A natural history of Heygate Estate

The redevelopment of a London council estate has led to the loss of a mature ‘urban forest’ - as well as hundreds of rented homes. Photos and text by Matthew Benjamin Coleman.

March 28, 2019 · 5 min read

“Capitalism both destroys and creates places, but the places it creates seem always, at least to begin with, less substantial, less rich, than the places it destroys”

– Patrick Keiller, Popular Science

The Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle, south London, was built on the site of Victorian tenements damaged and destroyed by second world war bombing; its construction was completed in 1974. Despite a crisis of genuinely affordable housing, and largely ignoring protests from residents about the lack of consultation, Southwark Council pressed ahead with redevelopment and gradually ‘decanted’ the 3,000 residents of the estate between the late 2000s and 2013.

The estate and its land was then sold to Australian property developer Lendlease, and by late 2014 most of the buildings had been demolished to make way for ‘Elephant Park’, a new development set to be completed by 2025. The destruction of the Heygate has been one of the most prominent in a series of controversial ‘regeneration’ projects in recent years that have seen the demolition of social housing estates across London and the commensurate net loss of affordable housing.

The drawn-out nature of the process to remove the tenants and leaseholders meant that for several years it was not possible to enclose the estate with the usual security fence around sites awaiting redevelopment. So as the exodus slowed, the empty spaces between the buildings were re-populated by guerrilla gardeners, graffiti artists, skateboarders and parkour enthusiasts, as well as photographers, film-makers and other assorted ruin-tourists.

The estate was used as a backdrop for films such as Harry Brown, which depicted the Heygate (anonymously) as a crime-ridden ghetto; bands shot their music videos amidst the forbidden walkways; and newspapers published images of ‘Derelict Heygate’. Such representations of ‘decaying’ housing estates can be powerful agents in the manipulation of public discourse around social housing.

The Heygate still harboured a significant quantity of structurally sound and inhabitable residences but following the council’s decision to redevelop the site instead of renovating the buildings, they slowly decayed and the spaces between them began to fall into ruin. In this transitional state of abandonment, and in scenes reminiscent of the Richard Jefferies novel After London, drifts of dead leaves piled up along pathways and against brick walls, while small bushes and seedlings thrust through the concrete and paving stones.

In his essay Dead Cities: A Natural History, Mike Davis offers a vision of war-ravaged urban landscapes, which result in ‘the creation of new urban flora sometimes referred to as “Nature II”.’ It does not seem too fantastical to draw a parallel between Davis’s descriptions of scientific study into the effects of the second world war bombing of European cities on urban ecosystems and the disruption that the continued reconfiguration of our cities causes to established urban terrain, leading not only to the destruction of communities but also natural habitats and life that may take decades, if ever, to recover.

Overlooking the estate, until its destruction along with the buildings themselves, was an ‘urban forest’ containing hundreds of mature trees. In 2013, Southwark Council admitted that at least 283 of the 406 London planes, false acacias, goat willows, Norway maples and other mature trees on the estate would be felled to make way for redevelopment. Lendlease claims that new saplings will be planted, but it will be many years before they reach maturity; and given that the developers have already broken plenty of promises on issues such as the proportion of ‘affordable’ housing, there is no guarantee they will keep their word on the trees.

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