Here's why we should all be cool with private firms should sponsoring metro stations

Sol, brought to you by Vodafone. Image: Getty.

I quite like the idea of private firms sponsoring transport infrastructure.

Admitting this is risky business; even more so is the decision for a city to adopt such an approach. But it shouldn't be. It makes economic sense.

Earlier this year, Transport for London announced it would be injecting some festive cheer into the lives of commuters with some station renaming malarkey. With no details and nothing yet released, it created quite the stir. And not for the first time.

In 2015, London flirted with the very same idea and, for one day only during the London Marathon, Canada Water Station was renamed Buxton Water. This deal with Nestle was the first of its kind for the London Underground, and its 152-year-old history. It wasn't without criticism, with the RMT union stating, "We think it's the thin end of a very long wedge. You could have the whole tube network with branded stations for private gain."

And if they did? Well, you would have renamed, or "branded", stations across the network generating income which could prove vital for future infrastructure investment and improvements. The integrity of London´s tube map and history of the network would remain unharmed.

Anyway, you have Madrid to thank for this initiative. The Spanish capital raised millions - €3m over a three-year agreement – by including Vodafone on the iconic Sol metro station, a first in Europe.

This was a paradox of sorts, thanks to Puerta del Sol´s reputation as a nucleus for protestors and Spaniards aggravated over the handling of the country´s economy in recent times. And Vodafone? Well, over 100,000 people use Madrid´s line 2 each day – so the benefits for them are clear.

Madrileñas didn't love the idea, or the trial period with Samsung a year earlier. A boost of 10 per cent to the metro´s annual advertising revenues could easily be used to argue in favour of the commercial decision – but there are opposing arguments focussing on the history and tradition of landmarks within the city. Nonetheless, to me, these arguments lack substance when you consider the economic times we are in, Spain especially.

I live in Madrid. And whilst no metro stops have commercial sponsorships at the minute, I fail to see how it would tarnish this stunning city. Puerta del Sol still stands for all that it did and always will; Indignado protests, anti-austerity movements and all around democracy. This is not a corporate takeover, it´s metro signage.

Let us not get precious with our cities and stagnate progress. It's not about choosing one option over the other, or corporate decisions over public desires. You can have a successfully dynamic and modern infrastructure model and retain the history and tradition at the same time.

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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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