I recently went on the Planting Steps walk organised by the Landscape Institute and Siobhan Davies Dance studios, led by Johanna Gibbons and Paul Lincoln, to look at green infrastructure along the way from City Hall to Elephant and Castle via Bermondsey. The walk was part of Siobhan Davies Human-Nature series exploring the dynamics of the relationship between people and plants, and part of London Festival of Architecture 2014.
First stop was Potters Field on the doorstep of City Hall and More London. Designed by Gross Max and planting by Piet Oudolf, it’s an interesting example of a park with ‘new perennial’ planting. The planting was yet to reach its peak (Echinaceas were not fully open yet) so the overall effect was green with blotches of purple and magenta from low-growing Stachys or similar. Gibbons pointed out the beautiful landscaping materials for us: paths made of narrow terracotta bricks (a reference to the pottery past), broken granite kerb-lines to allow surface run-off into planting beds, and the café that’s built of scorched larch, a treatment to protect the timber, that give it a charred and tactile look.
Stepping out of Potter’s Fields, right opposite us on Tooley Street was a green wall on the side of an apartment block, planted with ferns and other shade-tolerant plants, accompanied by lots of Pelargoniums in pots above. This apparently was the work of ‘Team London Bridge’, who invest in green infrastructure in their business improvement district. Around the corner we found a very clever little park benefiting the residents of St Olaves estate, designed by J & L Gibbons. Here, the park that used to be cut off from the estate and More London area, has been connected to its surroundings and as a consequence has much more use. The new planting beds were all sunken to collect rainwater, and planted with wetland plants such as Filipendula, Eupatorium, Persicaria and Lythrum. A fun detail in the park was poems carved into stone slabs and then cut and distributed around the park to give a challenge to the children from the nearby primary school to put it all back together and find the hidden message. All this has made the flats more desirable to live in.
We continued to Bermondsey Street through Brunswick Court past the White’s Grounds Skate Park under railway arches. Bermondsey Street was a lovely revelation. I have lived nearby for 10 years and this was my first time there. It won’t be the last! The street is rather narrow (I bumped painfully into a bollard on the narrow pavement) and doesn’t have much space for greenery, but we came to a small park that opens it out in-between the White Cube and The Fashion and Textile Museum. This was Tanner Street Park, improved by Southwark Council using Section 106 funding. For years, it had no frontage to Bermondsey Street. Now some of the railings have been removed and a wide and attractive entrance area has been created, that also accommodates a terrace for the Vietnamese café across the road.
From Bermondsey Street, we walked through an old churchyard (and were reminded not to dig too deep if re-designing them!) and came to Bermondsey Square. This is a lively pedestrian space enclosed by friendly apartment blocks, with lots of small shops, restaurants and cafés at ground level, and a Saturday food market was in full swing when we walked through. The bollards here are an unusual shape and colour (although still dangerous if you trip on them!) and the Swedish café in the far end is painted a cheerful shade of green. I wish the rest of London could look even half as friendly. (See photos)
Next we walked through Tabard Gardens housing estates, where they have used their ample green spaces for something productive and started communal allotments for residents. According to Gibbons, London has 190Ha of unused space, that could be freed for other uses such as urban agriculture. Tabard Gardens also had a great example of an annual meadow, full of poppies and other flowers.
From here, we walked to St George’s churchyard on Borough High Street. On the way I spotted some loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) trees in fruit, almost ripe! The mild winter has meant that their flowering has been successful this year. I shall have to remember to get back to collect a few of these rare and delicious fruits. The trees are easy to grow from the seed and grow quickly. But getting them to fruit is not so easy!
On St George’s churchyard we were looking at bad tree planting examples . The tree pits here are too small and too close together, and as a result the Ginkgo trees are very slow growing, compared to the the cherry trees we saw in the park designed by Gibbons, that had grown massive in only 10 years. But the site itself is a good example of how removing unnecessary roads in London creates popular and more liveable public space – there were several people sitting in this place. I can still remember it being a road cutting a church off its yard.
It was a pity we didn’t stop over at Charles Dickens Primary School to see how they have reclaimed part of Lant Street for themselves and made it a play space, which connects the school with their new vegetable and fruit garden. It is a lovely bit of green infrastructure, which could be replicated in other parts of London.
From this point on, ‘guerrilla gardener’ Richard Reynolds took over and showed us a few of the sites he has planted without permission together with other volunteers near the Elephant & Castle, starting with his own apartment block, Perronet House. Perhaps the most successful of these are the lavender beds in front of Morley College on Westminster Bridge Road. Now well established, this was a planting bed in the border of Lambeth and Southwark Councils, that was neglected by both of them. Guerrilla gardeners planted it with lavender and other donated plants, and managed to even negotiate new beds to be built for them when the cycle path was improved. Lavender pillows made out the lavender help to raise funds for the maintenance of these beds, which are still taken care of by volunteers. Elephant and Castle has big regeneration plans that has left areas of it unused for some time, and these places have also been taken up by guerrilla gardeners. Sadly we didn’t have time to go and see one of them, the Mobile Meadow site, where volunteers were going to bring wildflowers they have grown at home in a choreographed walk scheduled for the next day.
Our walk ended with a lovely lunch made of locally grown produce at Siobhan Davies Dance and a good bit of networking.