Outer London is rising to power, if you believe Will Self

By - Wednesday 23rd September, 2015

The Doughnut Festival 2015 was its name but, as Charles Barber reports, its content was meaty

I was recently both intrigued and excited to learn about the ‘Doughnut Festival’, hosted by writer Will Self and presented by the Architecture Foundation, to be held to discuss and explore the outer suburbs of London. 

Once it was all about Zones 1 and 2 without a doubt: seat of government, home to the great and the good (or at least to the well-connected) who paid little attention to the suburban sprawl which encircled them. But if Self’s interested in the suburbs, something has definitely changed.

I’m not sure about who first termed ‘the doughnut’ to refer to this outer ring of Greater London, but it was certainly used in Boris Johnson’s 2008 mayoral election campaign, as his attempt to appeal to voters in the outer ring of London was termed by one of his advisers ‘the blue doughnut strategy’. And the doughnut matters: it’s been claimed that former mayor Ken Livingstone’s ignorance of and neglect of these areas was one of the main reasons for his defeat.

I don’t quite understand the concept of ‘sexy Shirley’

Being a great walker, Will Self related a walk he’d undertaken from his home in Vauxhall to the outer boundary of greater London, and seemed particularly excited about walking through Croydon, even going so far as to describe Shirley as ‘sexy’. I must admit though, that having walked the streets of Shirley myself, this is still a concept I find difficult to understand.

So on Saturday 5th September, I found myself among an audience at the old Naval College in Greenwich. Most of the people there seemed to be architects, landscape architects, urban planners or students of such subjects. Throughout the day we were treated to a range of speakers, many of whom told us about interesting projects in the suburbs of London.

London’s green spaces are feeling the pressure

Writers Will Self and Hanif Kureishi discussing doughnuts.
Photo author’s own.

It is estimated that if current trends continue, London will have to accommodate 1.5 million extra people within its borders in the next fifteen years. This will clearly create challenges as regards the uses of space and put more pressure on limited resources. It could, however, also offer opportunities for the city to develop in more sustainable and imaginative ways.

London’s green natural spaces are feeling the pressure. The relaxation of current green belt planning laws by the present government has led to developers to eye up some of the city’s natural assets in a way that pays scant regard to the green lungs that every city needs to retain its sanity, health and well-being. For the most part, I believe these precious places need to be protected, although there may be a few locations in which restrictions could be relaxed.

Two Dutch architects were, for me, the day’s most inspiring speakers. They are currently working with developers and a British architecture firm on the Thamesmead regeneration project. They seem to be willing to consult and listen to local people, so as to come up with creative architectural solutions that not only cater for housing needs but also reflect the character of community and location. They were keen to stress that behind what can sometimes seem the rather bland façade of the suburbs lies rich and diverse cultural heritage, and they see part of their role as architects as being to celebrate and represent this.

The most exciting thing to happen was somebody starting up their lawnmower

This increased diversity and interest in the suburbs was revealed by a highly entertaining discussion between writers Will Self and Hanif Kureishi. Many people of my generation doubtless sympathised with Hanif Kureishi’s description of those long suburban Sunday afternoons when the most exciting thing that was likely to happen was that someone would start up their lawnmower. No wonder he was so keen to get away and find more open-minded, entertaining people at the heart of the city. Will Self also wanted to escape his pleasant but still relatively dull childhood home of Hampstead, to find the bright lights at the heart of the city. These days, though, it’s certainly no longer true that the suburbs can’t have a bit of fun as well. Earlier this year, for example, the ‘Croydon Till I Die’ show celebrated suburban energy and creativity.

Croydon, like much of the rest of London, also has to face the challenge of housing its growing population. It would be good if the new developers could take a leaf out of the Dutch architects’ book and actually consult with the people they are building for, so as to incorporate a bit of community character within their buildings. There’s also plenty of scope for Croydon to be greener and to bring the elements of the natural world into its rather harsh and noisy urban centre: creating green roofs and walls, fully opening up the Wandle river to flow from Wandle Park to Beddington and even perhaps encouraging businesses to put out hanging baskets and running a ‘Best Front Garden’ competition.

Croydon’s a delicious chocolate chunk in the doughnut’s ring

It’s in the field of culture, though, that I see the best potential for Croydon to put itself on the map as one of the ‘in-places’ in our vast, complex city: to become, as one of the audience put it, “one of the most delicious chocolate chunks in the ring of the doughnut”. We already have a lively music scene and I hope that the Ambition Festival will become an annual event. The visual arts are being actively promoted by various groups and individuals and Croydon now has several interesting galleries. Our image as a lively cultural centre might eventually resonate with the rest of London and even further afield. Taking inspiration from such unusual and fascinating events as the Doughnut Festival might be just one of the ways of re-imagining and recreating Croydon.

Charles Barber

Charles Barber

Adoptive Croydonian, currently trying to publish a book and find gainful employment within the Croydonian urban jungle. Environmental campaigner, Twitter@rainforestsaver, founder of the Croydon Rainforest Club and of the Friends of Whitehorse Park.

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