Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Natural Path Design Approach

'We are all in the same boat on a stormy sea and we owe each other a terrible loyalty”
- G. K. Chesterton
 The Problem:

           The worst thing about a horrible urban environment is that people consciously created it. In this countryside town there are very few trees in the main streets - why? In pictures from the 1920s all the streets were tree lined and look very attractive, and yet there was a conscious decision to remove them. Now you might think the road needed to be widened for traffic except that the alignment of buildings are the same, so it wasn't that. All the trees were removed in the name of 'sight lines' so traffic can see what is happening at the other end of the road. When this happens the traffic speed increases. So 'traffic calming' measures are installed to slow it down. And since fast moving traffic is a danger to the public, metal barriers have been installed. People are treated like animals, corralled along a route and this cannot be the most effective way to create a pleasant sustainable environment.
              There is another reason for the metal barriers. “To save money” the pavement has been treated the same way as the road and has a tar-mac surface. This is a false economy as metal barriers are needed to define the bit that is for traffic as there is really no other way to tell the difference. The tar-mac pavement also sends out a visual signal that the pavement is really for traffic so is it any surprise that people don't walk?

            Approximately £25,000 has been spent on street furniture that has almost no use, so there is not a shortage of funds. I questioned a Council member on this issue and received the response, “if we don't do things we don't get the funding”. So funding is available but it is being wasted to fulfil a quota rather than actually improve the town. As the Habitat Action Plan for Sussex states: 'the potential for improving the biodiversity of urban areas is tremendous'.

The Proposal:

            This proposal seeks to create a 'natural path' using extensive tree planting, flower beds and natural surfaces to form a route linking existing green spaces into an integrated habitat that weaves through the urban environment. This creates a more pleasant pedestrian environment, which encourages people to walk and so reduces pollution.

           Traffic is integrated into these proposals with 'parklets' (above) since it is recognised that traffic is currently linked to economic vitality. This proposal seeks to link green sustainability to economic sustainability, demonstrating the value of such proposals.
        The poorest part of the urban environment is also the poorest part of town and it is proposed that this is linked this to the High Street by a combination of resurfacing, trees and purpose-made planters to act as screens to the traffic intersection. Businesses are struggling, so parking is integrated into this proposal. This integration of parking along the natural path also has the benefit of negating the need for more car parks and so helps contain traffic pollution within an existing defined area.

                                  Car Park without trees above and after planting below

           The proposed trees reduce acid rain, improve air quality, act as a carbon sink, sound buffer, reduce wind speeds, give shade, both humidifying and reducing the 'heat island' effect as well as creating wildlife habitats. The removal of pollutants by trees is a localised effect and it is incredible that such a simple and natural solution is so often ignored.

                               High Street without trees above and after planting below

           'The Pavilion' proposed between the High Street and Park is currently occupied by public toilets that are in a bad state of repair. This is a commercial venture that seeks to re-new the public toilets at no cost to the public purse. This would also provide the finance for the town centre enhancements.

             Designalexable introduced a PLC company to the Council willing to undertake this part of the proposal. The offer was to lease the site of the existing toilet block for a new café/restaurant with new public toilets constructed as part of the proposals.
          As the Council would need funding for the greening of the town centre proposals and because these would have a positive trading effect for the operator, it was decided that the usual rent free period would become a lower rent period. So, the Lessee would pay the Council £30,000 PA + business rates for the first 5 years to offset the construction costs. After five years this would increase to £60,000 PA + business rates for the next five years and after that an open market rent.
          This immediate income to the Council could be used to cover the Council deficit to help prevent a reduction in services. But, why would a company enter into such an agreement? The reason is simple, the four main restaurants in the town each take approximately £20k per week. There are secondary restaurants with takings of approximately £10-15K per week. The site of the new Pavilion restaurant would be the best pitch in town. It would be the most visible to through traffic. It would have the best views and be easily accessible from the high street, park or restaurant area. It would be the only place to be when there were events on in the Summer.

            Does the town really need a restaurant or a café in this location? The answer is no and there is no valid assertion that public money should be spent on such a project. The Pavilion is only really required as a generator to fund the rest of the proposals. Once that is acknowledged it becomes important that the design does not dominate the park, but integrates into the environment.
          The Pavilion is cut into the hillside and operates on different levels. At street level, the pavilion seems small and is seen set within a courtyard sedum blanket roof garden bringing the park into the town and so becoming part of the greening proposals. 

           Gardens and glass houses have a communal history, but this needs to be a pleasant environment to sit and have a drink. South facing solar shades are water filled and act as heat collectors. The 80% recycled fret cut aluminium sun screens act as security shutters when the building is closed. On the upper level these are cut as a grove of saplings to act as both a green image of intent for the project and as a way of identifying with the level of the trees beyond. Tree shadows move across animating the environment with natural imagery. At Park level the screens use a plant pattern taken from the ceiling of a local church by William Kemp, reinforcing the 'sense of place' by connecting to the local history of the area. 

                                                   Detail of tree screens at street level.

           There is a continuing understanding that all our social, economic and environmental issues are inextricably linked and we breathe in our surroundings with all our senses. It has been the intention to present the green technologies used in this proposal in an integrated, unobtrusive way appropriate to the town so that they appear as simply the natural thing to do. So, in a sense this proposal is really just a signpost, an advert for the integration of nature within the built environment and seeks to demonstrate what might be achieved through small scale intervention in times of economic hardship.
                I was helped on the design research by my sister Danielle. She discovered that 100 years ago the park had been Mr Pannetts sheep field.

                       Danielle suggested that we design something for children that connected this history to the park. Her design is for sheep that when the children sit on them, their movement makes the sheep go "baaaaaa".

              I want you to copy this idea. I don't mean pinch the design, that's different. I mean COPY THE IDEA: look around you, think how you would make things better and visualise them. Propose something for your community no matter how simple. Don't do this as part of any 'political' motive, do it because it is a wonderful thing to do. It need not cost money, there are plenty of grants for the planting of trees or making the public domain more accessible. But if you don't want to go that route, get people to sponsor a tree maybe tagged with the name of a loved one. Or follow this example and use a commercial project to act as funding generator. Think of it this way: the people who laid out Regents Park, London or Central Park, NYC would never have seen what we see today. Trees take time to grow so they didn't do it for themselves, they did it for us. A present from the past for our enjoyment. Gestures like that are needed for those that follow us. So let's try and leave something worth leaving.

                                                      Proposed new seating in the park

               A video of the park proposals can be seen at:

               A review by The Little Green Mag can be found at:

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