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Verging towards urban rewilding

Will Wiles

Could Sloap have its day at last, as a vehicle for nature-friendly untended spaces?

The last time I was here, I was talking about neglect. Specifically, I was talking about the paradox of urban decay: a certain low level of abandonment and neglect can be a healthy part of the urban ecology, but it would be insane to encourage it as a policy. Neglect has stayed on my mind,  although with the warmer weather it has moved outdoors. 

In fact I’ve been playing a new game – ‘Underfunding or Rewilding?’. About half the lawn area of our local inner-city park was spared the mower’s blades this spring. It quickly developed into knee-high growth, thick with daisies, clover, dandelions and cow parsley. I’m all for it. Even in this tiny patch, it seems to have boosted the local population of butterflies and songbirds. The children love it too; although they appreciate open areas in which to run about, kids also like patches of jungle that can be waded into and explored. 

So let’s play … Underfunding, or Rewilding? Is this an expedient measure by a cash-strapped council, or a deliberate effort to boost biodiversity? Or a bit of both? Moving to a smaller example: the square metre of dirt at the base of all the newly planted street trees on our estate. These too have been unmolested so far this year, and have exploded into knee-high thickets of wild grass and thistles. Indeed it’s fascinating how many species can be packed into 1m2, without the slightest human encouragement. This one looks like neglect, but still it’s hard to feel churlish about it. 

What difference does 1m2 around a sapling make, we might ask. Not a lot, on its own. But it adds up – or rather, when every last square metre is strimmed, weedkillered and concreted into neat submission, the subtractions add up. In recent months we have heard a steady drumbeat of dismal news about the state of the natural world: insect populations collapsing, a million species threatened with extinction, ecosystems contaminated with trash down to the deepest ocean trench. 

One unloved feature of modernism may at last come into its own: the dreaded Sloap

Radical measures will be needed to address this decline in the ecological mechanisms that support all life, and there are already proposals to rewild huge swaths of the country and better regulate agriculture. But to focus on the wildernesses and countryside is to ignore the contribution that cities, towns and individual buildings can make. This will necessitate something of a sea change in construction and maintenance thinking, which at the moment regards anything other than human inhabitation to be deeply undesirable. 

I used to think that way. Some years ago, Prince Charles complained that modern buildings, designed without eaves, denied birds places to nest. At the time I thought this remark the height of frivolity – today I must  concede that he may have had a point. However, one unloved feature of modernism may at last come into its own: the dreaded Sloap.

Sloap is one of neologisms created by Hubert de Cronin Hastings when editor of the Architectural Review in the 1950s and ‘60s, as the magazine tried to generate a vocabulary to describe the landscapes of postwar planning. Some of its coinages, such as Subtopia, have usefully entered the language of architecture. Others, such as Semidetsia – tracts of semi-detached housing – have not. Sloap stands for ‘space left over after planning’. It refers to the unlovely grass verges and dead zones of dry turf that fill in the gaps of estates laid out as circulation diagrams first and places second. No ball was ever kicked there, no hoverfly ever hovered. Sloap is high-maintenance and low-value. But perhaps it could be Sloap’s chance to shine, if it could be sympathetically seeded and left to its own devices. The rewilded verge is not zero-maintenance, but perhaps we could learn to love a little bee-loud untidiness. To invert Betjeman’s lament for Subtopia: ‘Swarm over, life’. •

Missing the point
The High Line park in New York is a sort of monument to spontaneous rewilding: an effort to preserve a taste of the overgrown mystery of the derelict rail line it replaced. Now its architect, Diller Scofidio and Renfro, is behind what a developer is calling a ‘London High Line’, on the Greenwich peninsula. But this isn’t the creative reuse of redundant infrastructure, it’s a wholly new building with a few trees hoicked up above street level. It has about as much in common with parkland as patio heaters have with sunshine. 

Will Wiles is an author. Read him here every other month