Friday, August 15, 2008

I Love The Sound Of Raking Grass

View of the Tower of London from the air, 1945 (English Heritage -NMR Archives)

The BBC’s Britain From Above is currently viewable on iplayer. Last weeks short film charted London’s development since the second world war via aerial photography. At the end of the war the RAF undertook an extensive photographic survey of the capital and this is used as the jumping off point for an analysis of how the city has changed (or not as it turns out) since then.

The remarkable thing about London is how the various visionary proposals for rebuilding its bomb damaged areas failed to transform its ancient street pattern. Plans to redesign large chunks of it, such as Abercrombie’s plan for London as a network of parks, simply never happened. The isolated pockets of post-war housing have failed to impact at the scale of the aerial survey.

Abercrombie, Park System of London (via London Landscape web)

Also interesting in the immediately post war film footage is the presence of inner city allotments that sprang up on bomb-sites in the wake of food shortages and rationing. These parasitic community gardens are particularly provocative in relation to contemporary thinking about sustainable communities and ideas of localised food production and small-scale agriculture.

Allotments colonising the inner city is a kind of reverse urbanism, suggesting a merging of country and city rather than the rigid divide (both conceptually and literally) of planners such as the Urban Task Force. The foundation of much of the protesting against London’s expansion and the various Eco villages is based on two principles: Increased densification of the inner city, and the maintenance of the green belt. This in turn is based on a highly architectural desire to distinguish city and non-city, or figure and ground, and preserve the distinction between city, suburb and country. Sprawl, especially suburban sprawl is the enemy. This is often as much a conceptual problem as a literal one, almost as if the all important civitas of the city could leak out and disappear into the water table unless carefully hemmed in.

A looser definition of the city and non-city, or a merging of the two, might allow for new types of spaces, which in turn might alter relationships between people, infrastructure and travel. Allotments in the inner city have a corollary with opera houses in the suburbs, a scenario which could, perversely, allow more sustainable community based activities to grow.

Perhaps too there is an answer here to the problem of hipster urbanism, ‘regeneration’ which is actually a kind of class cleansing. In this, the city merely becomes a fashionistas playground and part time home for the super rich. The hip aura of somewhere like Hoxton (or wherever, scene watching pedants!) relies on its status as the ultimate in urban edginess, an anti-suburbia. Remove the distinction and……

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