Category Archives: Hidden environment

Walk Where Trains Used to Run

I am enamoured by railway parks after hearing of the high profile High Line in New York.  I have walked the Parkland Walk in North London and the Promenade Planteé.  I am pleased to see a tweet by Dave Meslin about the Railpath in my hometown of Toronto.  I grew up just 2.5 km from the start of the Railpath at Dupont near Dundas.  Looking forward to checking it out the next time I’m home for a visit.

Parkland Walk in London, December 2010 and Promenade Plantée in Paris, January 2011:

There is also a disused tramline in Vancouver called the Arbutus Corridor – not yet a park, but it would be great to see this regenerated into a public space that can be enjoyed by the local community.

Vancouver Ghost Sign and a Piece of Archaeology Erased

It’s been a long time since I posted to Look Up, Look Around, but I am so disappointed that the Vancouver ghost is gone that it has prompted me to write.

The application for development sign had been up on the buildings at the corner of Granville Street and Robson Street in the heart of the entertainment district of Vancouver for some time.  I walked past it everyday on my way to or from home since I moved here in April 2011.  The corner building, low-rise and a bit non-descript, had either lost much of its character or had kept it quiet.  Its neighbour is beautiful and ornate with an Egyptian-like art deco pattern – designated as heritage, its façade would be saved no matter the fate of the corner building.

By January 2012, the buildings were vacant and boarded up.  The scaffolding was erected and in February the walls started to come down.

And then we were rewarded beyond expectation.  The writing was on the wall – or rather the advertising was on the wall.  The demolition of the corner building, revealed the former outer wall of its prettier neighbour and there was a 1920s advertisement painted on it.

The discovery should have been treated like uncovering an archaeological find.  Demolition should have halted whilst historians and archaeologists figured out how to preserve it.  But sadly, the vintage advertisement was not recognized as an important part of Vancouver’s history and was brought down in the name of property development.  I’m all for greener buildings that serve our current and future purposes, but don’t forget that we are also our history.  We revel in vintage, antique, and archaeological treasures.  We marvel at where our ancestors came from, the technology that was available back then – they tell a story that is captivating, fascinating, and enlightening.

The wall from the 1920s should have or could have been preserved much like some of the roman walls and arches have been saved in London.  A hundred years or more from now, we’ll be non-existent to our descendants.  The story that will be recounted, will be a sad one of how a selfish, uncreative, unenlightened society reduced its history to rubble, all for the sake of an ugly, cookie-cutter building decorated with a “For Lease” sign.

How to Protect Empty Property

Squatters in empty property are not the problem. The problem is not putting empty properties to better use. Properties lie empty and are not being used effectively.

The opening paragraph of a guide produced by Property Week and Aviva, which advises on how property owners can protect themselves against squatters, suggests that “squatters can use unlet shops to sell knock-off gifts in the run-up to Christmas” and “even home in London’s Mayfair are not exempt, although the squatters there call themselves ‘artists’.

I question whether squatters are using empty shops to sell knock gifts, question why empty homes in Mayfair should be assumed to be “exempt” from squatting, and believe some squatters are validly artists.

There is no evidence given in the guide which supports the idea that squatters use unlet shops to sell fake products. I also wonder why anyone would go through the trouble and inconvenience of using an empty shop to do so. I wonder what reason there is that empty homes in Mayfair should be exempt from squatting. I do not understand why size or perceived “market value” should make any difference that an empty property is underused. And what evidence is there that the squatters of empty homes in Mayfair are not artists?

Two prominent collectives that have squatted high profile Central London buildings include the Temporary School of Thought and the Oubliette Arthouse.

The Temporary School of Thought occupied 39A Clarges Mews in January 2009. It provided “a weeklong Free School event in a pretty unusual location, put together by a group of artists and activists.” “The programme [ranged] from welding to bookbinding to the history of Situationism.”(1)  Dougald Hine, founder of Space Makers Agency and collaborator with the School of Everything did a talk about Ivan Illich and “De-schooling Society” and Vinay Gupta, inventor of the Hexayurt, a cheap, simple, open source shelter that has been applied by emergency relief NGOs, gave a lecture on infrastructure (2). PSFK, an innovation and ideas agency, reported the Temporary School to be “dedicated to the admirable ideals of mutual learning and skill sharing rather than making money.”(3)

Londonist had this to say about the Temporary School:
“What do you do with five floors of long-abandoned Mayfair luxury, complete with hand painted Chinese wallpaper and a warren of servants’ quarters? Tidy the place up, for starters. Then launch your own school. In its first week of ephemeral existence, the Temporary School of Thought has run on a packed timetable of open events, covering subjects from cooking and dance to Polish history and traditional French book binding.”
Londonist went on to add, “over the course of the evening, students became teachers, and enough visitors signed on to lead workshops in their fields of expertise to carry the school forward for weeks to come.”(4)  Some great photos from Amanda Farah are here.

There is also the Oubliette Arthouse, which describes itself as “an itinerant autonomous arts group based in London, showcasing bold new work by squatting long-term empty properties.” The group develops “high quality events that showcase emerging artists and provide a platform for new work, have hosted visual, three-dimensional, performance and music based works as well as charity fund raising events.” Founded in April 2009, in a disused English language school in Waterloo, the group has occupied prominent buildings in Mayfair, W1, and SE1 in London. They are presently resident in a 1888-built former Welsh Presbyterian Church in Soho, which is better known for being a super-club called Limelight and most recently a Walkabout Pub. The building itself has been through significant change as demand for activities taking place inside it declined with changing times. Oubliette’s residency draws attention to the underuse of such large, historic buildings and rather than create problems or damage the property, they manage it and animate with new activities and experiences available to the public to enjoy.

There are many more empty buildings being put to use by creative groups, artists, thinkers, and squatters. The two I mention in this article drew attention due to the high-profile nature and Central London locations of the buildings they squatted.

In the guide, Simon Martell, business manager for Aviva’s property owner’s insurance team says “we’re faced with situations where the property owners don’t have the finance or the ability to put money into developing, renovating, or speculative lets. They won’t commit money if they think they are more likely to get better investment returns elsewhere.” Herein lies a problem. Property owners cannot develop the empty properties for the use they would like to see for the buildings. However, squatters, creative groups, social enterprises, and community organisations are not short of ideas for empty properties. So why the disconnect? Why not let a property be used by people who have a demand, need, or desire to do so? Just because the use is not the use intended by the owner, doesn’t mean it is not a valid use. In many cases, the outcomes and return are something other than a financial return to the owner – a social return to the occupiers, the wider community they reach and the general public. Why should this be a problem for property owners?

I would like to see an enlightened property industry think again about paying significant sums for security systems and instead be aware that creative, cultural, social enterprise, and community uses are an alternative for discovering a new life for a disused property and for protecting and managing properties to prevent their deterioration. Although this is unlikely to yield a financial return to an owner immediately, it may translate into new, longer-term, more sustainable solutions.

I welcome reactions and responses to the guide published by Property Week and Aviva, providing advice to property owners on how to protect empty property.

Look Down, Look Around

I am fascinated with the history of the built environment near where I live.  Bow has undergone significant changes over the years.  I had written a post about Fairfield Road a while ago and have as yet to write about the fabulous railway stations that used to be situated in this neighbourhood – in particular Bow Station.

In my studies and research of the railway lines that used to pass through Bow, I realised that the line that is now used in part by the DLR (from Bow Church to Pudding Mill Lane), used to extend north with stations at Old Ford and Victoria Park.  I then realised that the line ran through (or under) what was the Lefevre Walk Estate, which was featured in Faithless’ video for Insomnia.  That housing estate was torn down in 2004 and a new housing development called Heart of Bow was built by a developer Lovell.  It turns out that part of the development still floats above the former railway line.  At the roundabout where Tredegar Road meets Fairfield Road, the road in facts arches up into a small bridge over the old trackbed.  The view of the former trackbed is difficult to view because I would need to access private land, but it is evident the old line passes through there.

Photos are in this set on flickr.