So, City of London, you’ve declared a climate emergency; good! There’s plenty cause for alarm — and besides, all the cool cities are doing it. It’s a bold and well-meaning statement of intent, but will you now do what’s needed? Are you willing to make sacrifices, and unflinchingly exercise power to address the problem? I’d like to hope this is real, but I wonder if you realize the scale of this commitment. If you are serious, then there’s no half-measures — and no going back.
It’s one thing to market yourself as environmentally-minded, but entirely another to actually be. Performative environmentalism makes great fanfare of planting a tree, or banning plastic straws, while ignoring the lion’s share of the problem. Politics and the rest of the consumer mass market is full of greenwashed nonsense, from “sustainable” disposables to “clean coal”. It’s easy to gain points by claiming to give a damn and putting on a show, but easier still to keep making money by destruction.
A municipal government is no different. Our bylaws, tax code, development policies, and financial investments all have environmental consequences — some direct, some by implication. Sure, simple changes like a phased ban of disposable plastics will help, but unless we carefully inspect every aspect of the City’s operation for its ecological impact, we’ll only have done patchwork. Worse still, counting these easy wins risks a self-congratulatory apathy; the least we can do is hardly enough.
To my mind, London’s biggest overall environmental sin is our addiction to sprawl development. With no geographical barriers to expansion, cheap land, and a thoroughly-ingrained car culture, developers have historically faced few obstacles. A combination of development fees, tax assessments, zoning schemes, building codes, market pressures, and weak environmental protections have made low-density, car-centric, and frankly hideous development the norm. In every direction from the core, spaghetti subdivisions and parking lot plazas stretch out to the horizon — with more underway each year.
This model is highly profitable in the short term for both developers and the City, and relatively cheap for the consumer, but is extremely land-use intensive. London’s population density is far lower than other cities of this size, making transportation steadily more inefficient, and devouring much of the surrounding land. Having overexpanded the city limits a few decades ago, a race seemingly began to develop as much of it as quickly as possible. The result is exurban cancer. Yes, a growing population requires development — but it doesn’t have to be like this!
You might remember my lament about the partial paving of Meadowlily Woods. The destruction of this rare and valuable open savannah habitat is tragic, but hardly unique. Every remaining wilderness near the city is being encroached upon — segmented, hemmed in, poisoned, mown, paved. This usually follows some sort of false compromise: instead of paving *all* of it, the developer is talked down to paving *part* of it. Given the lack of comprehensive environmental protections (and withering enforcement of those that do exist), developers largely are free to set the agenda here.
Addressing this problem will require an exercise of power — real, decisive, uncompromising power. Rather than proposing compromises and seemingly balancing financial and environmental interests, a hard line must be drawn. If this is — as you say — an emergency, then we cannot regard the private profit interests of developers as comparable to our desire for survival. And indeed this is a matter of survival. The ecological services these natural systems provide — water filtration, gas exchange, flood control, soil regeneration, etc. — will become increasingly critical as the global crisis worsens. If this concerns you, then stop waffling!
As a minimal first step, the City of London should immediately act to establish a green belt, *permanently* protecting every single remaining wetland, woodlot, savannah, and waterway from any form of development. This especially includes remaining urban and suburban ecologies — even on private land — as these pockets of nature provide distributed benefit throughout the city. Beyond this, our zoning and building codes need further revision to mandate higher density, less car-centricity (start by eliminating the obscene parking requirements for commercial facilities!), and an incentive to preserve and integrate naturalized terrain features.
Beyond protecting what still exists, renaturalization can be a key remedial tool. Existing programs have accomplished a great deal in this respect, but these mostly exist in small pockets of existing parkland and specific planting projects. If we’re to address the collapse of pollinator species, we need to drastically increase the amount of wild grassland and savannah — particularly in continuous paths. Luckily, this is requires basically no effort:
Just. Stop. Mowing.
Lawns are sometimes useful for lounging or play, but the *vast* majority of the grass in this city serves no purpose. The sprawling field around Victoria Hospital, many areas of the TVP, and other municipal properties are only ever tread upon by groundskeepers. Just by skipping the mower, wildflower seeds will quickly propagate and establish dense, food-rich meadows in a single season. Within a decade, a savannah habitat will spontaneously emerge, usually with no need for intentional planting or care. Private landowners should be encouraged to adopt this practice too, to distribute the benefit most broadly.
The main barrier to this proposal is our culture’s bizarre obsession with monocultural purity. Lawns, as a cultural practice, began as a way for the ultra-wealthy to flaunt that they didn’t need to grow food on their land. They became popularized because the grass industry, in an effort to make more money, marketed the suburban lawn as a social norm — to keep up with the Joneses by. Now, flat green carpets are the enforced standard of condo corps and bylaws, while robust native flowering plants have become coded as an unsightly enemy.
The self-evident ideal of perfect grassy lawns, white picket fences, and sterile mulched gardens constitutes a societal delusion. We have collectively been brainwashed into this aesthetic preference by a collection of industries — petrochemical, agri, “big lawn” — that actively threatens our environmental integrity. To be clear: this is not meant to blame individual lawn-havers, but to question *why* we want this. Well-designed native plant gardens can be beautiful and virtually maintenance-free, as well as being a net-positive for our environmental health — why not give it a try?
Weeds, in another sense, are still a problem to address. Invasive plants — including phragmites grasses, giant hogweed, buckthorn, purple loosestrife, and others — are disrupting many native habitats regionally. The City has committed some funds to removing these pests, but the problem is quite severe and will require continued support. Helping to maintain habitats through removal and intentional planting is a necessary consequence of having caused damage in the first place. As we improve the health of these natural systems, their ability to regenerate will improve — improving our overall regional ecological resilience.
What I’ve outlined here are only first steps toward a wholly different way of life. To achieve our stated goals will ultimately require radically rethinking housing, transportation, agriculture, architecture, economics, industry, democracy, and the organization of society itself. Many minds, hearts, and bodies will contribute to this effort, and an entire environmental remediation industry will be needed in the decades ahead.
In time, and with serious commitment, we may yet transform London into an ecologically-stable city. But at present, this emergency is issued without a hint of hyperbole. As an avid nature-observer, I have watched as local ecologies have decayed over my lifetime. Once-cherished wild spaces now persist only in photographs and memory — scraped off the surface by capital’s dozers. Many urban ecologies have collapsed entirely, leaving bleak, hostile landscapes where once a city lived.
We may not have the power to stop the global environmental catastrophe now underway, but we do have the opportunity to construct a safe haven. Should we so choose, we can make London a living city once more — a city in a forest, a haven for bees, and a place of beauty! But this is no easy feat. It will require political will, popular support, and a collective willingness to confront the truths we take for granted. And so, City of London Council and Staff: do you have the will to act?