How the Essex new town of Harlow is rediscovering its founding ideals

The Harlow Water Gardens. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

Like many Londoners, Kimberlee Perry began eying properties outside the M25 when she was expecting her first child. She and her husband chose Harlow, the new town in western Essex, because of the transport links to London, and its urban-rural feel.

As it turned out, the London link wasn’t that important. Kimberlee didn’t return to her sales job after her maternity leave ended; and five years on, she’s fully invested in Harlow. She founded the global fitness franchise company Bounce – styled “((BOUNCE))” – when her son was a few weeks old, and has since established its 8,000 square foot headquarters – complete with a 100-trampoline studio – in the town.

Over 35,000 people now attend Bounce classes every month in the UK, New Zealand and Kimberlee’s native Australia – and soon the U.S, too. Many of them are mums who bring their children to class. This child-friendly attitude is part of Bounce’s DNA, and, according to Kimberlee, something she inherited from her adopted home.

“Harlow has a lot to offer,” she said. “It’s a great option for families, with lots of mummy groups and free activities for kids – and it’s very friendly. That’s true in business as well: local businesses, we help each other out, tag each other on social media. I don’t think I would have had anywhere near as much success if I’d started somewhere else.”

Sir Frederick Gibberd would be pleased to know that the features of the town he masterplanned are still attracting and inspiring talent like Kimberlee. Born in 1947 out of the idealism of the post-war Labour Government, Harlow was one of eight new towns designed to provide decent housing for survivors of London’s Blitz. Despite the very real austerity of the time, the New Town programme was underpinned by a belief in the power of planning to address wider social issues such as public health and social justice.

Reflecting the pioneering spirit of the early days, Harlow quickly chalked up a series of firsts: the first high-rise residential tower block, the first pedestrian shopping precinct, the first health centre. Mag Barret, a journalist who moved to Harlow in the 1960s, covered many of the openings for local papers including the Harlow Citizen, Harlow News and Harlow Star – all now defunct. “Mary Peters, an Olympic runner, came for the opening of the first purpose-built sports centre in the country,” she says. “And the first post war Odeon opened here, with a big fanfare.”

In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the young and ambitious were drawn to the town, with a feeling that things could be done in Harlow that weren’t possible elsewhere. So many families were started here – at one point 20 per cent of its population was under 5 – that Harlow earnt the moniker “pram town”.

From a peak in 1974, however, its population began falling. A lack of high-quality jobs and higher education offerings meant the town began to lose its youngest and most affluent, and with them went a number of large employers.

After the Development Corporation was wound up in 1980, the town centre was sold off to private owners. In common with other new towns, Harlow struggled with the fact that, because everything had been built at the same time, it all needed renovating at the same time. But because the assets had been sold off, the town council had few income streams to pay for maintenance.


A period of economic and social decline set in, reflected in the very fabric of the town. Potholes appeared in the extensive cycleway system that was part of Gibberd’s original masterplan, and were not filled in. Several of Gibberd’s landmark buildings, including the original town hall, were demolished and replaced by less imposing structures.

Then, in the tense aftermath of the 2016 referendum, a Polish man called Arkadiusz Jozwik was killed in a late-night altercation. The incident was labelled initially as a potential hate crime, although a court would later find this not to be true. The self-examination that followed would prove a turning point. Harlow came together, first to mourn the death of Jozwik, then – in a series of celebrations to mark its 70th birthday – to show to itself and the world that it’s a much nicer than even many of its residents had come to believe.

The Discover Harlow project was launched by the council in 2018 to bring together people and businesses as ambassadors for the town. It’s an attempt to challenge perceptions of Harlow. At an economic development conference last year, some professionals expressed surprise after discovering some of Harlow’s gems, from the beautiful Town Park designed by landscape architect Dame Sylvia Crowe, to the town’s many sculptures: works by Auguste Rodin, Henry Rodin and Barbara Hepworth are on permanent public display around the town. Discover Harlow wants newcomers and existing residents alike to know and appreciate these assets.

It is also working alongside other organisations to improve the town. Although the council doesn’t own most of the property in the town centre, it is trying to galvanise business owners into starting a Business Improvement District, where they collectively pay for upgrades to common spaces. And it funded a facelift to Market Square, which it does own.

One of the reasons Harlow began losing its youth was a poor higher education offering. That is being addressed by Harlow College, which has enlarged its offering to fill the skills needs of local employers with Stansted Airport College and the Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Centre, as well as accreditation from Apple as a Distinguished School.

On the map: Harlow lies just to the north east of London. Image: streetmap.co.uk.

Job numbers are growing again – from 42,000 in 2009 to 48,000 in 2017, according to Office of National Statistics data – and are likely to increase further with the development of three science parks. On the site where fibre optics was invented – a discovery that earnt Sir Charles Kao the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2009 – will be a new 15-acre campus called Kao Park. Phase One is completed, housing a brand-new data centre and the offices of defence contractor Raytheon, Arrow Electronics and Pearson Education.

Nearby, also enjoying the planning and business rate advantages of Harlow Enterprise Zone, is the council-run Harlow Science Park. When completed, it will include a 15,000-square foot ARU Innovation Centre built in collaboration with Anglia Ruskin University.

Also in the works is the £400m move of Public Health England to the former site of GSK, a major pharmaceutical company who left town in 2010. PHE will create a centre for public health research, health improvement and protection employing 3,250 people, many of whom it says will be recruited locally.

New homes are planned – 23,000 of them – encouraged by the rationale that the reasons Harlow was chosen as the location for a new town in the first place make it an attractive place to live and work. With good road and rail links to Cambridge and London – only 30 minutes away by train – Harlow is also near Stansted airport.

It is hoped that the Harlow and Gilston Garden Town, delivered by Places for People, will fix some of the failures of the New Town programme, notably creating income streams to pay for future maintenance and ensuring stewardship remains with the community. It will also address the historic lack of diversified tenure, which made it hard for Harlow to attract people in higher income brackets.

“It’s about supporting the growth of Harlow,” said Mary Parsons, Group Director for Placemaking and Regeneration at Places for People. “Harlow has a lot of great things about to happen. I’d like to hear more people saying they feel proud to come from Harlow.”

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.