The Red Gateway leads to an almost unimaginable world. Yet it models the prospects for a future very like the one we are sleepwalking towards at present. We will arrive there if we do nothing to turn away from business as usual.
On a misty, moisty Sunday morning there is not much chance of doing useful work in the garden..Another weekend’s work undone. I’m now so late getting seeds in the ground, our vegetables may not see the light of day this year and the fields around Pond Cottage are not doing any better. So I’ve been digging out old documents on climate change instead.
That quote above is from Stephen Blackmore’s chapter on the different scenarios presented by a warming planet. Gardening the Earth – Gateways to a Sustainable Future, published four years ago, is an ultimately optimistic book offering hope as long as we learn to treat the environment with the care and understanding of a good gardener. But Professor Blackmore, Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, also issues a chilling message: “Business as usual” will cause catastrophic climate change and the greatest mass extinction of species since the disappearance of the dinosaurs.
With the thermometer struggling to get into two figures, an extra two degrees upwards sounds quite pleasant. But of course it’s not that simple. Besides (on a roller-coaster of extreme variations) we’re now hurtling towards a rise of 4°C with those unimaginable consequences. Not just for polar bears on the melted north pole, not just for far-away islands drowned at sea, but also for cities like London, New York, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Tokyo – ever-growing centres of civilisation as we know it – facing inundation from oceans which could rise by 40 metres.
Who cares? Who believes it will happen? I listened with exasperation as BBC Today’s Caroline Quinn questioned James Hansen, former NASA climate change campaigner, on the ‘confusion’ of climate change evidence. No confusion, he firmly replied. Among the overwhelming majority of scientists there is no doubt: human behaviour is causing climate change; the planet is warming fast, and climate change predictions are based on hard evidence of what happened the last time Earth’s atmosphere contained such a high concentration of carbon dioxide. Hansen is now busy campaigning against the dash for oil from tar sands which would enable us to pump out even more CO2.
Business as usual, warns Lord Stern in another report, propels us towards an Earth which cannot feed or shelter its growing population. But business as usual is all politicians really understand. They seem unable or unwilling to inspire disillusioned voters with alternatives which could create a properly sustainable economy. Building affordable energy efficient houses on public transport routes would be a good start; building hope, employment and homes at the same time! But our ‘swivel-eyed’ British government is far too busy fighting internal battles to bother about securing the environment: fiddling with Europe while the planet burns.
The old day job brings a brief escape from the surreal juxtaposing chaos of Facebook and Twitter. Off we go into the great outdoors for some down to earth chat with gardeners in the real world.
Not on the list, but Dawyck is always worth a visit
In my new day job, social media too often has me in thrall. I’m enough of an old hack to be reluctant to give more information about the pending article which may soon appear in old fashioned print. Or the publication that commissioned it. What if they don’t print it? Or, worse, what if it appears edited beyond recognition?
But can’t resist telling you it was a lovely surprise to be asked to write about some of the great Scottish gardens I first discovered more than 20 years ago. And a double treat that I got to work on six tantalisingly short profiles with a good friend and colleague. Woodland and walled gardens worth visiting. Of course the deadline didn’t actually give us time (or travel expenses) to get out and meet the head gardeners face to face but – despite harsh realities of this disastrously cold spring – it was amazingly cheering to speak with people who so clearly love their day job.
No, Little Sparta not on our list either
No denying the hard work. Maybe escape is never the best word to use in connection with gardens and gardening. I’m remembering Ian Hamilton Finlay’s much quoted line: “Some gardens are described as retreats, when they are really attacks.” Whatever he meant by that ( if you’ve visited Little Sparta there’s more than one possibility), I’m also remembering my own brief attempt to launch a project presenting the best of Scottish gardens as ‘more real than the real world”.
Timing is all. (I pity anyone trying to launch a new product during the wall-to-wall media coverage of the life, death and escalating legend of Mrs Thatcher.) In this Year of Natural Scotland, I often think my Tread Softly idea was just a year or two too early. With another friend, and beautifully crafted samples produced by a bright young design team, I set out to find funding for an eco-guide to Scottish gardens. Inviting the public to explore sensitively managed habitats more ‘natural’ than the surrounding countryside, we briefly attracted sympathetic interest from Visit Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Forestry Commission and Scottish Natural Heritage.
Perhaps I simply blew it with Visit Scotland when I pointed out that there is no longer any such place as wilderness. No hill, glen, peat bog or coastline – no matter how bleakly beautiful – is untouched by human actions. I can still see the look of shock on the young executive’s face. It didn’t fit with the VS marketing strategy at the time, celebrating the glories of ‘wild’ landscapes: those barren hilltops eroded by sheep, rabbits, deer, pollution, hillwalkers and climate change.
Of course there are remote spots where nature still has the upper hand, give or take the tides of plastic washed up on achingly beautiful beaches, bouncing down tumbling burns, hanging from old oak trees. Take a walk in the fairy-tale shelter of the west coast woodlands, dripping with lichen and mosses, and you see what wonders still happen when nature is given a fighting chance.
But I still believe that the most sensitively tended gardens give the best example of how to work in harmony with the birds, bees, beast and butterflies trying to get a life around us. So we should more accurately celebrate The Year of Semi-Natural Scotland. Mind you, that wouldn’t win any funding either.
One of the perks of my voluntary work with Leith Open Space is an occasional chance to peek behind the scenes at the Scottish Parliament. Recently it gave me an unexpected view of the Deputy First Minister.
I started scribbling this a couple of weeks ago and nearly ditched it because it was getting too old but I have discovered a topical hook on which to hang a gossipy snippet. So lets flash back to a good day for democracy. My MSP Malcolm Chisholm has just tweeted relief at Obama’s return to the White House (Best Wishes to @BarackObama. The world needs him to win and even more it needs the other man to lose) , and is now on his way, spring in step, to question Nicola Sturgeon about the Scottish Government’s draft budget.
Even better, he has booked seats for Leith Open Space and Ruth Bittern, our latestOpening Doors participant. As we head towards the Committee on Infrastructure and Capital Investment, Malcolm expresses his admiration for the new Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Capital Investment and Cities and her ability to master a brief: he’s looking forward to seeing how much she knows about her new role. She has hardly had time to warm the seat.
That’s probably not divulging any secrets, our (Labour) MSP for Edinburgh North and Leith is known for his open mind and ability to break free from party political chains. And since that morning, the MSP for Glasgow Southside has been named Scottish politician of the year (again). But admiration did not stop Malcolm asking, I thought, the most pertinent questions of the morning: how can the new cabinet secretary reconcile the Scottish Government’s ambitious targets for carbon reduction with their expansive road building programme? And shouldn’t they be investing in more energy-efficient affordable housing?
Would you be surprised to hear the answer? The government would like to spend more on public transport and housing but they are limited by a fixed capital budget from Westminster. Committee meetings at Holyrood are wonderfully well-mannered but members could have pushed the minister harder on the question of choices. Even an independent Scotland would have a fixed budget, how it is spent is always going to be a matter of choice.
But Malcolm’s questioning did produce a small diary story that as far as I have seen has not made it into the press: Nicola Sturgeon does not drive a car (indeed she says she aims to get more of us walking, cycling or on to public transport too).
From our viewpoint, right behind the minister, I couldn’t help noticing her very stylish and spindly high heels. Since then a casual search online has produced the gossipy information that the deputy first minister is the very Imelda Marcos of the Scottish Government. In short she has a footwear fetish. If she walks or cycles to work it’s definitely not in those shoes! Perhaps she carries a comfy pair in her briefcase.
And the topical hook? Oh, yes, the Scottish Government is now reviewing a new walking strategy for Scotland to be revealed in 2013. If the Cabinet Secretary is at the launch make sure to take a look at her feet.
A new book burst on to the scene this week, a best seller on Amazon before the shops opened on Thursday. And no, I’m not talking about Ray’s book this time, I’m just grabbing a sneaky chance to revisit the mystery of the Hogwarts Treehouse.
To be honest I know nothing about hogwarts or where they live. I have never read Harry Potter but last month my eye was caught by the news that his creator had planning permission to build an adventure treehouse in her Crammond back garden. Apart from some neighbours grumbling that it will spoil their view, no-one is complaining. But that’s not the mystery. After all the week leading up to launch of The Casual Vacancy produced a crop of sympathetic stories including Decca Aitkenhead’s profile of JK Rowling in the Guardian and the revelation that the multi-millionaire believes in paying her tax – although that should not have come as a surprise to anyone who had read her Single Mother’s Manifesto published before the last general election.
Altogether, JKR sounds a thoroughly decent sort. So the mystery (to me) is why she should bring builders all the way from Kent to make a playhouse for her kids? Why not choose local builders to do the job? In one fell swoop the philanthropic Rowling could have done her bit to support Scottish innovation, increase local employment and reduce carbon emissions at the same time.
David Douglas Pavilion, Pitlochrie by Robin Baker
Blue Forest, based in Kent, may be an excellent company but three years ago Ray and I spent a very interesting few months meeting some of the most talented, progressive and idealistic architects and builders in Scotland. We were collecting case studies for a chapter on timber building for a wonderfully wide-ranging book called The Woodlanders. (the subtitle was New Life in British Forests but much of the material was gathered in Scotland).
Over moors and mountains we went – sometimes by phone or email but often by road in real life – to remote and romantic places where the living can be far from easy. We met a great bunch of creative people using a mix of ancient methods and advanced technology to create beautiful, environmentally sustainable and highly desirable homes, schools, offices and community meeting places (plus some very interesting composting loos). We found the promise of a Scottish timber-building renaissance which could bring social, environmental and economic benefits to both town and countryside but it needs government investment – in tree planting and tax incentive schemes – to reach fulfilment. And a little celebrity endorsement would do no harm.
The beautiful strength of a timber frame by Heartwood Frames
So, as an interesting counterpoint to the breathless publicity about JK Rowling’s new ‘adult’ book, there was another news story on Friday – design awards for a house built from Scottish timber demonstrating the potential for sustainable, affordable homes in rural communities.
I can thoroughly recommend a browse through the illustrated pages of Woodlanders – or take a look at the websites of Scottish pioneers like Neil Sutherland, Robin Baker, Gaia Group, North Woods, Heartwood Frames, Sylvan Stuart … to name just a few. If JKR, or any other imaginative philanthropists fancy making more dream buildings come to life they are truly spoilt for choice in Scotland.
We’re heading home, driving north from Oxfordshire to Edinburgh, bypassing the villages, towns and cities of middle England, and every motorway mile mocks the green and pleasant spectacle Danny Boyle plans to conjure up for the opening of the Olympics.
Am I being too cynical? Looking out the window I can see plenty of green and pleasant. Clumps of trees on rounded hills, pylons beaming power over meadows of pink and white campion, kestrels hovering for the kill above verges of daisies and teasels. And haven’t we just been staying in one of those beautiful rural retreats, a bunting-festooned village with more thatched roofs, half-timbered buildings and blooming gardens than any film director could make up.
But Boyle is not the only one making dreams. It’s when we pass ‘Shakespeare’s Stratford’ that it strikes me we are driving through a countryside remixed and regurgitated by the tourism industry. We are constantly being sold an image subtly removed from real life. To be fair, Stratford is a pretty place, and we’ve enjoyed some fine Shakespeare plays there. But for one sacrilegious moment I wonder if the carefully manufactured ‘Shakespeare experience’ – boxing the Bard in biscuit tins – stimulates or stifles creative thought in the place that depends on his name to draw the crowds (3 million of them) every year? Another thought, practically blasphemous, could being a UNESCO City of Literature have the same stranglehold on grassroots culture in Edinburgh?
On and on up the M6, signposts pointing the way to a different kind of Britain, junctions leading to towns and cities that grew from coal, steel and cotton. Factories, shipyards, potteries and mines are part of the past now too, disappearing into a waste-land of buddleia and shopping malls.
But that’s not it either. There’s new life in all these cities. Despite the new depression (and goodness knows there’s more to come if Osborne can’t get any further along the alphabet than Plan A), you find an exciting buzz in cities north of London. Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool – and that’s just the big names on the M6. Never mind for a moment the cities on the east coast or grand urban settlements of Scotland. Great regional cities with a vision for the future as well as a memory of the past. This could be part of a great national renaissance if it wasn’t for the bonkers economic imbalance of the UK weighted so heavily towards the south-east. (This is most definitely not a plea for Scottish independence by the way).
Here’s a crazy thought. Olympics 2012 is supposed to spread a warm glow across the whole nation. Instead of his rural idyll, what if Boyle were to celebrate the great cities of Britain. London can afford to give credit where it is due. Alternatively we might have spent the Olympian budget on something completely different. Creating jobs and building houses maybe?
No time for blogging this week but, if you don’t mind, I’m recycling some thoughts that are as depressingly topical as they were when I posted this almost exactly 3 years ago. Deja bloody vu.
They ate all the fish in the sea and all the birds in the sky. They cut down all the trees and when there was nothing left growing they possibly started eating each other. At any rate pretty soon they disappeared off the face of the earth. There is something eerie about reading Collapse by Jared Diamond as banks implode across the planet. Societies fail when they consume more than the environment can supply. Sound familiar at all?
I couldn’t face watching another episode of financial disaster last night so I went to bed before Newsnight and tucked up with a comforting tale of social catastrophes through the ages. So far I am only a third of the way through this remarkable chronicle of human folly, mismanagement and sheer bad luck but although different societies fail in their own ways they all seem to share common causes. Environmental damage resulting from over-consumption is the strongest link in the chain.
Easter Island is the most dramatic: those huge stone statues built at such great cost to the environment are all that is left of a complex society. The weaker the social structure became, the bigger the statues grew, the more the people consumed of the world around them.
As Diamond says: “The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter’s dozen clans…..if mere thousands of Easter Islanders with just stone tools and their own muscle power sufficed to destroy their environment and thereby destroyed their society, how can billions of people with metal tools and machine power now fail to do worse?”
The morning paper brings more echoes and ironies. Is the banking crisis the edge of the abyss or the jolt we need to start living within our means? The front pages are devoted to tumbling share prices. Inside there is a small story about the threatened extinction of the UK’s fish and fishing industry. We have pretty much eaten all the fish in the sea. What next?
The sub-title to Diamond’s book is How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. It’s up to us.
I’m off to cheer myself up watching Question Time.
[First posted 16 October 2008 – could have been yesterday]
A couple of bees are busy burying themselves in the private parts of bright pink geraniums. I have it on good authority that ladybirds often lurk among the leaves and grasses too. Oblivious to streams of noisy traffic, nature is thriving on an island of wildness in Broughton.
It’s this “slice of wilderness in the city”, to quote John Fraterwho designed and planted the borders in Mansfield Place, that stops me on my way home from the corner shop. On a sunny evening flowering grasses catch the light. Something about the planting reminds me of similar free-flowing borders I admired in Berlin a couple of years ago. Not a stiff municipal bedding plant in sight.
And right enough, when I contact Plantforms, Edinburgh garden designer John Frater tells me he spent a week on what sounds like an idyllic gardening course: the Berlin Royal Garden Academy Summer School studying gardens and public spaces in the city. In English. A day with Christian Meyer – the landscape architect who has made his mark with naturalistic plantings across Berlin and many other parts of Germany – inspired John to contact the city council when he got home.
That led to the pilot scheme at Mansfield Place – “a test bed if you like” – which began last year. The aim is to show the benefits of replacing annual plants with a softer more natural scheme of perennials which last for years and, once established, need little maintenance.
It’s a small but perhaps essential step for City of Edinburgh Council and with luck it will go much further. In fact this new kind of planting is beginning to appear on urban roundabouts and city borders across the UK. Under the Sustainability Charter all local authorities must demonstrate efficient use of energy and natural resources and Parks and Gardens departments are no exception. To put it bluntly, producing millions of annual bedding plants costs too much in time, energy, water, waste – and wages.
Now Mansfield Place displays a fine mixture of perennial plants – geraniums, sedums, salvias, spring and summer bulbs – all weaving their way through beautiful waving grasses. The Scottish tufted hair grass Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Schottland’ is the star of the show. “Grasses are the backbone of the planting scheme all year round,” says John “They add height and a soft airyness that can be seen from a distance.” The mix of plants is good for biodiversity – birds, bees, beetles and butterflies – too. And the borders need only a monthly weeding.
Room for growth: John’s picture of the newly planted border last year.
So far so very good. Last year, complimentary comments to the council far outnumbered complaints. This year, as photographs show, plants are bigger and better (most of them survived the harsh winter). In fact the beds look so good I hope the council will gain confidence to let John plant up the whole of the Broughton roundabout instead of asking him to leave space for annuals (in case passers by miss those bright colours).
But that’s far from the end of the story. John, whose first degree was in ecology, has also persuaded the council to allow a more ambitious environmental trial at their nursery. As you can see on his own blog, he is now busy experimenting with seed trials on a spare plot of ground. He hopes to produce a sustainable flowering perennial cover for tricky urban areas like roadside verges and woodland edges. Again there is inspiration from Germany.
So this is a good news story with full marks to City of Edinburgh Parks and Gardens for letting it happen. I am looking forward to following the seed trials – and hope to book a place on one of John’s classes on garden design in autumn and early spring. (And maybe that Englische gartenschule in Berlin!)
“A great city let down by its elected representatives”, BBC Scotland environment and science correspondent David Miller sums up last night’s Newsnight Scotland tram story, possibly the best news coverage so far of this extraordinary mess. The thunder is still rumbling around the city today and it has a long way to roll yet.
But last night’s story asked some very important questions. Not least, where is Jenny Dawe, city council leader. As Miller said last night, if this was happening in London you can bet Boris would be all over the media.
Edinburgh’s media does have some questions of its own to answer. The Evening News has consistently focused on the myths and mischief making of politicians with a party axe to grind. Where was the journalistic investigation into the contract, where the forensic analysis of budgets, where the curiosity about the contractors? How have Bilfinger Bergermanaged to complete other projects around the world without this difficulty and is it true that the Scottish government has placed a gagging order on the company?
Today as Alex Salmond grants a public enquiry, the city council is faced with the official version of that leaked report claiming it will cost more to scrap the tram than carry on. So the Evening News has published poll results claiming most people in the city want to scrap the tram. Like all polls it begs more questions than it answers. I for one am passionately in favour of the tram. But like most people I know (whether for or against the tram) I cannot understand how the project has become such an extraordinary disaster, or who is to blame. (And I am not at all sure a public enquiry is the best use of public cash).
Apart from lack of leadership and gobsmacking inefficiency, my main criticism of the council is that it has utterly failed to present an inspiring case for the tram. It shouldn’t be difficult. The tram is a fast and energy-efficient way to connect communities across a city with a growing population; it increases social mobility and reduces congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions. These are benefits which should suit the green claims of the Scottish Government. Now the SNP represents so many urban constituencies maybe the tram could begin to look more attractive?
They (and the Evening News) might take a look at Linkedin where Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce has been conducting a civilised and balanced debate with many good reasons for not scrapping the tram. Even as I write a wonderfully sane and intelligent discussion is live on the Better Nation blog. With luck some of the writers will stand for election to the city council next year!
Most of us had done the easy things before we bought our tickets for The Age of Stupid in 2009. We’ve already switched to low energy light bulbs, turned down the heating and we wash our clothes at 30 degrees C. Most of us even drive less and buy more local food. But if the makers of the climate change film were setting out to change more than that, the results of an Edinburgh survey may prove disappointing.
Two years ago I took part in questionnaires exploring the impact of the film. The results have just been published by Rachel Howell, a PhD student at Edinburgh University’s Centre for the Study of Environmental Change and Sustainability.
Rachel produced four questionnaires: the first two (Q1 and 2) were answered by willing members of the cinema audience immediately before and after seeing the film; Q3 a few months later and Q4 12 months after that.
So the results? People left the cinema feeling they must do something NOW but the film probably did little to change long term behaviour and attitudes. This is my paraphrase of Rachel’s summary but essentially the film (starring the late Pete Postlethwaite) was preaching to the converted. Most of us had already done the easy things. Even the converted can’t shift habits like flying and living in badly insulated homes with non-renewable energy when alternatives are not easily available or affordable. By the end of Rachel’s project respondents had dropped from 241 to 104. Perhaps worst of all by June 2010:
“Belief that it’s worth lobbying politicians about climate change had fallen by Q3 and fell even further by Q4.”
I went to see the film because I am concerned about climate change. I can see and feel my own small world getting warmer (despite this arctic winter) and I believe the great majority of scientists who link climate change with human actions.
If you disagree you have probably stopped reading this. If you went to see the film as a climate change sceptic you possibly came out of the cinema even more convinced that reducing ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions is unnecessary. If the world is warming it is not because we are flying, driving and consuming more. (It’s sunspots or a natural cycle. And it’s too late to change).
That’s our ‘Confirmation bias’ – people with opposing views can be presented with exactly the same information without shifting ground. Even if they wobble, as a Stanford University experiment shows, people usually return to their original stand regardless of evidence (sometimes more convinced than ever).
Floods, forest fires and blizzards rage across the warming world. Is it impossible for us to change? Luckily there are people with open and questioning minds. According to The Edge, a web magazine quoted by Saturday’s Guardian, “A good scientist is never certain”. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions about complex issues more reliable – in arguments about climate change scientists are rigorously testing each others’ theories.
So respect scientists who acknowledge uncertainty. As Rachel concludes:
“I have submitted a second paper, about the final follow-up, which is as much about the difficulties of conducting longitudinal studies of behaviour as about the results.”
Like others in the survey I try to avoid flying (the train is more fun anyway). But big changes need political leadership so, unlike others, I believe in lobbying my MP and MSP more than ever. In fact they are both actively trying to strengthen legislation on climate change. Even if they were not this is probably one circumstance where their ‘confirmation bias’ would give way to evidence of mass public support for change. That’s one certainty: politicians want to be elected.
Rachel says if you want to know more about the survey, final follow-up or a copy of the paper she has published in the academic journal Global Environmental Change, email: email@example.com
Some homecoming. For a week we explored the most exciting city in Europe. We rode trains, trams and buses to the centre and one sunny day we took the train in the other direction to discover the public housing estate that was inspired by Britain’s first garden cities. We marvelled at the plain good sense of building a housing estate on a train line. What a pity Edinburgh lacks that kind of civic imagination. Or generosity even. You’ll have had your tram Leith?
On the outskirts of Berlin, we walked through autumn trees to see an estate that houses 15,000 people. Onkel Toms Hutte, designed almost 100 years ago by Bruno Haut and Hugo Haring, could almost be a council estate in Britain if it wasn’t for the bright colours and gardens of mature trees softening, screening and separating the blocks of houses and flats. No litter on the ground. No shutters on the shops either.
But the best part is that these houses are not cut off from the rest of Berlin. Unlike the bleak housing estates that ring almost every British city, Onkel Toms Hutte is connected by a public transport system that really works.
U bahn trains run every five minutes taking people to work, study, play or shop in the city centre. Or just mooch about as we did, wandering from the Bauhaus to the Botanics, going to the theatre and art galleries, rummaging in shops, talking politics in the bar; blurring the line between East and West Berlin. We could get from the quiet suburb where we were staying with friends into Alexander Platz (a distance of maybe 10 miles, Berlin is a big city) in just over 30 minutes and our tickets could be used on buses and trams too.
Ah, trams. The point about trams which often seems overlooked in Edinburgh is that they are designed for growing populations in crowded urban environments; they carry more people than buses, they speed through the traffic. In short, they are fast. Leith Walk is long and congested with buses as well as cars. Sometimes buses sit nose to tail and at rush hour they crawl, crammed with people. Adding more buses will increase congestion without solving the transport problem. Leith needs the tram.
I am glad to find the Caledonian Mercury politics writer, Hamish Macdonell, urging city leaders to find the brains and balls to complete the tram line so that it runs as intended from Newhaven to the airport. It’s not exactly the Utopian vision of the early garden city planners but its a hell of a lot better than the council’s present cowardly cop-out.