Saturday, 5 May 2012

A river runs through it: Why urban development must follow more natural contours

Since the beginning of the year the Quaggy Waterways Action Group (@qwag) and @mentalmapping have conducted a series of walks from the confluence with the Ravensbourne in central Lewisham upstream to Sundridge Park Golf Course, where the river mostly narrows and enters private land. The purpose of these walks was to highlight, through the commentary of Matthew Blumler, the good, the bad and the ugly sections of the river Quaggy. Matthew, who has now left QWAG, was a primary mover in the successful regeneration of sections of the river such as Chinbrook Meadows and Sutcliffe Park. The valedictory walks, films of which will be uploaded shortly, will enable existing and future members to witness for themselves some of the more constrained stretches held mostly in concrete and sometimes in straightened wooden toe-boarding with a view to future regeneration projects. Throughout the course of this extensive fieldwork I was reminded of something that was said during some earlier thesis
Upstream of Hadlow College
Sydenham Cottages
ethnographic work. Should it not be the case that urban development follow the natural features and gradients of the land rather than crush and straighten, like doing a jigsaw puzzle with a club hammer. Of course the introduction of the railway to Sth London in the 19th century saw the straightening of much of the river while further hard engineering during the early sixties continued the trend. The Quaggy had flooded housing in Lee and Lewisham regularly post-WWII and so the local council were placed under pressure to introduce some kind of flood alleviation. As it turns out the council at the time, late 50s and early 60s couldn't afford to sort the problem out and so the London County Council and then the GLC took it on and placed the river in straight and deep culverts. Had they known then how vitally important riperian greenspace is for both societies of humans and those of flora and faune then maybe more imaginative and organic develop could have taken place. One reason why this realisation or eureka moment did not take place was that post-WWII there was a new scientific revolution, propelled by the advances made in chemical and structural engineering during the war, which again placed the environment at the disposal of dominant humans. This technocentric approach saw people take pride in engineering and turn a blind eye to the destruction that was taking place within the natural environment. In my opinion three things happened that turned the tide toward a consideration of nature and a closer inspection of these new 'scientific' methods. First was the 1962 publication 'Silent Spring' by Rachel Carson which highlighted the use of pesticide DDT in protecting crops from bugs. This poison 'silenced' the local birds. Second was the 1966 Aberfan disaster where a colliery slag heap slid onto the local school killing an extraordinary 116 children and 28 adults and third was the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio where Agenda 21 was initiated and environmental leglislation was at last placed on the staute book to ease a more environmentally sympathietic approach to development. This was expanded to Local Agenda 21 to enable local councils to support and adhere to more naturally balanced development. Of course and more capitalist agenda has taken over and planning regs has been diluted and the need to consult has been watered down. It is, however, a good thing that volunteer pressure groups remain 'on the case' and with the help of social media are able to rally, support and protest when corporate misdemeanors occur. Hopefully this will enable a more community-led and natural approach to development in the future.