Thinking allowed — 20 July 2010

Nimbyism, even the word sounds, well slightly nerdy, with a vision of a moustached man, clipboard at the ready trying to get your signature on his petition protesting about a local issue.

But to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, Nimbyism is good, Nimbyism empowers you, Nimbyism is hugely valuable, Nimbyism is to be encouraged, for if you don’t look after your own back yard who do you expect to do it for you, the State, local councillors, your neighbour? There may be some martyrdom involved particularly as almost certainly you will be trying to stop a juggernaut of self interest: vain architects; big business; dodgy politicians; or greedy developers; or God help you if you encounter a combination of all four.

To take just two less high profile examples of people power in London, with varying degrees of success, and both curiously involving Camden Council Planners:

Little Green Street Little Green Street off Highgate Road in Kentish Town is one of only a few intact Georgian streets in London. Most of the dozen houses were built in the 1780s, all are Grade ll listed, and have survived the Blitz and more than two hundred years of wear and tear from the generations who have raised their children in this narrow cobbled terrace.

It is the stuff of picture books showing Georgian England, built before America won its independence; the street has been the playground to generations of children with no front yard to play in.

However, in 2008, the residents, users and friends of the street apparently lost an eight year battle to prevent it being used as a truck route to develop a small patch of land, theoretically only accessible down this seven foot wide cobbled lane. It was proposed that a vehicle would pass within inches of the front doors of these homes every three minutes, all day every day for up to four years down this delicate cul-de-sac.

Although, after campaigning by more than 15,000 people and with planning permission lapsing, due to the developers running out of cash, Camden Council are still vacillating about whether the construction work on a gated community to be built at the end of this street, with an underground car park should continue.

Mad, isn’t it? Everyone knows that to risk these houses is daft, but the irony is it is the very greed that motivated the purchase of one of London’s iffier bits of derelict land will probably ensure the street’s continuing peaceful quietness, for the developers paid such a premium for the site making money from the old railway club can’t be done. A moral (or at least a sound bit of buying advice) “Don’t buy anything at auctions unless you’re really sure you are getting a good price for something that you not only want, but can also use”. Don’t pay over the odds for an unremarkable bit of land you can only cheaply get to down a tiny cobbled lane, for example. And more importantly don’t mess around with concerted well organised Nimbys.

As of the end of February 2008 (and after a huge public outcry), the developers’ third attempt at a construction methodology statement was rejected. They appealed and the Planning Inspectorate who decided in August 2008 that it was in the public interest to turn this little green street into a truck route, down a street remember that is just wider than the length of your bed. Since then, relative silence, other than an expensive mortgage on a very poorly thought out idea.

1217050_British_Museum_Closer_view While in the south of the borough in Bloomsbury, the local Camden Civic Society and the Bloomsbury Group have been roundly castigated for questioning the empire building of the British Museum. In newspapers and letters they were told they ought to know what’s good for them and an “improvement” scheme will go ahead. But the local Nimbys did modify what was a badly conceived plan – Richard Rogers’s original proposal would damage the Arched Room, the King Edward VII North Galleries and staircase, the north elevation of Robert Smirke’s Great Court, and obscure views down Malet Street. Openings would have been cut into the original stone walls of the Grade I-listed Great Court for access to the new wing.

The museum is still going to knock holes in the north wall of the Great Court; it’s OK, apparently, because the wall is only a 100 years old. Would they have dreamed of drilling holes in the Rosetta stone to facilitate screwing it to the wall? No, of course not, and they would hardly countenance a similar cavalier approach to even the humblest shard of their precious artefacts but will quite happily disfigure forever the historically important monument that house them. Beats me.

Little Green Street might not have won the war – yet, but their brilliant campaign, that and the Credit Crunch, has protected for the time being this beautiful Georgian Street.

While in Bloomsbury, Lord Rogers’ revised modernisation plans have won the day for the British Museum, but what London gems could his architectural practice destroy in the future if nobody protested?

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