5 March 2017

The Lime Tree Walk etc.

Above: aerial view of the gardens as they are, with the reduced footprint outlines in green.

Redevelopment of the Mall came a step closer with their second exhibition of proposals, held in the Mall on 24 and 25 February. There is a bit more detail, but nothing much has changed, except the towers have become even taller. The area covered remains almost exactly the same. My particular concern though, is with their intention to build over a large part of the present Town Square and Town Gardens which, let’s not forget, won the Mayor’s Award for Planning Excellence in 2004.

The gardens were laid out nearly 150 years ago, in 1869. They were originally much larger, a big open space very similar to St James Park (the Walthamstow one, not the one in central London) with trees all round the perimeter and an avenue of trees running diagonally across the middle. Construction of the Mall and then the bus station account for two thirds of the original area, but what is left is still a decent-sized bit of green open space right in the centre of town. Open space is a valuable resource, and this serves a very necessary function, a space for things to happen, and a relief from the busy market and the densely packed streets of terraced houses. You can of course point to the many other parks and gardens, and in fact the borough as a whole is well endowed with open space, but that does not detract from the value of public gardens in this busy location where people congregate in large numbers. With the increasing population represented by the many new flats about to be built, that pressure will only increase. In my view building over the Town Square and Gardens is short-sighted and quite simply should not be considered. But there is every indication that the council must be providing active endorsement of the proposals to do just that. The proposals will result in a much smaller space, a busy urban park that is mainly paving with planting beds here and there, fragmented spaces that will not allow most of what happens there now to continue.

Above: the plan of the gardens after development. But ignore the trees, most of them will be replaced with saplings.

The Town Square is big enough for the many events that take place there. The evening screening of the Olympics opening ceremony was a highlight. Some of the things I’ve seen include a BMX stunt display and a cycling event where you could try riding all kinds of unusual bicycles. There was a regular French market on Saturdays for a while, out in the square, not where the Sunday market is. The Walthamstow Acoustic Massive packed the square. I’ve seen more than one rapping contest (I think that’s what they were) and various other musical events, not all of them evangelical Christian. There was a road safety event that brought in some beautifully restored vehicles including WW2 Jeep and the fire engine from the Pumphouse Museum, and an HGV lorry to show cyclists what the view from the cab is like - I may have misunderstood the overall theme, but the point is there was plenty of room for the vehicles, information stands, the usual market stalls and still room for people going about their normal business. The planned expansion of the Mall will reduce the size of this space to a “gateway”, not big enough for anything.

Then there are the gardens. A large undulating expanse of grass, room for kids to run around, for lovers to find a spot away from the crowd, a pleasure just to walk through at any time of year. The children’s playground nestles conveniently across from the Mall entrance. It’s a little tired but nothing that can’t be resolved. Sometimes there is a small funfair. Then there is the avenue of 150 year old lime trees, which I particularly love. It’s nice in winter with the bare branches and network of sparkling blue fairy lights. Spring and summer are amazing as the leaves come out and turn the avenue literally lime green. Even autumn has its moments as the leaves turn colour and fall. It forms a natural connection between the tube station and the market - which the Mall doesn’t like because, in simplistic planning logic, it directs the flow of people past them. It seems especially inconceivable that the trees might be better got rid of, chopped down to make way for what might or might not be called progress.

There is a problem with the gardens though: the space between the avenue and the bus station is a bit of a wasteland, not so pleasant to sit out next to the buses and the blank back-end of the library, with unfriendly gravel surfaces that are not really used for anything. It would make more sense to build here and leave the other side well alone. There is space to create shops and cafes where you could sit out in the shade, a habitable space along the edge of the park, and flats above looking out over the treetops. That is unlikely to happen though, what with commercial logistics and the issues of ownership and development capital. The Mall proposal is to cut down the trees so the bit of space left isn't split up. At least they don't want the space for an American-style car park, but as Architects E17 point out, the Mall proposals don’t provide a plausible strategy for the whole. It’s up to Waltham Forest council to provide that overall vision.

Note: the diagrams are based on published information and are as accurate as possible given the limitations of the material available. The Mall proposals are here. Click here to view the Lime Tree Walk video.