Friday, 16 January 2015

London's got a new tree

Just behind Kings Cross, in the middle of a huge sea of construction, is a special tree. Around it is a bench, so you can sit and stare at it. It looks old, and venerable. Yet it is not some remnant preserved from before the development. Those have long since been removed. This is a new tree, a 63-year old swamp oak imported from Germany. Britain cannot even grow its own plants anymore.

Behind this woody museum stretches a short row of plane trees. They drop straight into the tarmac and concrete, kept alive by some underground network of drains. Around them steel and glass soar upwards. There are no birds but pigeons. It is amazing anything can survive at all. I would die in a matter of days if Pret a Manger could not keep me supplied.

Re-wilding has become the conservation issue of the day. The idea of reintroducing species, of releasing large areas of land to the forces of nature, of letting our own hearts wander is inspiring, enervating. But there is one area where I think the debate needs to progress more rapidly, and that is in rewilding our towns and cities. Yes we need the reforestation, but we must also begin to break down the barriers that surround the places where most of us live, and make wildlife an everyday event.

Old cities are not too bad at this. They are thick with stone and trees, riddled with old lanes and gardens. They provide green holes and quiet spaces. Newer cities are dreadful. They are neat and polished and smooth. The ground is sealed from the soil. They are ringed by roadways more effective than medieval fortifications – ditch, wall, death trap, wall.

The huge new developments I pass through in London and Bristol seem okay as far as shops and offices go, but they are a colossal missed opportunity for wildlife. Hedges and trees by Regent’s canal have been grubbed up and replaced with neat grass and pointless shrubs. The animals have gone. Not one of the new buildings that I can see has a garden, or even a green wall. There are no parks. The few plants, like the museum tree, are ornaments.

We must do better. We must make our cities conducive to life, make them ‘biophilic’.

Suburbs and garden cities will not do. Almost nothing is more destructive to the environment, wildlife and human interaction as a satellite town built around the motorcar. They have helped lead us to where we are. Dull lives. Sink estates with no economic activity, isolation and road-kill. At the same time our population keeps on growing. If we build on the greenbelt now, where will the next lot of houses go? No – the cities of the future must be dense and urban, but a new kind of urban which welcomes wildlife.

Lots of things will need to change to make this happen. Planning laws and buildings regulations for a start. Perhaps most of all though we will need to change what we think a city is for, and rethink ourselves. Yet I am convinced it will be worth it. By changing our cities, by insisting that new developments are built with wildlife in mind, it might even help our society. I would bet any money that a host of problems, mental and physical, could be eased with a little more beauty and wildness in our lives.