A year and a half ago a project not more than ¼ mile from my home in Seven Sisters, London, caught my attention. It was the repurposing of 10 privately owned water reservoirs into urban wetlands, and so intrigued me that it became the topic of my Master’s dissertation. Having spent much of my life living in rural areas, with access to almost unlimited outdoor space, I tend to notice places that provide respite from the city’s manic pace. London is well known for being one of the greenest cities in the world. In the year and a half that I’ve lived here, the continual discovery of such spaces has given me hope that cities can be more integrated into the natural world.
If you walk halfway between the entrances of Tottenham Hale and Blackhorse Lane Tube Stations you’ll find the gates to Walthamstow Wetlands (previously known as Walthamstow Reservoirs) . This 211-hectare open space has recently opened as the largest urban nature reserve in the UK. It’s been a site for fishing for the last century, and you can almost always spot an array of anglers perched quietly along the edges of the ten reservoirs.
The reservoirs are part of a larger corridor known as the Lea Valley, and they are recognised and protected nationally and internationally due to their importance for wildlife. One would think this expanse of open water within central London would be more widely known, but it has managed to stay out of the public eye for the last century. Now, with over £10 million invested into the wetlands, it has begun to garner attention– both locally and as a city-wide destination. The creation of the wetlands, on a site that was historically built to deal with a growing city’s demand for safe water, is also closing the schism between what we think of as wild and what we consider urban. It asks us to see nature as a part of the city rather than something observed from our living rooms while we watch Planet Earth.
The project has brought together a unique mix of organisations. It is a collaboration between the London Wildlife Trust (a charity), Thames Water (a private utility company) and the London Borough of Waltham Forest (a public body), alongside its principal funders, including the Heritage Lottery Fund. It connects the urban to the wild, the city to wide-open vistas, and 19th-century water infrastructure with modern day recreation, playing on the intersection of these seemingly unrelated themes. In doing so has pushed the boundaries of what green spaces means within the city.
Today, London is facing enormous challenges. With a population set to reach 10.5 million by 2041, alongside the pressures of development, lack of housing, high levels of air pollution (Sadiq issued London’s first High Levels Air Alert in January, when pollution in central London reached level 10 warnings) both the public and private sectors are acknowledging the need to build urban #resilience and tackle environmental degradation. One of the mayor’s initiatives that highlight the importance of green space and it’s role in building city resilience is the ‘All London Green Grid’ (the Mayor’s term for the city’s network of green and blue space). The grid includes a range of open spaces which come in all shapes and sizes. Some are protected pockets dwarfed by surrounding infrastructure (think Camley Street Nature Park in the heart of King Cross’s booming new developments).
Others, like Regent’s Park, have manicured lawns and pristine flower beds. The array of parks, nature reserves, canals, back gardens, green roofs, neighbourhood allotments, wild alcoves, and dilapidated cemeteries, to name a few, need to be recognised and supported by their contributions as green spaces, but also encouraged to take on new roles within the city. The London Green Grid will only become more important as people continue to live in high-density housing, lacking in well-designed public spaces, which are all too frequently devoid of any connection to the natural world. Writing policy and seeing it come to fruition are two very different ballgames. If London is to see its Green Grid take on new and vital roles and to be supported in the ways that the Mayor has advocated, getting people engaged in new visions for theses spaces will be essential.
Creative innovation around urban planning requires enabling a dialogue between those writing the policy and those doing the work on the ground. This challenge is something that the London-based social enterprise Massive Small is currently tackling. Massive Small, a theory developed by urban planner Kelvin Campbell, encompasses a range of principles that improve the urban realm through small, scalable processes. Incorporating complexity theory, valuing diversity, promoting social justice and enabling leadership, among others, are all components of a ‘Massive Small’ approach. Massive Small is on a mission to support and highlight the grassroots urban planning work being done by an array of people around the world. Not only is it a lens to see whether an urban project is meeting certain standards, but Massive Small is also a resource for those attempting to build better spaces and share ideas between cities.
If we take the Walthamstow Wetlands project and apply a Massive Small approach, we need to consider how local people will use the public space for educational, recreational, or community purposes, and how much the design reflects their needs. People living and working in a neighbourhood understand the ins and outs of the area in a way planners and developers never will. Involving local communities doesn’t mean asking for superficial participation in consultations, where people’s opinions are often left to fall through the cracks. It means giving people the freedom to create and participate in the projects themselves.
Walthamstow Wetlands got off the ground because of a dialogue between high-level officials within Thames Water and London Borough of Waltham Forest. The project has included a wide array of professionals, planners, designers, biologists, conservationist, volunteers and more to begin to mould a model for this new type of green space. Now that it is finally open to the public (opened Oct 20th, 2017) the partnering organizations will need to double down on their promise to invite local people to collaborate and incubate new ideas. So far Walthamstow Wetlands has managed to reflect the complexity of the reservoirs both past and present — building upon its strange culmination of heritage, infrastructure, biodiversity and wildlife. In doing so it embraces a variety of functions, but whether it can continue to reimagine itself to serve the diversity of communities surrounding it, will be the test of this ambitious project. As we applaud the project for being innovative in its portrayal of nature, it must also be a place where Londoners have the ability to put forth their ideas and projects, and that the two can find common ground.
The growth of cities and their populations is staggering. We are truly in an urbanised world, but every decision we makes in the city relates to another process elsewhere. This is seen most prominently in regards to our ecological impact, where the products, services and lifestyles we choose in the city are only possible because of resources from across the globe. Development in the city cannot ignore the constraints of the planet nor the needs of local people in the city, and developing new kinds of green spaces will be an opportunity to bridge the divide between the two.