Place matters: it's time we acknowledged it.
The Ecologist, December 2005
Today was the first true winter day of the year. It
was cold and crisp, the sky was ice blue, and yellow
leaves were skimming in gusts around the pavement. I
felt an urgent need to procrastinate before I began
writing this article, so I decided to go for a walk
along the canal.
I've always loved the Oxford Canal. In the ten years
I've known it, it's had a glamorously down-at-heel character.
It's a place of ramshackle factories, teetering, palatial
Victorian houses - all dark-red brick and long thin
gardens - old arched bridges and dozens of scruffy residential
narrowboats, lined up bow to stern along the banks,
their mooring ropes tangled together, their chimneys
belching the sweet smell of coal smoke into the cold
air. The canal runs right through my neighbourhood,
and it makes that neighbourhood what it is. It has a
nature, a character, a personality of its own.
Or it did have. That character is rapidly being erased,
in the name of those two trusty old soldiers, progress
and economic rationalism. Up and down the towpath, their
marks can be seen. Where once was a long strip of 'waste'
ground is now a building site, on which high, tall new
flats have risen in less than a year, like sunflowers
on a prairie. Where only recently was a working boatyard
is now an empty acre of concrete and unused sheds, where
more executive flats will soon rise. Where once was
a line of moored residential narrowboats is now a line
of worried boaters, recently informed that their mooring
fees will be more than doubling, and that if they don't
like it they can, well, buy one of the new flats. As
if they could afford it.
And today, the old factory is breathing its last. All
along the waterfront, its walls and windows are shuttered
with the scaffolding of demolition crews, here to tear
down what remains of its old shell. Of everything that
has happened to the canal, somehow, and for some reason,
it's the last gasp of this industrial relic - this wonderful
and strangely disturbing old landmark - that affects
me the most.
W. Lucy and Co began operating the Eagle Ironworks,
on the edge of the Oxford Canal, in 1812. For nearly
two centuries they designed and cast whatever the city
needed, and stamped it with their name. Drain covers,
palings, church gates, street lamps and a hundred odd,
small, necessary, unnoticed things came daily from the
works, through the cast-iron gates crowned with their
Eagle-Head Logo. Their great skulking, redbrick factory
has towered over the canal for two centuries, its cracked
and smeared windows, florid gates, cobbled yard and
asymmetrical buildings a curious, wonderful and slightly
Not any more. The Lucy ironworks, so cobwebbed and intriguing,
so distinctive and apparently timeless, is to become
yet another gated complex of luxury flats. This quirky,
entirely unique old building is to be replaced by one
that could be mistaken for any building, anywhere: spruced
up, divided, polished, sucked clean of all dirt, danger
and character and made fit for commuters in silver cars
who work in London. As the factory dies, so too does
a part of the canal, the boatyard, the neighbourhood
and the wider city.
Something is happening here, and nobody seems to want
to talk about it.
Who cares about any of this, and why should it matter?
It's easy, after all, to lament change, and easy too
to forget that change is the only constant. The old
Lucy factory was polluting, messy and, finally, uneconomic.
New housing is urgently needed, and it surely has to
be better to build it on old industrial sites than in
the green belt. Had I been walking along the canal when
the factory and boatyard were being built, I would no
doubt have lamented that too. If there's one thing the
English have always been good at, it's lamenting.
Maybe. But this is not the real story, for what is happening
just around the corner from me is probably also happening
just around the corner from you. It's not isolated,
it's not irrelevant and it's not to be dismissed. It
is part of something wider - a larger, and more significant
trend, which is sold to us as 'progress' but is actually
something very different.
Put simply, the things that make our towns, villages,
cities and landscapes different, distinctive or special
are being eroded, and replaced by things which would
be familiar anywhere. It is happening all over the country
- you can probably see at least one example of it from
where you're sitting right now. The same chains in every
high street; the same bricks in every new housing estate;
the same signs on every road; the same menu in every
What these changes have in common is this: in each case,
something distinctive is replaced by something bland;
something organic by something manufactured; something
definably local with something emptily placeless; something
human-scale with something impersonal. The result is
stark, simple and brutal: everywhere is becoming the
same as everywhere else.
The small, the ancient, the indefinable, the unprofitable,
the meaningful, the interesting and the quirky are being
scoured out and bulldozed to make way for the clean,
the sophisticated, the alien, the progressive, the corporate.
It feels, to me, like a great loss - a hard-to-define
but biting loss, which seems to suck the meaning from
the places I care for or feel I belong to. It matters.
Why? Because in the name of economic efficiency, the
things that really matter in life - the texture, the
colour, the detail, the complex web of intimate relationships
between people and communities and the landscape they
inhabit - are being dismantled, with nobody's permission.
Because our landscape is being rapidly and thoughtlessly
remoulded to meet the short-term needs of a global economy
that is built on sand. And because what we are losing,
in the name of progress, is being replaced, in most
cases, with things which are not better, but worse.
What we are losing is something which is uniquely,
exquisitely small, local and impossible-to-define: a
sense of place. It is a sense of place that binds healthy
communities together, and distinguishes living cultures
from dead ones. It is a sense of place which makes the
difference between a country that is worth living in
and one that isn't. And the paradox is that this galloping
destruction of local distinctiveness has very global
roots - for it is primarily the ever-expanding global
economy which is responsible.
Put crudely, a global market requires a global identity;
not just goods, but landscapes themselves must be branded
and made safe for the universal act of consumption.
A global market requires global tastes - we all have
to want the same things, feel the same things, like
or dislike the same things. Only that way can markets
cross cultural boundaries. At the same time, an advanced
industrial economy requires economies of scale - which
means mass production, the smoothing-out of edges, uniform
and characterless development; the standardised manufacture
of entire landscapes.
In order for the consumer economy to progress, we must
cease to be people who belong to neighbourhoods, communities,
localities. We must cease to value the distinctiveness
of where we are. We must become consumers, bargain-hunters,
dealers on a faceless, placeless international trading
floor. We must cease to identify with place, or to care
about it. We must cease, finally and forever, to belong
to the land.
This loss of a sense of place - this loss of place itself
- is both widely-felt and largely unmentioned. While
very large numbers of us of us can see this happening,
and are concerned about it, few people join the dots
- or feel they are allowed to. In every local paper,
in every local pub, in every community centre, every
week of the year, people will be discussing these issues
- at a very local level. This new housing development,
that new megastore, this street market closing down.
People know something is wrong; they just don't know
quite what, or why, or what to do about it. And if they
complain, they are told by the political classes, and
often by the media and its associated pundits, that
none of this really matters.
They are told that these are small, insignificant local
issues, of no import in the grand scheme of things.
They are told to think about something more important:
economic growth, perhaps, or the War on Terror. And
if they persist, they are called 'nimbys', and pigeonholed
as reactionaries or nostalgic idealists. No-one, runs
the subtext, has the right to take up arms in defence
of their place, their sense of belonging, their attachment
to a locality. We should all have better things to do.
But there are surely few better things to do. And the
good news is that an increasing number of people seem
to know it; and are starting to say it, loud and clear.
Some of this good news is on show back on the Oxford
Canal. A few hundred yards down from the shivering shell
of the old ironworks lies Castlemill Boatyard. Owned,
like the canal itself, by the government body British
Waterways, Castlemill has been the site of a fierce
local battle for over a year.
British Waterways, against the will of the local community
and virtually all the boaters on the Oxford canal, has
closed Castlemill, which operated vital repair and maintenance
services for canal boats, and wants to sell the site
for - yes, you guessed it - luxury housing, and a slick
waterfront restaurant. It had already struck a deal
with a housing developer, Bellway Homes, before it closed
the yard down. Planning permission was to be just a
formality. British Waterways, supposed guardians of
the canal network, would pocket £2 million, and
the last publicly-accessible working boatyard in the
city would be no more.
But the locals and the boaters fought back, mounting
a fierce campaign to save the boatyard. It led to planning
permission being turned down by the city council. British
Waterways appealed, and a long planning inquiry was
held, which BW and Bellway Homes stuffed with expensive
taxpayer-funded lawyers - and lost again. Undeterred,
BW moved in and ejected the boatyard's tenant, whose
lease with them had run out - only to have the yard
occupied by the boaters themselves, who are still there,
refusing to leave and vowing to take British Waterways
all the way to the high court.
'What they are, is asset-strippers', says Matt Morton,
an ecologist and former boater who is now leading the
fight to save the boatyard. 'British Waterways are supposed
to be guardians of the network. They're nothing of the
sort - they're scouring the canals, looking for land
they can flog off for expensive housing, to cover a
hole in their finances caused by a government funding
cut. In the process, they're destroying the character
of the whole network. They're more interested in shareholders
British Waterways and Bellway, say the Castlemill boaters,
want to take this very distinctive place - with its
scruffy narrowboats, bounding dogs, welding gear and
random piles of wood and metal - and replace it with
a non-place; the kind of 'executive development' that
could be seen in any town, anywhere in Britain. They
are prepared to stand up for this place - and the nomadic,
slow, low-impact lifestyle that springs from it - because
they believe it matters. In this case, almost everyone
else, from the local community centre to the city council,
seems to agree with them.
It is just one example - but when you start to look
around you see it is one of many, and that the forces
ranged against each other are always similar. On one
side some sprawling government bureaucracy or corporation
- or often, as in the case of Castlemill, both. On the
other, a small but determined gaggle of locals, specialist
interest groups and people who believe, simply, that
something unique is worth fighting for. Often that is
all they have in common; but they add up to something.
All over the UK, for example, you will find communities
and individuals working to save their local pubs. You
don't get much more of a distinctive marker of place
than a local boozer, but thanks to corporate consolidation
and dubious legislation, the traditional local is under
threat as never before; according to the Campaign for
Real Ale, 26 pubs close every month; virtually one a
Giant, ever-expanding Pub Corporations, with names like
the Spirit Group and Enterprise Inns, who long ago took
over ownership of pubs from brewers, are selling them
off for housing or converting them into hip bars, identikit
chains or eateries.
In response, communities all over the country have been
banding together to fight closures, and in some cases
even buy pubs themselves, to protect them from the asset-strippers.
Groups like the Community Pubs Association and Freedom
for Pubs are growing larger as the Pub Companies do.
The local pub means too much to people to allow it to
be homogenised into history.
Pubs, boatyards, crumbling factories
put up a fight for any number of weird and wonderful
local landmarks if they mean enough to them. In London's
Chinatown, a coalition of locals calling themselves
the Save Chinatown Campaign are currently crossing swords
with yet another developer, the Rosewheel corporation,
which is busy ejecting small Chinese shopkeepers from
the area and threatening to knock down the famous pagoda.
In Herefordshire and Somerset, campaigners are fighting
to protect ancient orchards, bulging with rare and traditional
varieties of fruit, from being grubbed up by farmers
who can't sell their wares to the ever-dominant superstores.
In Birmingham, urban black communities are working to
save their street markets from demolition and replacement
by office blocks. In Brighton, locals are fighting to
prevent the creation of yet another Starbucks. And in
Bury St Edmunds, the fight is becoming something literal,
with the formation of a group of anonymous vigilantes,
the Knights of St Edmund, who have sworn to defend their
town against a new development spearheaded by Debenhams.
The company has 18 days to withdraw a plan to redevelop
the town centre, say the knights, or they will unleash
an ancient curse on the sleepy Suffolk town.
Not everyone is prepared to go this far; but plenty
of people, nationally, are prepared to take a stand
- it is a long, long list, and it seems a growing one.
Place, belonging, distinctiveness, character - in a
rapidly homogenising world, these things seem to become
more and more important in peoples' lives. Valuing common
things, defending detail, understanding culture and
landscape and fighting for its integrity in the face
of an onrush of standardisation; suddenly, the small
things seem terribly important after all.
Perhaps what we are witnessing here is the shy emergence
of something newly self-aware: a politics of belonging.
All over the country, the extinction of that sense of
place is resisted by those on the margins of political
debate and economic influence. They are people who refuse
to lie down before the juggernaut of a spurious progress,
or to sacrifice the landscapes and cultures that matter
to them for the benefit of a global economy which is
beyond their control.
Standing up for our places - fighting for them, refusing
to let them be steamrollered by the consumer juggernaut;
making them live again - is something which should be
able to unite left and right and everyone in-between.
It something which will annoy politicians of all stripes,
and get right up the nose of a global money machine
which wants us all to stop moaning, give up and go shopping.
In an age of global consumerism, corporate power and
the dominance of a homogenising, placeless, economic
ideology, it could be that the one truly radical thing
to do is to belong.