In a city as highly developed and densely populated as London, it would be easy to imagine there are no surprises left to discover. Yet, just a few metres from one of the busiest road junctions in the capital is a mature woodland of more than 450 trees that has been largely hidden from public gaze for 40 years.

This unexpected arboricultural treat is tucked between the slab-sided, mid-rise concrete blocks of the Heygate estate at Elephant and Castle in southeast London. The emergence of this lost “urban forest”, known to residents of the estate but seemingly off the grid to everyone else, came about as a result of redevelopment plans for the area that will see the estate succumb to the developers’ wrecking ball; plans that threatened the survival of this newly rediscovered urban wood.

The Heygate estate was completed in 1974, at the tail-end of the postwar experiment in regeneration and social engineering that, four decades on, still attracts wildly conflicting opinions. The plot line is well known; deprived and bomb-ravaged areas filled with dilapidated low-rise tenements are cleared for development. Bright-eyed and idealistic young architects, inspired by Nadir Afonso and Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation principles and the brutalist architectural movement, are employed to effect not just a rehousing exercise but a completely new philosophy for living.

There are problems, however; the rough cast concrete that glistens white as Portland stone in the bright Marseille sunshine that bathes Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse, is grey, leaden and depressing in northern European skies. There is not much call for paddling pools on the roofs of tower blocks north of Paris, either. Shortcuts in construction and poor quality materials result in buildings that are often poorly executed, leading to continuing problems of damp, decay and eventually to premature disintegration. As local authorities have their funding for social housing cut by central government, estates fall into disrepair. Policy changes lead to an increase in transient residents using emergency housing, undermining the sense of community. At their absolute worst, the blocks become no-go areas, rife with crime and populated by tenants who long for the days of the back-to-back, low-rise housing the concrete high-rises were supposed to save them from.

Despite this, many of the postwar blocks were, and still are, appreciated by their residents. The brutalist development at the Barbican in east London shows how successful they can be when high quality design is faithfully carried through to execution. The apartments that comprise the Barbican complex are highly desirable; the lease on a one-bedroom flat overlooking the centrepiece lake and gardens is now more than £800,000. Aside from the architecture, what sets the Barbican apart is the quality of the gardens, centred on a great expanse of water that flows around and in some instances under the buildings.

Fifty acres of the bomb-damaged Elephant and Castle were earmarked for development after the second world war. The old back-to-back housing made way for new housing estates, and a wide gyratory road system. Around it sprung up a cluster of brutalist blocks; Ernö Goldfinger’s Alexander Fleming House, Sir Roger Walters’ Perronet House and the Heygate estate.

Heygate’s architect, Tim Tinker, designed the estate around four large, long mid-rise blocks that hem in several smaller maisonette blocks. Inside the space formed by the blocks, he laid out a series of formal, geometric spaces, graded to form raised, brick-edged plateaux or slight depressions in the ground. Larger public gardens were made in corner plots and the maisonettes were allocated their own small gardens.

What makes the landscape unusual, especially for a social housing development, is that a significant number of the 450 mature trees there – mainly London plane (Platinus x acerifolia) – were mature specimens, 20 years or so old, when they were planted. Many of these trees are now more than five storeys tall. The star of the show is a huge silver maple (Acer saccharinum) that predates the building of the estate by many decades, back to the time when the Elephant and Castle was an entertainment hub south of the river, known for its theatres, picture houses and dance halls.

The Heygate estate has never had the cache of the Barbican, but the redevelopment plans for the site were and still are controversial. Other brutalist schemes such as Park Hill in Sheffield and, close to the Heygate, Alexander Fleming House (once an office complex, now rebranded as the residential Metro Central Heights) have been successfully re-engineered and protected with listed status. Why not the Heygate?

There are accusations of history being repeated, with the area being socially engineered to encourage middle- and upper-middle-class City workers at the expense of low-income families. Many of the residents of the Heygate’s 1,260 apartments were reluctant to leave, some holding out almost to the bitter end.

Today the estate is abandoned, surrounded by security fencing and with access to the site strictly controlled. Demolition by the developer, Lend Lease, has already begun, but the bulk of the buildings still stand; a graffito warning to “Beware the Wolves”, spray-painted on to one of the high-level walkways, seems apt enough. Inside the forest, between the maisonettes, it is easy to forget that this is an inner-city estate.

There are still poignant traces of the gardens made by the residents of the maisonettes, a hydrangea or two, bay trees, Viburnum tinus and a huge, three-storey-high loquat (Eriobotrya japonica). The tall plane trees make the space feel human, such that the much taller blocks that form the boundaries of the estate recede almost completely. It feels more like a tree-lined mountain valley; and quiet too, the sound of the nearby gyratory system completely erased.

Whatever conflicting views exist on the merits of the architecture and the movement that spawned it, the landscape at Heygate, and the urban forest hidden within for all these years, was, and is, a success.


Saving the urban forest

Southwark Council and developer Lend Lease’s original proposals for the Heygate estate treated the site effectively as a blank canvass. Perhaps that isn’t too much of a surprise. The physical boundaries formed by the buildings, and lack of any public thoroughfare – plus the estate’s reputation for danger in latter years – had isolated the Heygate from its surroundings. What existed inside was a mystery to all but the residents.

Local resident Guy Mannes-Abbott was part of a group that had been working to quantify the environmental benefits of the trees. Together with “guerrilla gardener” Richard Reynolds, they set up the Elephant and Castle Urban Forest campaign to highlight the threat to the trees posed by the planned development and encourage a reappraisal of their importance. The group campaigned to encourage greater use of the estate during the interim before demolition began, and better public access of the new site after completion.

A series of events, including Saturday morning walks, poetry readings, dance performances and guerrilla gardening, animated the empty site. Polytunnels sprang up on the high-level walkways, and vegetable gardens were made in the groves between the trees. The group remapped the estate and allocated evocative names to areas to shift the focus away from dereliction and on to the landscape; Walworth Woods, Sweet Chestnut Slopes, Cuddington Copse.

The campaign managed to sell back to Southwark Council and Lend Lease the benefits of the urban forest to the future development, and in October 2011 the proposed master plan was withdrawn and a new one proposed, integrating as much of the forest as possible. Lend Lease has a reputation for taking environmental considerations seriously. It has engaged environmental adviser Professor Chris Baines and is using new technology to prevent damage to the roots of the trees, such as air spades.

The new scheme, which has now been renamed Elephant Park, will create one of the largest public parks built in Britain in 100 years.


Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries in London


Letter in response to this article:

Right kind of leaf / From Mr John Howard

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