A Green City Vision for Newcastle upon Tyne, England

Newcastle from air from south

Newcastle transition to a Green City Presentation

The above presentation pulls together some thoughts on creating a ‘green city’ vision for Newcastle upon Tyne in the NE of England. A PDF version is appended.

In 2010, Newcastle did win the ‘top green city’ award from the ‘Forum for the Future’ consortium. Actually, the result was very misleading. The city has the windfall of a big open space called the Town Moor, near the city centre, something rare if not unique in the UK (the green area in the top middle of the picture above). This skewed the result in Newcastle’s favour (and, in reality, the Town Moor is far from green in terms of ecological richness and diversity).

In fact, the city is very far from green in any meaningful sense (see: https://sandyirvineblog.wordpress.com/2019/04/12/green-what-does-it-mean-presentations/). It was named by the ‘Sunday Times’ for example as ‘tree-felling’ capital of England. It has been threatened with legal action because of air pollution in the city. The council has perpetrated the biggest grab of green belt land in the country, all for the sake of sprawling car-dependent ‘executive housing’ dormitory suburbs on the edge of town.

In many areas, there are empty shops, offices and housing. Indeed much of the housing stock is in very poor condition and many people do not have health-promoting parks and other green space nearby. Meanwhile, the local airport, with council backing, is seeking to expand air flights, despite the unsustainable damage it does. Action to encourage cycling and walking has been fitful while plans for big new roads keep rearing their ugly head (as in the case of the ‘Blue House’ roundabout and the expansion of the western bypass).

This presentation focuses on an alternative vision for a city that is sustainable and ‘future-proof’ in this age of rapidly worsening climate breakdown and other forms of ecological meltdown. Action on all those fronts actually provides many opportunities to build a much fairer, more inclusive, and indeed more convivial community in Newcastle. But it will mean abandoning all the growth fantasies embodied in thje city’s development plan, the Core Stategy. We need a green plan for Newcastle and this presentation is a contribution to that end.

Later, detailed notes will be added in the form of a PDF. For some historical background, see: https://sandyirvineblog.wordpress.com/2019/03/16/changing-newcastle-1960s-2010s/

PDF version of presentation:

Newcastle transition to a Green City Presentation PDF

 

 

 

Advertisements

Changing Newcastle 1960s-2010s

Below is a Powerpoint presentation of how Newcastle in the NE of England has physically changed from the 1960s to the 2010s. Next to it is a commentary in PDF format that hopefully will provide background so viewers can make better sense of the slide

Newcastle-Changing for Better of Worse?

Newcastle-Changing for Better of Worse? notes

Newcastle from air from south

The first part uses the narrative structure of a route I took when I first visited the city in early 1968 for an interview at Newcastle upon Tyne University where I had applied to study Town and Country Planning (I was accepted).

I walked from Newcastle Central station through the city centre to the Claremont Tower on the campus.  Pictures from around that time are compared to roughly the same scene in recent years. Ones featuring trolley buses or trolley bus wires will, however,  be pre-1966 when the last service ran.

The second part spotlights some other changes, with a few slides at the end exploring changes already in the pipeline or being touted by the council and other forces in the city. Some issues are posed about the nature of change, its goals and related decision-making structures. Although Newcastle got off lightly compared to many Brtish cities in terms of  ‘civic vandalism’, many of the changes were steps away from the sustainable common good, sometimes making the city even less resilient in terms of coming ecological challenges. Too often the needs of the private car dominated all else, for example.

Current plans and projections also tend to ignore the ecological ‘facts of life’ and how the future will be very different to what is widely assumed by leading decision-makers and indeed the general public. We need a radically different vision if civilised living is to be sustained and a viable home created by other forms of life with whom we share both our local ‘patch’ and the Earth as a whole.

Regionalism, devolution and subsidiarity

See here for two explorations of the green ‘take’ on regionalism, devolution and subsidiarity:

Bioregionalism v. Borderline bankruptcy (Irvine)

Devolution and Regional Powerhouses Debate

These issues are becoming more and more critical. Within the rather disunited UK, for example, there are the struggles over the future of Scotland and Wales. Within England there are parallel arguments about the devolution to the regions and a new generation of powerful city bosses (‘mayors’), often presiding over new combined authorities. Then the is the whole ‘Northern Powerhouse’ scheme, very much an inherently flawed attempt to replicate mini-Londons in other parts of the country. There is, of course, widespread and justified resentment of London-centrism.

Outside the UK, there are struggles for regional autonomy if not separation. In  2017 it was Catalonia that, in Europe, provided the focal point but such movements could erup in many places around the world, from Quebec to West Papua. Yet most just look for a different division of the same economic cake and associated lifestyles. Yet ‘business-as-usual’ is simply not sustainable (eg https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/advance-article/doi/10.1093/biosci/bix125/4605229) We need, then, to look afresh at these matters and tease out a ‘sustainable regionalism’.

Looming over these matters back in Brtain is the push to take the UK out of the EU. In both Brexit and Remain camps, quite obsolete models of governance predominate. Manistream Brexiteers seem to entertain some fantasdy about a new Britannia that once again will rule the waves. Remainers, including some leading Greens such as Caroline Lucas MP and Jean Lambert MEP, have largely abandoned traditional (and valid) criticism and the EU, not least the Single Market customs union and associated free movement of people. Yet the flaws of the EU remain and indeed politicians such as Emmanuel Macron are pushing for even more political centralisation. Again we need to go back to green basic and develop fresh idea.

 

Newcastle Blue House roundabout monster plan

Blue House plan aerial view

The proposed Blue House roundabout is being called locally the ‘Gosforth suppository’ (it is lozenge-shaped and the planners intend to shove it at the bottom end of Gosforth). Perhaps it is no accident that the ‘consultations’ are taking place at the start of the school holidays. At these events the public is being told that nothing is set in stone but clearly the plans are well advanced so unless there are strong protests this wretched scheme will be bulldozed through by our Labour council.

Blue House plan-map

The giant roundabout planned for the Blue House to the north of Newcastle city centre, just south of the first houses in Gosforth. It is part of a package costing some £60 million now being spent on roads in Newcastle. The highway planner in charge of the scheme apparently told an enquirer that the scheme is designed to increase traffic. Growth is indeed the mantra of the city council. Already, more traffic is set to be pumped onto these roads by new housing at Whitehouse Farm to the NE of the area.

But that extra traffic is not all. Past experience suggests that the widened roads and speedier roundabouts will, by themselves, attract more vehicles anyway (the ‘rebound effect’). Thus the problems of congestion, air pollution and accidents will return sooner or later, while nearby housing will be blighted and great green space lost. None of this is evident on the visualisation below which shows just a few cars using the verdant new roundabout. 

Blue House plan

 

Council rhetoric can distract attention for what is a huge land grab, gouging out big chunks of the Town Moor (Dukes Moor and Little Moor sections). However, no figures were available at the consultation regarding the scale of the loss. None of the fancy computer visualisation showed the site as it is in comparison what is planned. However, the designers had managed to cover the visualisation with lots of mature trees (perhaps not surprisingly, there were no figures for the number of trees to be cut down)

Also lacking in the maps, visualisations and other material at the consultation on the two schemes was any mention of the severe ‘pinch points’ between the two sites, especially to the east of the T-junction with Osborne Road. Presumably, at some stage, the council planners will be back demanding more land for more roadways. For the time being, they have another trick up their sleeves, one buried in the details. It  is the stopping of the turn right into Jesmond’s Osborne Road for traffic coming eastwards from the new roundabout.

In the planners’ tunnel vision, the only way to keep a higher volume of traffic moving smoothly on this stretch of road is to remove the turn right lane. That will stop the 33 bus route that goes from Gosforth to the city centre via Jesmond.This road alteration will also force traffic coming from Gosforth to Jesmond to head south and enter Jesmond via Clayton Road or Forsyth Road. Both are highly unsuitable in terms of greater vehicle usage.

The current problems at the existing Blue House roundabout are largely caused by bad drivers. The emphasis should be on that. There may be several options, perhaps installing traffic lights (at least for part of the day), perhaps reducing the size of the roundabout’s centre (its size forces drivers to swing outwards), perhaps removing the two lane right turn (whose existence seems to confuse some drivers who dangerously cross lanes whilst turning right).

No amount of cosmetics can guise the destructiveness of the scheme nor its long-term ineffectiveness. The only sustainable plan is one that reduces the number of cars and lorries on the roads. In particular, it has to be made easier, cheaper and quicker to not use a car than to use one. That message might not be popular in many quarters. But it is the only way forward. All else is at best gimmickry and this plan is far worse.

Newcastle’s Town Moor: Green It!

Town Moor path

The Town Moor is one of Newcastle’s most noted landmarks. It also demonstrates some of the difficulties in developing sustainable land usage to replace present day degradation and waste. The Moor is certainly a sizeable area. When the Nun’s Moor extension is taken into account, it is bigger than London’s Hampstead Heath and Hyde Park combined. Few British cities have such an open area so close to their centre.

Yet from an ecological point of view, the Town Moor is a badly degraded space. Large parts of it are the remnants of an open cast site. The ‘hill’ in the NW corner is largely the product of spoil dumped from the construction of the dual carriageway which not only devoured a large area of land but also divided the remainder of the original Moor into two quite separate sections.

The land itself now provides rough grazing for cattle. It might be compared to the British uplands, large parts of which were described by the great ecologist and land reformer Sir Frank Fraser Darling as “man-made wet deserts”. The pioneer conservationist John Muir was even moved to call sheep four-legged locusts. The uplands are kept in their impoverished condition largely by a combination of overgrazing and excessive muirburn.[i]

From the perspective of biodiversity, the Moor is something of a wasteland. But its potential for human fulfilment is rather restricted too. It comes out poorly in comparison to similar sites in other countries. Think of Paris and the Bois de Boulogne or Vancouver and Stanley Park. New York’s Central Park is both more beautiful and more useful than the Town Moor. Even what are tiny sites by comparison have been developed to provide a richer and more varied experience (e.g. the exquisite Chinese park in Vancouver). Developments such as the Eden Project in Cornwall display more vision too.[ii]

Objectively the Town Moor might, then, leave much to be desired. Subjectively, however, it is immensely popular with many thousands of people. It also hosts the Hoppings fair. It might not be the destination of choice for many Greens, but it certainly entertains an awful lot of local folk. There may well be many individuals who might object to dense planting of new trees and other vegetation on the grounds that it would provide cover for muggers and rapists.

Such conflicts of perception and valuation are replicated elsewhere in the NE of England. Many visitors flock to sites like Rothbury’s Cragside House and gardens, for instance. The acres of rhododendron there are particularly popular. Yet the plant is a virulently invasive alien, which is now requiring expensive eradication programmes in areas such as NW Scotland. More generally, organisations like the Ramblers Association fight to preserve what they see as the open vistas of areas like the North Pennines and Cheviots, yet such uplands would be largely covered in woodland were it not for human deforestation, followed by the herding of excessive stocks of sheep and deer (often subsidised at public expense) plus further blows from pollution.

Alternative Land Use for the Moor

So there may be a strong case for new land use initiatives on the Town Moor. Its very size and location provides much scope for positive change, to act as a model of a more sustainable land use, and to enhance its status in terms of landscape, recreation and nature conservation. Every bit of land is need in the fight to reverse biodiversity losses and habitat decline[iii] as well as respond to concerns like climate change, food security and the poor state of the nation’s health (e.g. expansion of allotments, more woodland and ponds, trim tracks).

Already there are some good schemes in the locality to build upon such as Scotswood Natural Community Garden and the Exhibition Park lake wildlife and biodiversity project as well as various wildlife gardens and community farms across the region.[iv] The city of Leicester has two good examples of what might developed on the Town Moor: the ‘Ecohouse’ in Western Park and the Brock Hill Environment Centre. Then there is the wonderful little wildlife park just before trains enter the hyper-urban world of London’s King’s Cross railway station.[v]

Yet such a vision for the Town Moor risks popular wrath. Many, many people see the Moor – as it is – as part of their heritage and might react badly against those they perceive to be threatening it. So careful consideration is necessary when it comes to such matters but there are pointers to how best to proceed.

For a start, it has to be stressed that there is nothing sacred about ‘tradition’ or ‘heritage’. After all, many cruel, oppressive and destructive practices have long roots in history. Of course there are also a good many things worth conserving from the past as well as old skills to be re-learnt. Certainly we should have no truck with the values and priorities that led to large parts of Britain’s townscapes being wantonly destroyed in the name of ‘progress’. Newcastle itself lost many fine buildings to the developers’ bulldozers and wrecking balls.[vi]

A sustainable society will be partly fashioned out of the best of the old. But it would also depend upon radical innovation, guided by the principles of what might be ‘ecodevelopment’. Locations such as redundant factory sites, derelict old warehouses, contaminated former mineral workings, multi-storey car parks and supermarket parking lots would be obvious priority candidates. But given the scale of change needed, sites like the Town Moor might well have be ‘redeveloped’ as well.

Moor Change

Actually the Town Moor is not what it was. Nor is it what was it was once planned. Certainly there is a very long history of pastureland there, perhaps dating back some 800 years, since the previous woodland was cleared. [Of course, in certain past geological era, the land was under the sea or covered by desert and might be again in the extremely distant future… but we can only take responsibility for our own times!]

But subsequent history is quite varied, though it is most certainly a plus that it has not been covered under the normal urban sprawl. Richard Grainger, the famous 19thc. architect, developed a plan for a big park on the Moor but only bits of his scheme were to be realised. In 1966 there was a landscape plan for a big central lake and lots of woodland planting.

town-moor-lake-plan

Over the 20th century, big bites, amounting to roughly 20% of the original area, have been taken out of the Moor: new sections of the RVI, Fenham Barracks, Leazes Halls of Residence, and the dual carriageway. There have been large-scale open-cast workings on the remaining area while old cattle watering ponds have been largely replaced by pipes and some wetland infilled. Activities such as dog-racing have come and gone. Generally biodiversity is much lower than, say, Victorian times.

So much of the Town Moor’s environment has been significantly altered, even if surface appearance might not appear too different to what it was. The real issue is how it might change in the future since nothing ever stands still. Land ownership and use on the Moor is regulated by Acts of Parliament (the last in 1988). In practice, an unrepresentative clique, the Freeman of the City controls usage, though ultimate ownership still rests with the Council. Allotment users on the Moor’s fringes have frequently complained about the Freemen’s attempts to push them out.[vii]

One way forward might be to propose land use changes, as suggested above, on just part of the Moor, leaving the Hoppings undisturbed. In any case, likely increases in oil prices in the not too distant future may put pay to travelling fairs. Groups such as the Freemen presumably would object to the necessary legislation on the grounds that it is some sort of ‘land grab’. Yet the land on which sat working class communities have long been subject to compulsory purchase orders and other such measures to make way for ‘development’. In Newcastle, this has ranged from railways (the Tyne crossing, for example) to the two central university campuses as well as more general schemes to raise property values (and therefore council income, as in the Going for Growth clearances).

Land tenure reform and changed land use on the Town Mooris certainly a more sustainable option than ‘business-as-usual.

[i] For alternatives, see, for example,

http://www.reforestingscotland.org/ and http://www.bordersforesttrust.org/

[ii] http://www.vancouverchinesegarden.com/index.htm) and http://www.edenproject.com/

[iii] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/aug/06/piece-by-piece-conservation

[iv] http://www.farmgarden.org.uk/

[v] http://www.wildlondon.org.uk/naturereserves/camleystreetnaturalpark/tabid/124/default.aspx

[vi] For a sad general history, see Gavin Stamp’s Britain’s Lost Cities (Aurum Press, 2010)

[vii] The world of the Freeman can be sampled here: http://www.freemenofnewcastle.com/news.html