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Green Sky Thinking: What would Walter do?

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If Walter Gropius was setting up the Bauhaus today - how would he tackle sustainability?

Reports from Jess Hrivnak, senior sustainability consultant at MaxFordham and Michelle Price, ex-AJ sustainability intern

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios hosted an evening event as part of Open-City’s Green Sky Thinking. It’s hypothetical theme - how the Bauhaus would have tackled sustainability - attracted over 100 people to their central London studio on Wednesday night. What unfolded was not so much an evening of radical ideas, but rather three speakers presenting unrelated but interesting projects:

- Jason Cornish of FCBS presented a project in Brixton
- Paola Guzman of Capital Growth presented her work in London
- Dan Epstein of Useful Simple Trust spoke about the Olympic Park and legacy

Jason Cornish, FCBStudios

Opening the evening, Jason Cornish presented FCBS’ project in Brixton, giving the audience a gallop through Brixton’s cultural and economic history. The site is situated on the ‘wrong’ side of the railway tracks; a section of Lambeth that stretches south from Coldharbour Lane. The redevelopment is being led by the community, a dedicated group of local people that have come together to form an organisation called Brixton Green. FCBS involvement came about following their One Brighton project, a housing scheme that followed the One Planet Living principles.

FCB Studios, Brixton Green

FCB Studios, Brixton Green

Unsurprisingly, the plans for the Brixton site include various community centres and community services along with approximately 240 homes built in accordance with 10 One Planet Living aspirations. What makes the project stand out against its peers? The founding members of Brixton Green invested huge amounts of personal time into listening to local opinion prior to getting the ‘professionals’ on board. The strap line is ‘Brixton knows what Brixton needs’. Over 4,000 hours of community consultation have gone into establishing the framework for the design.

The strength of the community initiative came across in the apparent disquiet with which Jason presented. The unspoken question: what is or should be the role of the architect in such a project? It remains to be seen how the design will develop, hopefully without losing the value of local opinion and engagement.

Paola Guzman, Capital Growth

Paola Guzman of Capital Growth presented amazing scenes from all over London. Recently in the press for giving away 50,000 tomato plants in Trafalgar Square, the Capital Growth campaign’s objective is to develop 2,012 Capital Growth Spaces by the end of 2012. With 1904 Capital Growth Spaces under their belts already, the organisation aims to empower communities to grow their own food through funding and training.


One space in Tower Hamlets struck a chord. A disused piece of land [Capital Growth Space No.58] previously used to shoot birds was turned over to the local residents to grow food with £700 funds. The residents of the surrounding tower blocks dramatically transformed the space and were awarded £5000 from the council to continue their work. Not only does this scheme allow people to grow their own food and reduce the demand on the food industry, it also plays an important role in reconnecting and building communities.

How credible is the vision for urban food production? Paola cited the need to stop approaching the challenge of feeding the capital in an all or nothing mindset. Providing the capital’s meals from within the city is not a sustainable vision. Farmers within the greenbelt have made a livelihood of feeding the city. We need the culture of farming to continue to maintain diversity in the landscape and support biodiversity. Rather than striving to make the city fully self-sufficient, we should aim to increase the amount of delicate, perishable foods grown at the domestic scale within the city’s limits thereby reducing our reliance on long-distance imports.

Targets for urban food production and sourcing are shown in the diagram below.

Growing Communities aspirational diagram of urban food growing

Growing Communities’ diagram of urban food growing

Dan Epstein, Useful Simple Trust

Dan Epstein, former head of sustainable development and regeneration at the ODA, delivered a quick fire amalgamation of provocative statements and questions on constructing cities and places for the future, highlighting themes he is addressing in his current employment at the Useful Simple Trust, a sustainability consultancy working on a range of strategic projects that crossover from individual carbon and energy studies to corporate policy and framework advice. The talk stimulated the audience with polemics such as if we want to build to last, we need to build for change. Are the places we are designing robust enough to withstand change? Showing images of Grenada vs Masdar, Dan stated that too much of what we are currently building is ephemeral. He challenged the audience to think of the sort of life and community that we will want in the future, posing the question as to whether we are thinking back from that future to enable us to make that a reality.


One of the most interesting questions posed from the floor was how to make some of the lessons learnt cited by the speakers work beyond London? London has enough vibrancy and has experienced enough change to work as a city. It is anarchic, it works, and more people want to live here than can be accommodated. The problem lies rather with the proposed greenbelt new towns which are a much bigger challenge. No solutions were proposed, rather we all pondered on the truism of the statement.

A thread that ran through the successful projects was ‘trust’. Many examples of recession-bucking business ventures are capitalising on the desire for familiarity, for localness. We are seeking out services and products which have meaning, a connection. Building this ‘trust capital’ seems to be critical in delivering successful urban interventions.

In answer to the question that was raised during the evenings presentations of how successful the Olympic Park will be in legacy mode, more work needs to be done to engage with the public to build the trust to allow it to happen. With media reportage focussed on the design failings and the lack of adaptability for legacy of many of the venues (most notably the Olympic Stadium), a culture of scepticism is being created that could be detrimental to fully allowing the Londoners to embrace the area and make it a vibrant place.

So what would Walter do? Well no one knows, but a strong theme which ran through the evenings event was ‘local’. The need to buy local and support local economies to maintain sustainable communities in the future appeared to get the support of the majority of the audience.


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