This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 17/05/2018.
Regenerating Croydon from the ground up
How Croydonians are creating a grassroots regeneration movement, and why a totem pole is the perfect symbol of this.
“Quality… you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. Some things are better than others… but what is the betterness?” – Robert M Pirsig.
Everybody wants a better Croydon. So what exactly is it? Well, it depends on whom you ask.
The most troubling thing that I’ve ever read in the Croydon Citizen appeared in October 2016 and was titled ‘The past is concrete, the future is modular’. Its author, Tom Lickley, described a concept which has been dubbed – though he did not use the words – ‘fizzy living’. He saw this as the inevitable consequence of Croydon’s regeneration and the soaring cost of housing that it brings.
I was troubled by the lack of alarm about a world in which “home ownership is at least delayed for the vast majority and perhaps abandoned completely for some […] and replaced by the rental sector […] backed by major financial institutions, or developers. [This] rental accommodation [includes] modern amenities […] and smart technologies such as Hive […] wrapped up into one monthly bill. [It] may not lead to increased numbers permanently settled […] but may aid the dynamism of the town”.
Regeneration looks lovely – but what is the betterness?
I’m no home-ownership fetishist, but it’s vital for Croydon to be, at its heart, a stable community. Some will always value flexibility, but no-one can build their life entirely at the mercy of soaring land values and market forces. A secure home (privately owned or affordable council/social housing which controls rent and gives children the right to inherit the tenancy of their family base) is a human need. The fizzies, perpetual campers, are well-paid (for the moment) victims of investors for whose profit their tiny, shiny flats are erected. They have as little stability as the growing numbers of Croydonians in precarious (and far less pleasant-looking) poverty, for whom over £6 million in housing benefit is paid out annually to private landlords in Croydon (excluding housing associations). The cost of keeping a roof over their heads will keep on rising.
Regeneration makes Croydon look lovely – no-one would deny it. But what is the betterness when it also denies more and more Croydonians, old and new, the chance to be grounded, to truly belong and to plan for their future in safety? One day, all of these fizzy bubbles will go flat.
Now, in an effort to counter the erosion of stable communities, local people are working on a very different kind of regeneration. Theirs is a deeply rooted movement which seeks to reconnect our town with the ground that it stands on, and give a true sense of inclusion.
Croydonians can be united by land, not divided and disempowered by it
The project that has most represented this grassroots regeneration was Croydon Saffron Central, the urban saffron farm founded by Ally McKinlay in the summer of 2015. Croydon’s name derives from ‘Croh-denu’, Anglo-Saxon for ‘valley of the crocus’, and the flowers were grown here in Roman times. For two-and-a-half years, crocus sativus bloomed in the heart of the town centre. Croydon Saffron Central featured on ITV London news, on London Live and on BBC Radio 4′s Food Programme. It won awards from the Royal Horticultural Society. Nearly 40,000 of its corms (the bulbs from which new crocuses grow) have been shared with community gardens and schools. New crocuses will bloom across the borough in the future, creating a Croydon saffron legacy.
Although it’s over now – and new flats are due to be erected on the site – the place remains a symbol of how our town can be united by land, not divided and disempowered by the exorbitant cost of it. It was a deeply, authentically generative project. Now a second enterprise embodies a similar ideal: the Wandle Park totem pole.
A totem pole is a symbol of safety, protection and guidance
In Native American tradition, totem poles depict animals and mythological creatures which are believed to watch over the families, clans and tribes of a particular region. They are regarded as guardian spirits or helpers. A totem pole is, therefore, a symbol of safety, protection and guidance for those who are near it. The four tiers of Wandle Park’s pole represent the living world of the park on four levels: river, riverbank, pond and trees, and it is crowned with the ‘little owl’ that frequented one of the willow trees until the park’s reconstruction in 2012 when the Wandle was resurfaced.
The idea began with a local resident who is also a council officer, who thought of creating art for the Wandle Arts Regeneration Project. The project gathered momentum as others saw its potential. Simon Maynard of Croydon Clayworks was the design leader and the finished work now standing overlooking the river Wandle was sculpted from clay and glazed by young people from Croydon Youth Offending Service. It’s a remarkable testament to their effort and artistic skill. For these young people, such creative engagement will hopefully also represent a personal regeneration.
Croydon has many more grassroots regenerators – there’s not enough space here to list them. The founders of community hub Matthews Yard, the members of the Thornton Heath Community Action Team, the dedicated Park Hill Friends, the Croydon Conservation Volunteers, the Transition Town choirs… all who run such projects and participate in them are community builders and stabilisers. Above all, they are makers, not takers. They all play a part in the real regeneration that Croydon needs – from the ground up.