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Duty of dereliction

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We should make the most of derelict sites, even if only for the short term, says Lindsey Whitelaw

With developers drawing in their horns and development programmes put on hold or sites mothballed, many urban landscapes will come to be dominated by derelict sites, hoardings and shored-up buildings. Even if the longed-for green shoots of recovery do start to sprout, the planned regeneration of many areas will undoubtedly be slower than anticipated.

Developers will face the challenge of marketing those sites already underway. CGIs and hoardings can only go so far in creating a vision of what is to come, but they do not make a positive contribution to the environment. Prospective buyers have to have a lot of faith and/or imagination that their promised landscape will be delivered in their lifetime. 

These mothballed sites could, at relatively low cost, be converted to amenity spaces which contribute to their immediate environment with costs offset against the insurances to shore up buildings or provide hoardings and security. Temporary uses for such sites are no doubt always considered (short-term leases, parking, storage etc) but they do not necessarily contribute to place-making.  However, there is no reason why interim uses and temporary well-designed landscapes cannot co-exist. The principle of the interim landscape is not new. Sixteen years ago, we created a wildflower meadow and informal kickabout space on the banks of the Grand Union Canal for Tower Hamlets Housing Action Trust, for the same outlay as it would have taken to secure the site. Hoardings would have created some unsafe and unsavoury blind spots and dead ends. Instead, the site was easily overlooked and well used until the time came to redevelop.

Well-designed public realms can contribute to the social well-being and economic improvement of areas

Plans for a tree nursery on a mothballed site are being considered by one of our clients to help green up the surroundings and provide a setting for their planned prestigious riverside development. Although not a public space, such mass tree planting in containers would act as a visual amenity and help mitigate the heat island impact, as well as providing some revenue and opportunity for local employment. 

At Peninsula Square in North Greenwich the 5m-high green wall is in fact a temporary device which can be dismantled and reused. In the interim, it creates an edge to the square, a habitat for wildlife and contributes to the amelioration of the microclimate, not to mention screening an unsightly car park.

Fears that these ‘spaces in waiting’ will become so valuable an amenity that communities are able to block future development do need to be addressed from the outset with covenants or other legal agreements.

Well-designed public realms can contribute to the social well-being and economic improvement of areas. Developers and local authorities stand to gain from creating such interim landscapes which could, after all, last for 10 to 15 years… the lifetime of a child.

Lindsey Whitelaw is managing director of Whitelaw Turkington Landscape Architects

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