Border seeking

(A walk with Nico Hogg and others)

Following my visit the the Olympic Park, I was shocked. It was so empty and desolate, an oppressive landscape full of half-mile wide walkways, electric fences and lamp-post mounted CCTV cameras. A place where I could stand alone in the drizzle and be watched remotely. It was all so jarring that this weekend I decided to take a walk somewhere I’d feel less surveilled, where I’d hardly be watched at all. I decided to visit some border vacuums:

Stevenage Road

A border vacuum is somewhere in the shadow of an area in a city that people can’t, won’t or don’t cross. It’s an idea thought up by Jane Jacobs, she puts it well:

“Some borders eventually behave like gangrene, gradually deadening the streets and blocks around them: “The root trouble with borders is that they are apt to form dead ends for most users of city streets. Consequently, the streets that [go to] a border are bound to be deadened places. They fail to get a by-the-way circulation of people going beyond them in the direction of the border because few are going to that Beyond. A kind of running-down process is set in motion.”

It’s a simple, powerful idea. When you start thinking with it you can see border vacuums everywhere. Next to railways, motorways, hospitals, university campuses, places that create real or imagined dead-ends casting shadows of dullness in their wake. The Olympic park is an attempt to fill such a vacuum, sitting in formerly semi-disused industrial wasteland along the border of the River Lea. The attempts to control it seemed heavy handed and unfinished, to have wiped out whatever little life was there before, leaving only crows and construction lorries. What Jacobs called the “great blight of dullness” hadn’t gone away with regeneration, if anything it had got worse.

Jacobs fought against both border vacuums and totalitarian schemes like the Olympic Park. She fought to stop Greenwich Village being flattened for a vast highway. It was a place that planners saw as a slum: a terrible, unhealthy and chaotic place. She argued that many so-called slums weren’t like that at all, that they happy, full of life, and complex. She argued  places that had been left alone by the powers that be were doing just fine and that what they needed was to be left alone. Borders weren’t like slums, though. They weren’t full enough of life, nor were there enough people to keep them interesting and safe. Border vacuums were likely to be dangerous wastelands which which were lucky if they attracted bums rather than muggers. But Jacobs was writing about a different time and place, from the stagnation of 1960’s New York City. What do London’s “Border Vacuums” look like in 2013? Lets go:

We start in Barking, there are plenty of borders here, two major highways, the rivers Thames and Roding and two railways cutting right through, we head towards the Roding, which is reinforced by the North Circular Road – a huge urban motorway. (map of the walk). The borderlands so far seem quiet, but unmenacing. A large gaggle of bored students standing smoking cigarettes in the carpark surrounding the inauspicious but modern housing of the “Millennium Academy” (I refrained from photographing them), a homeless shelter, and dead ends that reveal themselves to be tunnels under bridges. There’s a light sprinkling of families and dog-walkers.

We walk under the relief road, through a little housing estate that sits on the site of the old, slab-blocked Lintons, over the district line and through to another housing estate. This one reminds me of the outskirts of Whitstable, vast seas of green sit between tower blocks, bin alcoves and houses that look very homely in the quiet of a Saturday morning. Nico informs me that the bus drivers are only allowed to wait at the stand for 4 minutes to stop them from getting bricked, but for now it’s just quiet and empty.

We break out along a ribbed alley, each groyne harbouring a stash of rubbish. Out past the yellow self storage, and up a massive concrete bridge. The Roding valley, if it is one, is spectacular, surprising, a border vacuum filled with the very sparsest uses, gasometers, abandoned recreation grounds, horses, a mushroom farm:

East Ham

The recreation ground is odd. We squeeze through a well-maintained gap. The grass is at least waist high, growing through further high fences surrounding some sort of five a side pitch surrounded with Khanda symbols. Behind it lies a skate park, equally disused looking. It’s not the expensive concrete sculpted sort, most of the fixtures have just been bolted to the ground. Panels have been pulled off from the sides, revealing a metal superstructure, bedding and bottles of White Ace cider. People are living inside the skate ramps.

It gets me thinking. Jane Jacobs might see these borderlands as malevolent dead zones, I can see them more sympathetically. In a rapidly dividing, unequal city, and one where spaces are increasingly regulated and controlled, borders can be a haven. If nothing else is provided to you, the best you can hope for is not to be disturbed. In a city where land is worth such an incredible amount of money, maybe the future for the rest of us is in seeking out, and maybe even creating, borders to protect us.

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