29 April 2016

An attitude to change

Last year, everything between the Standard and Gnome House was flattened, leaving a whole stretch of Blackhorse Lane with no buildings on the west side. It’s opened up a whole new vista of sky that wasn't there before. You quickly get used to that sort of thing, and begin to take it for granted that there is an amazing view every time the day ends with a break in the clouds, a red glow on the horizon and the clouds lit up pink, the sky shading through subtle shades from orange to deep blue. In the daytime, it’s the sort of big sky you get at the seaside, houses and shops along one side and nothing at all the other side. At least, like the seaside with a hoarding blocking off the view of the actual sea. This is temporary, of course. The buildings were demolished because new flats are going up, and soon enough they will be tall enough to block the view again, and then I suppose we will feel deprived of the previous open-ness for a while, until the new streetscape becomes familiar. It’s happening all over Walthamstow, with probably dozens of new development sites in the pipeline, large and small, averaging five to seven storeys and some of them much higher. The net result is going to be more buildings and less sky, a radical shake-up in the familiar landscape that has hardly changed for a long time.

The changes are a complicated equation, representing investment and improvement, but also loss of affordability and familiar places changed beyond recognition, a sense that things could go many different ways but the way it’s actually going is driven by profit, not necessarily by what people want to happen. So far, it’s mainly industrial sites that are being redeveloped, but the process is not stopping there, and is becoming increasingly controversial as the sites are closer to public attention. Two snooker halls and the derelict cinema in Buxton Road to become flats (hopefully the Embassy will only be converted, not demolished). More flats taking over the entire South Grove car park and industrial area, including some very tall buildings. Huge towers crammed onto a site on Lea Bridge Road, overlooking the marshes. A proposal to expand the Mall including a 27 storey tower and other buildings covering nearly half the Town Square Gardens. Not least, the whole Marlowe estate including the recently completed plaza and playground about to be demolished.

Some proposals are positive, nearly all need a healthy dose of criticism to try to shape them closer to what is appropriate. There is no point simply objecting to every change. It’s worth remembering that Walthamstow was more or less countryside a little more than a hundred years ago, and if capitalism in the form of property development hadn't changed things drastically, most of us would not be living here now.