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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘Symbolic Towers’

Not In My Back Garden

In which we talk about redevelopment and green space

Having just moved house, we’re very aware right now that in the south-west, affordable housing is hard to find. It might be getting harder, too. Yesterday’s news included an announcement that local councils will be able to block developments on garden land.

Note that the article there is rather optimistic as to whether that type of development will be stopped. It won’t be; the decision on whether to allow it will be devolved to local government, which is in democratic terms a Good Thing that’s hard to argue against. In practical terms, though, it means that developments will be stopped in areas where residents have the means and inclination to be influential and to lean on their councillors; and will be concentrated in areas where nobody’s going to complain. In other words, another polarisation policy, to increase the economic differentiation of our towns and suburbs.

At first sight, I thought, it sounds like it might be a good idea. After all, I grew up in a leafy suburb, built in a time and place when housing plots included reasonable gardens, and so I quite enjoy tree-lined avenues and verdant cul-de-sacs that help you forget you’re in a city. But, thinking about it, I’m not so sure it’s a good idea. Verdant cul-de-sacs are nice, but affordable housing is better. A blanket ban on building over gardens isn’t what’s needed; what would be more useful is a more general control on maximum density of housing. If the planning regulations included a rule that every X square metres of new housing must include Y square metres of private or public garden space, then developers would be as free as they liked to demolish old houses and replace them with flats; the open space and the greenery would be preserved, just in a slightly different form.

It doesn’t take much, after all, to give an area the greenery it needs. Symbolic Towers, from the front, has no green space at all, one house in a line of terrace with virtually every front yard concreted, tiled or gravelled over.* At the back, we only have a small square of garden, too. But despite its small size, the garden and the gardens alongside are a quiet, peaceful, green space, sheltered from the inner city with trees and bushes.

It’s easy to forget, when a development is fresh and harsh, how time mellows a landscape. As I said, I grew up in a tree-lined surburban estate, and that’s how it is in my memory. When I look back at photos from my childhood, though, I’m shocked by how bare it looks. There’s hardly any greenery to be seen: it’s a stark landscape of red-brick houses, bare, plain lawns and sticky saplings staked into the ground here and there. In my memory it’s always as it is now, those saplings all fleshed out into fully-grown trees, and gardens grown up to fill in the spaces.** We forget that gardens take time to grow and mature; we forget, indeed, that Britain has no such thing as natural countryside at all, even our “ancient woodlands” being to some extent man-made.*** Developing on garden space isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as some green space remains; and it’s easy for “we don’t want to lose the green space next door” to be a cover for “we don’t want flats that just anyone can afford next door!” If we have rules that ensure that some green space will remain, we can redevelop our cities in a sensible and healthy way. And in thirty years time, those new flats will be surrounded by greenery, and people will wonder that their street was ever any different.

* Do not ask about the gravel. Unless, that is, you would like some free gravel.

** Memo to my parents, 30 years ago: think twice about moving into a house with a horse chestnut sapling planted at the end of the driveway, because before it’s a third fully-grown it will already have buggered up the drains.

*** They are still ancient, of course. But pollen analysis shows firstly that their mixture of trees is rather different to the genuine primaeval forest that grew up between the end of the recent ice age and the start of farming; and, secondly, that we probably have rather more woodland today than we did 2,000 years or so ago.

Solidity

In which FP becomes a rather paranoid architectural historian

In field archaeology, there’s a subtle process that field workers undergo called “getting your eye in”. A plain brown swathe of earth, after a few hours’ work, becomes suddenly a complex landscape of shade and texture. A mass of tumbled stone becomes a distinct sequence of structural building and collapse. All of a sudden, the things on the ground start to make sense.

When you’re buying a house, I’ve found, the same sort of thing starts happening on an architectural level. All of a sudden I can spot cracks in plaster I’d never have noticed before, or the slight dimples in walls that can indicate buried wires. All this, of course, is a result of reading surveyors’ reports, reports that are paranoid to mention every slight little thing that could potentially cause a future problem.

“Large degree of springing in floorboard” first makes me think: oh no! We only have to jump too hard and we’ll disappear into the basement. But then, I think back, and start comparing it to other places. I start walking lighter and paying more attention to my feet in every building I enter. The flat we live in now, for example, has very springy floorboards. If you walk too heavily in the living room, you can see the bookshelves moving slightly. In the hallway there’s a big gap between two boards that you can feel through the carpet with your toes, and another patch where you can feel the boards have been cut then never put back securely. And even this isn’t as bad as another flat I lived in briefly a few years back, with floors so uneven I always think of it as: not so much a flat, as a slightly rippled.

Now, I’m not saying that being sharp-eyed is a bad thing. But sometimes it’s possible to be too sharp-eyed, and spot so many little details that it worries you. This “new” house might have bouncy floorboards here and there, but of all the houses we looked at, it probably has fewer of these little flaws than any others of similar age. It is fun, getting the chance to be an archaeologist again, poking around to work out what’s under the garden gravel and how usable the chimneys are.* I hope that eventually, though, we’re going to be able to relax a little, sit back, and not worry that one moving floorboard means the house is doomed to crumble into its foundations.

* One of the chimneys is definitely still open and functional, but that fireplace appears to have had its damper plate patched up with some sort of papier-mache or cardboard, so I wouldn’t fancy lighting a fire in it.