London Letter: Movement to protect urban trees takes root
As trees make way for developers, some Londoners have had enough
Oscar-winning actor Emma Thompson: told The Irish Times of her anger at “building companies throughout the world who routinely trample over local opinion”. Photograph: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images
West Hampstead Square, said its developer, Seán Mulryan’s Ballymore group, will be “a living, breathing space; a place for friends to meet” and “a thriving, local community”.
Complete with “a new, leafy public square”, and “teeming with coffee shops, restaurants and independent retailers”, it would bring “a point of arrival and departure” to West End Lane.
However, there was a problem: Ballymore believed that 27 mature sites on the lands, near the busy West Hampstead train station, had to go. Locals were incensed.
Oscar-winning actor Emma Thompson was incandescent, and quick to point out that she had lived in West Hampstead for 54 years. She spoke against the Irish company’s plans. In a letter she said: “I have watched as over the years, development has all but removed any green spaces and most of the life-giving trees from the area.
“I understood from the council that your development was set to include the trees that give pleasure and, vitally, oxygen to the area but I now understand that you are planning to chop them all down.”
A “Save the Trees” petition gathered 1,000 signatures, including another local, Downton Abbey actor Jim Carter, who plays Mr Carson. Locals, who put a value of £500,000 on the trees, insisted throughout that the trees brought “soul and character” to West Hampstead and cut the noise of passing trains.
No preservation order
Camden Council offered little comfort, saying the trees were not within a conservation order, or covered by a tree preservation order.
The protests were certainly an inconvenience for the Irish builders, though there is little sign in the frenetic property market that they hinder sales.
The company had made considerable play of West Hampstead Square’s environmental credentials, where the apartment blocks are described as “a natural place to live”.
“It’s no accident that the buildings at West Hampstead Square look as if they’ve grown out of the landscape. The concept of the architecture and the gardens was developed side by side, a pleasing integration of built and natural environments.
“Between each building, a rich variety of gardens gives the place a lush, green airiness, breaking up the linear flow of the buildings and providing a beautiful landscape setting,” the brochure says.
Historically, Britain’s cities were “not well served with trees, or least not intentionally”, says the Trees and Design Action Group, a cross-sectoral body that has been set up to increase interest in “the urban forest”. The organisation includes builders, planners, local council, the Royal Horticulture Society, universities, and a slew of institutions representing engineers and construction industry professions.
Showing how vogues can change, Georgian squares, often best loved for their trees, were originally designed to be without trees, in line with the English Picturesque style.
During the Victorian era, the fashion was to create copies of private garden squares in the public realm, for the enjoyment of all, while street-planting began in the mid-1850s.
Following the second World War, trees were planted in huge numbers in the suburban districts that sprouted after the extension of the Northern, Piccadilly, Central and Metropolitan underground lines.
The 1950s and 1960s brought about a subtle change. Up to then, builders had largely left the biggest trees alone, as it was too much trouble to cut them down. “New construction methods, new hydraulic earth-moving equipment and the invention of the chainsaw made very large-scale development practical and economical. Where previously large trees had been retained because the effort of removing them was too great, it became a quick operation to remove them and start with a blank slate on a new development,” says the Trees and Design Action Group.
Today the trend continues, it notes. Developers favour planting “smaller, less long-lived ornamental trees which require less maintenance, or trees planted in insufficient rooting volumes”. This gradual shift has resulted in less canopy cover in urban areas , it says.
Back in West End Lane, the trees have gone, felled a fortnight ago, but the bad feeling continues , even in the face of Ballymore’s declaration that “a high-quality, public realm” will be offered. Extensive talks have been held with landscape architects and third parties about the trees, it said, adding that 70 new trees will be planted .
Promises, however, have done little to assuage Thompson’s anger: “Ballymore . . . never replied to any communications. They represent – to me and to the community members who so passionately opposed their environmental vandalism – exactly the conscienceless face of building companies throughout the world who routinely trample over local opinion,” she told The Irish Times .