Thursday 15 June
Thursday was a bustling day at the Fitzrovia Arts Festival. We began the day in the quiet beauty of The Fitzrovia Chapel. Yoga teacher Hazel Sainsbury took us through an hour of Iyengar yoga, focussing on our alignment and posture. Thank you Hazel for sending us off into the day with a sense of calmness.
Local resident Denise Julien and Director of the Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, Rebecca Hossack spoke to us about the importance of guerrilla gardening - of reclaiming urban space for the planting of beautiful trees. After a long battle with Westminster Council, Denise managed to secure funding for her great planting work. On the other side of the border, Rebecca Hossack detailed formidable battle with Camden Council 15 years ago about a Gum tree outside her Windmill Street gallery. Fifteen years later, Camden are threatening to remove the trees Rebecca planted in Conway Street that have lived peacefully here for fifteen years. Read Denise's speech bellow:
In April I was in Quito and the first thing I noticed is that there are trees everywhere. No phone boxes, no advertising billboards or useless street furniture, just trees and planters. Being on the equator, Quito needs the shade that trees provide, which is something we are going to need here, as our summers become hotter.
Guerilla gardening isn't a thing there. Any space on pavements or anywhere is given to plants, which either the local authority maintains, or simply anyone who wishes to plant something. Unlike here, where planning permission is needed for every planter.
10 years ago, I started cultivating the grounds around the large tree pits in Carburton Street as they were really ugly. As well as improving the aesthetics, I create a rain garden, which will drain away any excess rainfall.
Our concrete cities don't allow for adequate drainage and flooding has increased in frequency and is likely to continue to. Hence the need for more greening and the replacing unnecessary street furniture with trees or plants.
The rain garden was a steep learning curve. The first thing I noticed was that dogs love to turn over the soil damaging the plants, so building a border and a hedge is essential. Then I couldn't figure out why the bulbs I planted weren't flowering. The squirrels ate them all. The flowers that did grow, daffodils, which are poison to squirrels, were being trampled on.
It turned out that men, mainly Deliveroo cyclists, were using the trees as urinals. So, I widened the buxus hedging to stop this behaviour. And this did work. But 5 years ago, there was a blight on buxus plant, which isn't native to this country. They got infested with black and green worms. So, all the buxus plants had to be replaced with an alternative, the Japanese Spurne, which was very expensive. The blight in Buxus plant is still an issue today. It appears that these worms have really taken them over.
After a few years the borders around the trees needed replacing, so I got Concord property developers to build wooden sleepers around all 8 trees. It looked great and everyone loved it, that is, except for one person who reported me to Westminster Council. I needed planning permission for this, which I did not obtain. My argument with them lasted several months. I was terrified that I would have to bulldoze the whole rain garden.
I won the argument by reminding them of all the benefits my rain garden provides and of a letter they received from Professor Jorg Imberger, internationally renowned for his environmental work, who told them after seeing Carburton Street, that there have been scientific studies showing that green areas have less crime and the benefits of green space reaches out to the community to achieve a more sustainable lifestyle : He included " The work I have done is simply a great idea, I have not seen such a large area taken over by a single volunteer before.
The irony is, that here, I have to tie down each plant with wire, as they are being stolen. One time, I even had to involve the police over stolen planters. But, on the whole, it does reduce crime as people can see the area is well taken care of, and antisocial behaviour will not go unchallenged here. This sort of comes under the broken window theory from America, where it was noticed that when a broken window was not replaced other crime pursued....
On the corner of 101 Cleveland Street, on its north side, the property developers Dukelease, constructed a public seating area. This was going to atrack the homeless and late night drinkers, as well as a lot of littering from people sitting there to eat. The amount of litter generated in the square is a problem and I didn't want this in my area. So, I collected signatures to have the seating space replaced with plants, with the support of Westminster Council.
Dukelease ignored both me and the council, so I went ahead and made a garden anyway. What I did there is guerilla gardening but It isn't a council matter as it is private property, nor is it a police matter as there is no criminal damage to property. So, I won that one too.
What works in a specific area is a matter of trial and error. Nature can be both good and bad, for example the worms that infected the buxus plants. Slugs and snails are also a problem. We've had Dutch Elms disease just to name another. Stinging nettles are very good weeds as they feed butterflies. So I urge you to allow nettles to grow.
The other side of greening our neighbourhoods is to prevent street furniture being set up by councils to ensure more planting and gardens. The media industry are experts at bending councils and governments to their will to encroach on our pavements and streets. The obvious example being the phone boxes that BT changed in the 1990, when everyone was starting to use Mobile phones, purely for advertising space, not for any public good.
I tried to fight them as phone boxes became tools for crime, drug dealing, prostitution that fed into people trafficking, but the retort I got from the authorities was there's nothing we can do, and one time I was even told " to stop bullying the media industry! I thanked them for believing that I had that level of influence.
So next time there is an implementation to install other types of useless street furniture, and we don't know what will come up in the future, please object and emphasize the need for more trees and gardens, or, get ahead of the curve, and start putting down more trees and planters.
At the Fitzrovia Community Centre, children from the All Soul's Primary School, and other children from Fitzrovia, gathered to listen to an afternoon concert, with music themed around the trees of Fitzrovia.
Local playwright Sue Blundell and actor Julia Hawthorn took us on an enchanting imaginative journey through the trees of Fitzrovia with an anthology of words and music from Shakespeare to Harold Pinter, and music from Beethoven to Tchaikovsky, performed by Daniel Bates, Beatrice Philips, Adam Newman, Hannah Sloane and Jan Zahourek
Pianist and performer Clifford Slapper gave us an exclusive look at his one man show 'The View from Behind the Piano' taking us through his early inspirations, and time spent playing piano bars in the West End.