From William Morris’ Walthamstow, to John Ball’s Colchester: how placemakers are co-opting the dead

The William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow. Image: ProfDEH/Wikimedia Commons.

Heritage has long been a hot topic in the UK, expressed both in the love for old buildings and in the business of regeneration. Less attention has been given to the complicated relationship between historical figures and place, particularly how placemaking makes use of them.

This goes further than the Blue Plaque scheme; the dead both etch their ghostly presences on the character of localities, and can be self-consciously chosen to help retell a story of place.

I want to look at how the dead and place interact through the two case studies – William Morris in Walthamstow, and John Ball in Colchester. I’ll be looking at how the dead intertwined themselves with place, how history becomes contested as they are made use of by placemakers, and what works.

Ghosts of place

The psychogeographical tradition in urban life directs our attention to the relationships between person and place. Prominent individuals leave traces of their selves and their legacy on the local vernacular.

One such relationship is between William Morris (1834-96), socialist and artisan, and Walthamstow in east London.  Morris only spent about seven years of his youth in what is now the William Morris Gallery in Lloyd Park, E17; yet Walthamstow has claimed him as its own.

Both Morris's arts and crafts movement, and his socialism, are now closely aligned to the character of Walthamstow itself, an area of community-based socialism and thriving hipster artisanal businesses. Morris might even be claimed as the first hipster (minus the beard oil, of course), combining radical politics with autonomous entrepreneurialism.


Remaking place

The relationship between the dead and place becomes even more interesting when ghosts are called upon to reshape space. Campaigners in the Essex town of Colchester are currently evoking the long forgotten figure of John Ball (1338-81), radical priest and one of the leaders of the Peasant Revolt 1381, into a symbolic representation of equality and diversity.

The campaign itself began as a result of a press campaign and petition to get a "piece of bronze" representing John Ball erected in Colchester. It has evolved into an interrogation of the town's historic legacy, and its identity today as a nascent zone of feminisation, equality and diversity. It may even seek to become a Sanctuary Town.

The reframing of place in Colchester is something that resonates in its cultural and alternative arts communities. Essex. Colchester and nearby Wivenhoe have seen a sizable “punk poetry” renaissance, all John Cooper Clarke and Martin Newell. The area is also celebrating its historic rebels, with Castle Museum devoting a whole section to Boudica, who led an uprising against the Roman Empire around AD60. More recently, Gee Vaucher, a female artist in Crass, had her own Introspective in Colchester’s Firstsite Gallery.

What gets left out?

Inevitably, calling on the dead to remake place involves some falling away of historical realities. In Walthamstow, the Willam Morris Gallery, renovated in 2011-12, focuses on Morris’s status as an artisan, rather than as a socialist (though there is some representation of “soft socialism”). This mutating focus is also characteristic of a locale which could fall victim to a loss of community cohesion through gentrification. Is Morris shifting uncomfortable in his grave? Perhaps, but he might have been excited by all the craft beer.

Similarly, the figure of John Ball is imbued with very diverse aesthetic and even political values. Will he be carved out in bronze, his religious non-conformity absorbed by the very active Colchester churches? Or will he be etched into the nascent contemporary arts and politics scene of the new Colchester?

That this ground is contested is a point acknowledged by Sally Shaw, the director of Firstsite, the key partner in promoting John Ball Day on 15 July and a plethora of related arts activities in Colchester. “But that’s what makes it interesting,” she says, “and very much representative of the broader cultural struggles facing UK society today.” 

What works?

Placemakers always try and prove historical figures lived in a place, but that link can often be quite incidental – a matter of a few years in the case of both Morris and Ball.

But there is a creative relationship too. In the case of Morris and Walthamstow, there is a natural congruence between the well-processed history of Morris, his ideas and artistic practice, and how the locality has evolved.

Much less is known about John Ball, which makes sketching a pathway to the contemporary values of feminisation, equality and diversity something of a tricky issue. But Shaw suggests that "creating lines of connection between Ball and the present is an ongoing and inclusive creative process, about remaking meaning”.  In other words, the John Ball project will be a way of imaginatively rethinking place, both past and present.

“We are the dead” said McCrae, Bowie, and Orwell before them – referring to the exhaustions of the present. But the dead are also helping us think about our culture and shaping the landscapes of place. We are the dead, but they are us.

Deborah Talbot is an ethnographer and journalist writing about culture, society and all things urban.

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To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.