18 April 2016

Lime green

Once upon a time, before the Mall was built and maybe before that, the Town Square was like St James’s Park. A huge open space, a nice simple rectangle surrounded by mature lime trees all the way round, and an avenue of trees running at an angle across the middle of the space. It was called the recreation ground, and there was plenty of space to walk your dog, lie around enjoying the sun or wandering aimlessly looking at the clouds. Before we know it, though, the space that's left is going to be halved, the trees mainly cut down and the whole place surrounded by a canyon of new tall buildings. It’s difficult to feel enthusiastic about the prospect.

The space has got whittled down bit by bit. There used to be buildings on the High Street side , so we’ve gained space there, but development of the Mall on one side and the bus station on the other mean the original trees are nearly all gone, all except for the avenue. And that is still a proper avenue: all the same kind of trees, continuous all the way along with not a single tree missing. A leafy corridor in summer, a maze of twigs and blue fairy lights at Christmas. It’s something special that has survived so long without getting spoiled - it's hard to imagine anyone would consider changing it.

But now that Walthamstow is going hell for leather to redevelop everything in sight, what about its future? The news is not good. The Mall is all set to expand dramatically, both upwards and outwards. In the last couple of weeks they have publicised plans which involve building over something like 50% of the green space, with new multi-storey buildings overshadowing two sides of the gardens.

Left: the council development policy diagram. Right, landscaping proposal.

Waltham Forest council’s development strategy shows a zone for potential enlargement of the Mall, a zone that keeps the town square exactly the same size as at present, and continues that line down through the middle of the children’s playground, cutting off the boring paved area that doesn’t really have a use. Of course the playground would get rebuilt, perhaps even a bit bigger and better. But the Mall’s plans mysteriously assume they can have much more than that, an indecently generous extra slice off the green space that will reduce it to a narrow corridor between the Mall and the trees. Oh, and we can keep the bit by the bus station.

Their solution? They think the best thing to do is cut down most of the trees, pave over the grass and just leave a few little pockets of lawn here and there. More Canary Wharf than Walthamstow. But an avenue of trees is an entity, it's the whole thing or it's nothing - you can't just chop it into sections and have anything worthwhile left.

There was an exhibition at the Mall last weekend, and a “consultation” event on Saturday that you could only attend if you’d already registered, but it looks like the only thing up for discussion was how many of the trees to cut down, and perhaps where to put the playground. Here’s hoping for some serious objections to the planning application when it goes in later this year.