and social idea of peace”.

Maybe this small defiant corner, between offices and a roundabout, does go a very small way to creating what the women of Greenham Common were striving for?

The Greenham Common Peace Garden is situated next to the the New Greenham Park roundabout on the A339 (near Newbury, Berkshire). Radical Gardening is available at Housmans.

Frack off?

Originally posted on 17th April 2012

The United Kingdom is facing a potential shortfall in energy provision. New methods of energy provision are required. Today the UK Government’s Department for Energy and Climate Change published an independent expert report, recommending measures to mitigate the risks of seismic tremors from hydraulic fracturing. Whilst the report is inviting public comment on its recommendations, it has largely been seen as giving a ‘green light’ to hydraulic fracturing. The report looks at its safety and recommends that it should continue, under regulation.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is the extraction of natural gas reserves from shale, a densely packed rock. The technique uses water, pumped at high pressure, into the rock to create narrow fractures to allow the gas to flow into the well bore to be captured (source DECC).

The exploitation of any British shale gas reserves does have its benefits. It will provide a British-born source of gas that will provide energy and could, potentially, lower rising gas prices, in an environment where other natural gas supplies are diminishing. Not just a source of gas as we receive it in our homes, but also it would be able to generate electricity in gas-powered power stations. A much-needed resource in a country where the oil and gas reserves are diminishing, companies are dropping out of providing new nuclear power stations and there is continued opposition to the exploitation of renewable sources of energy. There are also employment opportunities too, much needed in times of recession.

But fracking is hugely controversial. The procedure caused two earthquakes and several other seismic events in the Blackpool area in 2011. In the aftermath of Fukushima, there is huge concern over seismic safety. Fracking has also been linked to the contamination of drinking water aquifers in the US, the chemicals used in the fracking process have been linked with health problems for nearby communities and it has been reported that levels of methane get high enough in some domestic water supplies to catch fire. And that is before considering the environmental impacts of any gas power stations.

So where is the balance to be found? Decades of short termism and outsourcing of provision to foreign companies have left the UK energy poor. The renewable energy assets of the nation have not been anywhere near exploited to their potential. The UK lags far behind other European nations, such as Germany, in terms of renewable energy infrastructure and in terms of developing skills, employment opportunites and innovation. New nuclear is falling to the whims of the markets and fossil fuel resources are diminishing. The country needs energy. Fracking is potential dangerous and undesirable, but has the United Kingdom left itself with few alternatives?

What do today’s planning reforms mean for local communities?

Originally posted on 27th March 2012

The new National Planning Policy Framework, or NPPF, was released today, accompanied with a great deal of fanfare about the removal of red tape and the empowerment of communities in the planning process. Promising unrestricted (and newly defined) sustainable development, relieving England from the bureaucratic forces holding it back from economic prosperity. The new NPPF supersedes all the previous topic specific national statements and guidance notes – replacing over 1300 pages of national planning guidance with a mere 50. The Government claim that this takes planning out of the hands of experts, simplifies it and makes it accessible to all

But what does this really mean for local communities? Firstly the framework is completely directed at interpretation at the local level. And, by local level, this means interpretation by the Local Planning Authority through the production of a Local Plan. If this sounds familiar, that’s because Local Authorities produced Local Plans – until they were replaced the Local Development Framework system in 2004.

The NPPF does not place any additional requirement for Local Authorities to engage with communities in the development of their Local Plans. It just states,

“early and meaningful engagement and collaboration with neighbourhoods, local organisations and businesses is essential. A wide section of the community should be proactively engaged, so that Local Plans, as far as possible, reflect a collective vision and a set of agreed priorities for the sustainable development of the area.”

What constitutes meaningful engagement or being proactively engaged is unclear and, presumably, also up to interpretation by each Local Authority.

The framework also introduces the option for Neighbourhood Plans. The Neighbourhood Plan has been introduced to allow communities to devise planning policies for their area and determine a certain scale of planning application. So does this give local communities carte blanche to direct development that meets their needs and, indeed, to refuse development in their local areas? Unfortunately not. The framework states,

“the ambition of the neighbourhood should be aligned with the strategic needs and priorities of the wider local area”.

Crucially it states that,

neighbourhood plans must be in general conformity with the strategic policies of the Local Plan”.

And even more significantly, any planning decision made by these new neighbourhood powers has to be subject to a local referendum. Huge onus is placed on Local Authorities to facilitate empowering all neighbourhoods and all members of the community to make these Neighbourhood Plans anything more than a lip service exercise, or a bastion of the privileged and vocal minority.

But what must be of primary concern, in terms of community involvement in the planning process, is the ambiguity that is left in the planning system in the immediate future. The NPPF is certainly brief compared to its predecessors, but it could also be criticised for being unclear. The instantaneous replacement of all the reams of national guidance with this short document, combined with only 12 months of local policies (adopted since 2004) continuing to be given their full weight when considering applications could result in a policy gulf. A gulf that may only be filled with applications being determined through appeal and possibly through the courts. Until there is clarity, the much maligned bureaucracy has been replaced with a void that can only be filled by legal processes. Whoever has the best planning lawyer will undoubtedly win. And that’s not a scenario that will empower many communities.

The National Planning Policy Framework was published today by the Department of Communities and Local Government and is available to read on the DCLG’s website