New app encourages Londoners to pay more attention to trees on their daily walk

Trees in Alexandra Park, north London. Image: Getty.

The big news in the UK today is that we’re starting to get a sense of quite how much damage the pandemic has already done to the economy. Figures released by the Department of Work & Pensions this morning show that the number of people claiming unemployment benefits leapt by 69.1% in April – the largest jump ever recorded – taking the claimant rate to the highest level seen since 1996. 

Meanwhile, the Resolution Foundation says we’re experiencing a “u-shaped living standards crisis”, in which older and younger workers are likely to be hardest hit. New research from the thinktank found that just over a third of 18-24 year olds, and just under that proportion of workers in their early 60s, are now receiving less pay than they did at the start of the year. That compares to less than a quarter of workers aged 35-49.

All this is terribly depressing, of course, so let’s talk about something else. One of the cheerier corners of my Twitter feed for the last couple of days has concerned TreeTalk, a sort of website/app/augmented reality thing which aims to get Londoners interested in the greenery outside their window. Here’s the blurb:

The Coronavirus has changed our lifestyles. More people are now staying at home and taking their exercise close to where they live.

At TreeTalk, we encourage Londoners to look more closely at their streets and to explore, discover and identify the trees most local to them.

Have you ever wondered what that tree outside of your window is? Or the tree that flowers once a year at the bottom of your road? Now is your chance to find out by creating a walk above or exploring our map!

Don’t be put off by the marketing speak, because the results are rather wonderful. For a start, TreeTalk offers a clickable map of all London’s trees, which will tell you about those on your street...

...and which, as a bonus, offers some insight into which boroughs aren’t that keen on open data:

Poor show, Hackney.

The really cool feature, though, is that you can put in any London address, and the site will automatically generate a walk for you, complete with information about the trees you’ll pass on your way. Here’s its suggested walk around the New Statesman’s offices:

The accompany commentary provides a helpful guide to no fewer than 20 different types of tree that walk would take you past, as well as the addresses of assorted pubs and cafes you could stop off at on the way if only they weren’t all closed due to coronavirus.

The whole thing is a lovely way of changing the way we relate to the city around us, and also of livening up your daily walk. Worth checking out.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.



What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.