The New English Landscape

For more than a decade we – photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole – have documented the changing landscape and coastline of Essex and East Anglia, particularly its estuaries, islands and urban edgelands. We continue to explore many aspects of contemporary landscape topography, architecture and aesthetics, and in 2013 published our second book, The New English Landscape (Field Station | London, 2013), the second edition of which was published in 2015 and is now out of print.

Category: Landscape, Landscape Architecture, Architecture, Topography, Urbanism

Insurgent Gardens: The Dalston Eastern Curve Garden

Dalston Eastern Curve Garden © Larraine Worpole

Early in March this year an international conference was held in Austria on the theme of ‘The Child in the City’. It was organised as part of the Salzburg Global Seminar series of policy exchanges, and as one of the participants it was especially gratifying to hear two young women landscape architects – one working in Mexico City, the other in Beirut – say how much they had been inspired by their visits to the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden. It was for them, they said, an international exemplar for the re-habilitation of derelict urban land awaiting development.

A crowded and enthusiastic party of supporters was held at ‘the Curve’ on Sunday, 9 April, organised to draw attention to the plight of the garden, now threatened by development. People came to show their affection for this unique public space, and to urge that it be protected against future development – whatever its temporary status might have been once – given its phenomenal success. In a short time the Dalston Eastern Curve has become one of Hackney’s best-loved meeting places, which may not have been predicted, but is now an established fact. And when the facts change, as John Maynard Keynes once wisely said, opinions (and decisions) should change too.

Speakers included landscape architect Jo Gibbons and architect Liza Fior, whose separate practices came together to instigate the project through the process of engagement with the community, alongside French architects, EXYZT (whose own involvement resulted from the Barbican’s ‘Radical Nature’ exhibition in 2009). It grew out of a Design for London initiative called ‘Making Space in Dalston’. Both said the popularity of the garden and its ecological impact had grown with the imaginative way it was managed for people as well as for plants, while dozens of admirers ranging in age from 8 to 80 queued up to testify how much pleasure the garden had given.

Two themes recurred in what people said was most important to them. Firstly that the garden had succeeded because of the dedication and love its workers and hundreds of volunteers had put in over the years – and you don’t often see the word love in many ‘regeneration’ mission statements. Secondly, that what made Hackney such a special place was that it was precisely a place where people did such things – especially around Dalston Junction (think Four Aces Club, think Centerprise, think Free Form, think Arcola theatre, think Café Oto, think Ray Walker’s great Peace Mural). Without these radical, eccentric, people-based projects, which attract interest from all over the world, the junction would be just another angry traffic jam churning out particulates into the lungs of all the passers-by. The borough has always been a social laboratory, and that’s what makes many people want to live in Hackney, rather than the enticement of expensive apartments and opportunities for fine dining.

Jardins insurgents: the Barcelona gathering in 2001 on new urban parks

So if Hackney finds an internationally-admired exemplar of urban renewal on its doorstep, of the kind hoped for by the 2001 Barcelona conference on Jardins Insurgents, giving people in places like Mexico City and Beirut something to aim for, it would be a betrayal to allow speculative development once again to triumph over proven community need. There are so few success stories in sustainable urban renewal, to have one that grows in reputation by the day is why so many people are now resisting it being bulldozed to the ground – especially to make way for yet another retail corridor of uncertain provenance or future. Whatever happens in future, do visit the garden to see what an amazing place it is, and support the campaign to save it (and as a result save Hackney from becoming just another high-end residential quarter at the same time). The future is a garden, not a discount store.


For more details about the campaign to save the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden:

The Law Of The Forest And The Freedom Of The Streets

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This was the order of human institutions: first the forests, after that the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies. 

Giambattista Vico, The New Science

‘What the fuck do you think an English forest is for?’ raged Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, when served with a notice to move his caravan from its woodland clearing, in Jez Butterworth’s 2009 anti-arcadian play, Jerusalem. The kids who come there, he claimed, are safer than at home. This is where the wild things are. The opening stage direction: ‘England at midnight’.

Butterworth’s explosive ‘state of the nation’ drama raised many questions about the state of the nation. In a highly urbanised society, talk of the ‘meaning’ of the forest today might seem anachronistic. Yet it raises anew the spectre of waking up to find that many historic freedoms – about rights to roam and freely associate (and on occasions run foul of the law) – have been subtly suborned, or deleted. As the 1215 Magna Carta is being celebrated, it is a good time to remember its significant addendum, the 1217 Charter of the Forest. The Forest Charter formalised the right of unbonded men to access and use of the goods of the royal forests (grazing, fuel, food), while implicitly assuming the right to wander freely in the landscape as well as providing a place of refuge for those cast out of the social order. Forest sentiments still run deep, it would seem. It was public protest against the sale of Forestry Commission woodlands which prompted the first political turnaround of the present Coalition government in 2011.

Since 1215 such rights have been subject to political reversal. ‘Claim and counter-claim have been the condition of forest life for centuries,’ wrote historian E.P.Thompson, in his forensic dissection of the 1723 Black Act in Whigs and Hunters (1975). That Act introduced nearly 50 new capital offences, and was brought in to come down hard on poachers in the Windsor Forest. It resulted in a flurry of executions at Tyburn of villagers who had gone into Windsor and other forests in disguise (blacked up, hence the Black Act) or armed with staves or guns, poaching for deer.

Much of what we know about forests is owed to Oliver Rackham, intrepid historian of the woodlands of the world, who died last month. Rackham would have been sceptical to say the least about any attempt to conflate natural history with political symbolism, writing on several occasions that he had no time for any discourse which assumed ‘that trees are merely part of the theatre of the landscape in which human history is played out.’ ‘Trees are the actors in the play,’ he asserted, and from what we know today of the dire results of de-forestation around the world, he was right.

Yet the symbolic threshold between ‘civilisation’; and ‘the forest’ still holds fast – even in an age of CCTV, satnav, and satellite-tracking mobile phones. Mythologically, the forest was a place of alchemy and transformation: women become men and men become women; children turn into beasts, as Max does in Maurice Sendak’s, Where the Wild Things Are, and as Butterworth’s unruly youth do in Jerusalem. In the modern world, however, it has been the city which has provided the role of the forest, as a space where people can appear and disappear at will, associate with whoever they choose, and where a plurality of lifestyles, beliefs, and timetables co-exist, licensed or not. Yet if the young are demonised in rural England, as Butterworth’s play suggests, they are under even greater threat of containment or dispersal in the modern city, where the presence of young people in groups is today perceived to be a social problem.

When Danish architect and urbanist, Jan Gehl, was invited to undertake a study of the quality of London’s public spaces in 2003, his final report, Public Spaces and Public Life – London (2004), noted a particular absence of children and the elderly on the streets of the capital: of all people observed in the case studies, 95% were between 15 – 64 years of age. In a subsequent interview, Gehl said he thought the absence of children on London’s streets was not only surprising, but worrying, as it evinced a narrowing of the urban ‘public’. Anna Minton’s 2009 book, Ground Control, and the 2011 London Assembly Report, Public Life in Private Hands, both highlight an increase in surveillance and control in the public realm as the management of newly designed public spaces is ceded to developers, rather than retained by elected local authorities, resulting in a winnowing out of people thought ‘undesirable’.

future forest

For this and other reasons, when the architectural practice, Witherford Watson Mann, won a competition in 2007 to develop a public realm strategy for London’s Bankside, they chose to develop the project under the rubric of ‘The Bankside Urban Forest’. The final proposal, on which I also worked, is still being implemented. It imagined the Bankside public realm strategy as developing an urban forest rather than a park. There is an important difference. The term park originates with the Latin parricus or French parc, meaning enclosure. The early deer-parks were royal hunting grounds and strictly policed, whereas the forest came to be regarded as a place of liberty, without boundaries.

In recent times ‘forest space’ has acquired a set of architectural and topographical associations, signifying open-endedness and permeability, as a terrain which can be entered or exited at any point at the edges, and which visually changes and re-configures itself as the traveller moves through it. Because of their organic origins, forests offer a multiplicity of paths, routes, changes of direction, as well as clearings, copses, streams, rides and allées. ‘A person should be able to walk through a forest on the way from home to work,’ the architect Alvar Aalto once said. The American literary critic, Robert Pogue Harrison, in his book, Forests: The Shadow of Civilisation, has made similar claims for the forest as an abiding element in human experience, even when transplanted into modern conditions:

‘If forests appear in our religions as places of profanity, they also appear as sacred. If they have typically been considered places of lawlessness, they have also provided havens for those who took up the cause of justice and fought the law’s corruption. If they evoke associations of danger and abandon in our minds, they also evoke scenes of enchantment. In other words, in the religions, mythologies and literatures of the West, the forest appears as a place where the logic of distinction goes astray.’

Though the forest idea introduces elements now associated with ‘greening the city’, and largely determined by ecological imperatives – to counter CO2 emissions, to lower ambient temperatures, to increase surface water retention and avoid flooding – there are equally important social and economic imperatives in the forest strategy too. By adopting a more ecological approach to urban space strategies, there are greater opportunities to support local economies and conserve historic street patterns and connectivities. The forest idea is not based on centre-periphery economies and spatial hierarchies, but on equitable networks of livelihood and exchange. It embodies many historic associations with freedom and social justice.

Urbanists have for some time now been drawing attention to the ‘over-scripting’ of public space in modern urban regeneration schemes, so that all conflicts and loose ends are designed out of the development, and people are subtly organised and choreographed into patterns of use and timetables decided by others. This disallows for that sense of wandering, of going off-piste, and of discovering a neighbourhood or district by serendipity. The very qualities for which we admire historic European towns and cities have often been designed out of many new urban quarters in the UK. ‘The Bankside Urban Forest’ was intended to resist this over-inscription of public space.

The notion of the city as a forest is not a new idea. The idea of creating forest-like conditions as the basis for a new kind of urban public realm, builds on the past, but also embodies new ecological imperatives for making cities more sustainable environmentally, economically and socially. At its heart lies the historic ideal that both the forest and the city (Stadtluft macht frei – city air makes you free) are realms of individual liberty, and need be defended as such.


Illustrations from ‘The Bankside Urban Forest’ are published by kind permission of Witherford Watson Mann.

This short essay was commissioned by OpenDemocracy as part of a series on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, and is published simultaneously on their website at:

Going Dutch: 21st Century Parks


There’s a lot of doom and gloom in the parks world following the recent publication of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s State of UK Public Parks report detailing drastic local authority cuts to park budgets and staffing numbers. These result from the national government’s clampdown on council spending. Sadly this follows an undisputed park renaissance in Britain over the past two decades, thanks to nearly £700 million HLF money, and a concomitant rise in political support for parks and green spaces amongst municipal politicians – particularly elected mayors.

Not all news is bad news, however. A very good report has just been published jointly by UK and Dutch local authority members of a European Union programme, called Park for the Future: A Best Practice Guide for the 21st CenturyIt is full of ideas, enthusiasm and intellectual verve, and is just what is needed at this time.

The starting point for renewal, its authors argue, is that increasing numbers of cities around the world are keen to establish their credentials as ‘green cities’. This means that, at the very least, they are in the process of documenting and monitoring the parks and green spaces they already have, and are working out how these ancient commons, allotments, cemeteries, brownfield sites, rivers and canals, along with discrete bits and pieces of left-over land – as well as the major historic parks – can be mapped and developed as an integrated network. Such a mapping process is a pre-condition of the strategic development of walking and cycling routes, ambient temperature moderation, air quality improvement, water retention and urban drainage, and other environmental impacts by which green space enriches the urban fabric. Such ideas were first promulgated in important books such as Anne Whiston Spirn’s The Granite Garden (1984) and Michael Hough’s Cities and Natural Process (1995).

Seeing park systems as ‘urban green infrastructure’, let alone ‘multi-functional green infrastructure’, is hardly the stuff of poetry. The language goes against the grain – and the sensibilities – of English thinking about landscape and garden history, the vocabulary and aesthetic of which is dominated by the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) and the frictionless picturesque. By contrast, and for a very long time now, Scandinavian, Dutch and North America landscape architects – less weighed down by history perhaps – have found themselves concentrating on public works (rather than private gardens), using major landscape projects to shape and manage large areas of suburban, post-industrial and coastal terrain, combining aesthetic and environmental objectives. In Sweden, for example, linear parks connecting the suburbs to city centres, as walking and cycling routes, were already established by the end of the 1930s.

So should we be going Dutch? Probably yes. While Park for the Future provides imaginative case studies of European park innovation – from Promenade Plantée in Paris to Duisburg-Nord in the Ruhr Valley, and from new Dutch cemeteries to urban allotments in Ghent – the report fully acknowledges and pays tribute to the invaluable national and international research into park use, park economics and park typologies developed by the UK’s CABE Space in its all too brief life before the Coalition government closed it down. Interestingly the two local authorities instigating the Anglo-Dutch report, Rother District Council on England’s south coast, and Oostend on the Netherlands seaboard, are both coastal authorities where timely thinking about land erosion, water management, linearity and public recreation feature prominently. Both have developed impressive masterplans for integrating their respective coastlines into seamless parkland.

District parks indicative deficiency area map. Map reproduced with kind permission from the Regeneration Team at the Greater London Authority.

District parks indicative deficiency area map. Map reproduced with kind permission from the Regeneration Team at the Greater London Authority.

It can also be done on a much larger scale. The Mayor of London’s 2012 Supplementary Planning Guidance report, Green Infrastructure and Open Environments: The All London Green Grid, demonstrates this in great detail (and to which Jason and I separately contributed). The Guidance is the result of years of mapping all London’s extant green spaces, rivers, canals, flood plains, inter-tidal zones, areas of green space deficiency, development land, bringing into clear visual focus where new connections and networks might strategically best be located to enhance bio-diversity, non-motorised travel and recreation and flood relief, while addressing hot spots of air pollution, and even potential areas for urban agriculture. Of course ‘the map is not the territory’, and too often such strategic planning proposals gather dust on the shelf. But one hopes that there is now enough momentum in support of urban greening to prevent this happening.

River Lea, Queen Elizabeth Park, London (2012)

One final observation. Some years ago I heard American landscape architect George Hargreaves – subsequently involved in the London Olympic Park project – speak at a conference in Rotterdam on the future of new park systems. In his opinion any substantial landscape project which fails to foreground the management of the urban water cycle in all its forms is not worth embarking upon. The Olympic Park doubtlessly achieved this, even if it simultaneously obliterated many historical traces of the original landscape and its complex social history. But that’s another story for another time.

This posting is based on a talk given at a recent seminar organised by the Living Maps project.