The movement to democratise London’s public spaces

The Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre in South London

The way that London’s developers and designers create public spaces is starting to change. A new movement involving a relatively small group of people, many of them women, believe the city’s urban spaces could be designed to support their local communities a lot better than they are now.

They’re challenging the way that projects in the public realm are briefed, procured and planned.

“How do we make cities and who are the voices that are being heard about what gets built? In the planning and architectural communities, there is a new wave of trying to open up that conversation,” says Alicia Pivaro, an urbanist and design teacher.

The innocuously-titled Neighbourhood Forums, introduced by David Cameron’s Localism Act in 2011, are supporting this diversity agenda. They enable communities to develop plans for their locality that are formally recognised in the planning process.

In Camden, the Camley Street Neighbourhood Plan, which covers the area north of Kings Cross station, has voiced community concerns and influenced council plans. In south London, VitalOKR, a grassroots group of people living and working near the Old Kent Road, is trying to influence Southwark Council’s planning agenda.

Guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds fronted a rebellion against Lendlease’s plans to redevelop Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, South London, back in 2014—although that was more rogue effort than Forum. “They couldn’t stop the huge Lendlease project, but they definitely saved a lot of trees on the site and shaped the agenda to ensure greener spaces and community growing spaces. But it wasn’t the ideal process,” says Pivaro.

Much of the energy has gone into figuring out how to incorporate diverse voices at an early enough stage to influence the brief. The aim is to head off the corporate architectural styles that so often results from top-down development by councils and developers.

Deborah Saunt of DSDHA, the practice behind Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, says: “You have to go out and talk to people and push away your preconceptions. A lot of architects and designers find it very, very hard to let down their guard and to empathise with the range of often contradictory opinions.”

The Vauxhall project included the experiences of the LGBT community, night-clubbers, families with young children, sixth formers from the local school and professionals working nearby. “You have to be open to input and not to say ‘oh my God, this is too complicated’. If you want to democratise public space you have to respect all of those opinions,” says Saunt.

In Islington, the Central Street masterplan was shaped by a parkour workshop for 13- to 15-year-olds organised by designers We Made That. “We wanted to understand how young people could interact with the space in a way that wasn’t just walking down the street. It looked grey and concrete-y, but seeing it through their eyes we realised it could be incredibly playful,” says Holly Lewis, co-founding partner.

Built-ID, start-up technology firm, is recruiting new voices to property consultations by promoting digital surveys on Facebook and Instagram. “It leads to a more diverse consultation of a wider cross-section of society and not just people who have the time and inclination to go to exhibition meetings,” says founder Savannah de Savary. The firm translates adverts into Urdu and Arabic to connect to hard-to-reach groups and is much better at garnering views from busy working people compared to traditional exhibitions. It’s poised to go live on a consultation about Petticoat Lane Market redevelopment on behalf of the City of London and Tower Hamlets.

City Hall’s decision to embed social value and diversity into its procurement process has nudged diversity higher up the agenda for developers and designers. The measure can now tip the balance on winning or losing a project.

Saunt says: “They’re asking things like, ‘Who’s working in your practice?’ I’ve heard that some people are saying, ‘What do you mean?’ They can no longer just talk about how the project will increase diversity. No, no—it’s, ‘What are you doing personally and as an organisation to make life better for other people who want to participate in the project and in your profession?’ There’s nothing like that relationship between pressure and profit, and being asked those kind of ethical questions at the point of competition, to really help sharpen the mind.”


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.