I’m very pleased to feature this week a guest post by Paul Wood. Paul is the author of three books about trees in London: London’s Street Trees, London is a Forest and London Tree Walks, and he writes the blog thestreettree.com.
London Tree Walks, published in October 2020, features a dozen walks around London from Acton to Walthamstow looking at the city through the trees found in it. One of the walks, ‘Architectural Utopias Among The Trees: A Pimlico Circular’, guides walkers through the Millbank and Churchill Gardens Estates. This guest blog looks at how trees have been used in planned housing developments since the end of the nineteenth century with particular focus on the Pimlico Estates.
Signed copies of London Tree Walks are available from the author at this webpage.
By the end of the nineteenth century, trees in towns and cities had burst out of parks and squares to become established in new, urban and suburban settings across the UK and beyond. The opening of the Victoria Embankment in 1870 led to an almost overnight popularisation of planting trees in avenues, a phenomena that had hitherto been the preserve of great Continental cities such as Paris, where Hausmann’s grands boulevards had been attracting attention for several decades.
By the late nineteenth century, building houses among tree-lined streets had become an established practice for speculative builders wanting to attract the burgeoning middle classes to newly fashionable suburbs like Muswell Hill and Bedford Park. In Bedford Park, new street trees complemented those retained from the original fields, while in Muswell Hill, hundreds of London planes adorned the new avenues.
Planners and developers had realised that not only were trees an important part of a modern cityscape, they brought with them a host of benefits to those who lived near them. As the new craze for street tree planting reached fever pitch, it was only natural that the first public housing schemes should also have trees planted around them. The Boundary Estate in Shoreditch featured newly planted trees along its streets, mostly London planes and common limes, many of which, particularly those around Arnold Circus can still be seen. Rows of newly planted saplings feature in this photograph taken in 1903 soon after the estate opened.
Twenty years after the Embankment planting, Victorian engineers had taken on board the need to engineer tree planting into new road schemes, the complexity of which was outlined by Clerk of the Improvements Committee, Percy J Edwards in 1876: (1)
To secure the well-being of trees, pits were formed and filled with proper soil, and the footway surrounding the trees was covered with an open grating to admit the rain and air to the soil, and to enable it to be stirred and kept loose on the surface. The grating and footway were supported independently by girders over the pits, so as to prevent the settlement of the paving and the hardening of the ground around the roots of the trees.
Following similar principles, the trees seen at Boundary Road and the Millbank Estate constructed soon afterwards are extraordinarily well encased. High quality engineering means subsidence has not been an issue and big trees have been left to reach their full potential and are now a significant physical feature defining these estates as much as their architecture.
Trees planted in some privately developed housing schemes, including Muswell Hill, have not fared so well with whole streets of mature trees disappearing. This is down to two main factors: the cost of maintaining large trees is significant, sometimes at a level local authorities have struggled to keep up with; and the costs of paying out to litigious residents whose homes, built speculatively often with relatively poor foundations, have been subject to subsidence.
Trees are frequently implicated in subsidence cases, their adventurous roots, insurers claim, drain water from London’s porous clay soils causing contraction and can also undermine buildings. Rather than fight these often difficult-to-prove cases, authorities will avoid costs and conflict by simply removing trees. This practice has led to avenues being depleted, removed completely or being replaced piecemeal with different species. This last practice can mean an architecturally consistent scheme planted with, for instance, London planes can become a hotchpotch of trees with differing characteristics, size and age.
This is not the case on the Millbank Estate however, defined – even more so than the Boundary Estate – by its well-manicured and mature London plane trees. It was completed in 1902 and was an ambitious attempt at social housing, building on the experience of its smaller Shoreditch sibling. Millbank’s trees appear, 120 years after their installation, to be in great shape and add to the architectural rigour even more so than those on the Boundary Estate. It may be obvious, but unlike buildings, trees change dramatically over time, albeit in relative slow motion. They are also subject to differing management regimes which themselves change over decades and so reflect factors including fashion, economics and arboricultural practices whose impact becomes apparent over multiple human lifetimes.
Today, the Millbank Estate has a near full and consistent complement of trees, virtually all of which are London planes, the urban tree species of choice in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. The Boundary Estate has some fine planes too, but appears to be relatively less forested today. Historically it appears, the Boundary Estate was planted with planes interspersed with common limes – another species well adapted to urban situations, mature examples of which can be seen on Rochelle Street. Elsewhere a handful of weeping ‘Pendula’ cultivars of wych elm, an ornamental species relatively resistant to Dutch elm disease are present. One in the small garden behind Sandford House next to Club Row is typical.
These curious crown-grafted trees were much in favour during the nineteenth century and are often a feature of public parks, however the estate examples appear to be rather younger than the buildings, they are perhaps second-generation replacements of original trees. In more recent years, streets such as Palissy Street have been planted with Field Maple, a smaller and shorter-lived species than London plane, but nevertheless, a good hardy tree.
The Boundary Estate has, it seems, lost some of its trees over the years, and those that remain have been less strictly managed than those on the Millbank Estate. Both feature mature planes that now reach the full height and more of the buildings that once towered over them. They have been planted close to the buildings, in retrospect maybe too close, often they have grown at angles several degrees away from upright in search of light. Their presence in such proximity to the buildings is testament to the high specification of the entire estate.
To walk round the larger Millbank Estate today is to encounter an environment, both architectural and arboreal, that has been very well maintained over the years. With both estates, it is interesting to reflect on the planners’ original vision of how the trees would become integral to the estates over time. Did they consider the trees should be left to reach the heights seen today, or were they intended to be managed on a severe pollarding regime reflecting the fashions of the early nineteenth century? It is hard to know, or even if the longevity of the trees’ lives was considered.
Now though, and particularly in the summer, the mature trees’ canopies provide cool shade and, as evidence from elsewhere shows, traffic speed, noise and pollution are all reduced in such lush surroundings. Integral to the design of the estate was the inclusion of open space and the provision of trees.
Communal, mostly paved, areas are tucked away between the blocks, and the trees planted over 120 years ago line the streets running between them. London planes form something of a monoculture, which from a visitor’s perspective offers a harmonious aesthetic that sits well with the arts and crafts inspired architecture, but to a contemporary planner, this rigour may seem uninteresting and even risky given the spectre of plant pathogens that, like Dutch Elm Disease, can wipe out whole species in a very short time.
It was undoubtedly a radical move to include trees in these early estates; by the late nineteenth-century social class was embedded in their selection and planting. As Harold Dyos wrote in his 1960s study of the growth of Camberwell: (2)
The choice of trees, too, had its social overtones: planes and horse chestnuts for the wide avenues and lofty mansions of the well-to-do; limes, laburnums and acacias for the middle incomes; unadorned macadam for the wage-earners.
Dyos’ observation illustrates that the high standards employed in early public housing development goes against the norms established by private developers. London plane, the tree that is associated with grand public thoroughfares like the Embankment and aspirational new suburbs like Muswell Hill was also the tree chosen to soften and embed these new housing forms into the fabric of the city. It would have appeared to be the perfect tree for planting as it is attractive, fast-growing and able to cope with the industrial pollution of the day. Over the years, the trees have been well cared for, having been regularly pollarded to keep them an appropriate size and shape for their location.
A short and interesting walk from the Millbank Estate through the stuccoed splendour of Thomas Cubitt’s Pimlico, Modernist Churchill Gardens illustrates how the relationship between trees and public housing has changed over the years, and represents what might be considered the pinnacle of post-war inner city landscaping.
London’s Second World War destruction provided planners with a rare opportunity to rebuild a modern city. Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1943 identified how war-damaged and slum housing could be cleared to make way for spacious modern homes with proper sanitation along with public open spaces. Born out of this optimistic vision, the Churchill Gardens estate was planned to provide 1,600 new homes.
Designed by the young architectural practice of Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya, the estate’s development started in 1946, with the final blocks – those on the western side of Claverton Street – not completed until the 1970s. It is now a conservation area, with several of the oldest structures listed. Walking through the estate, it is possible to experience the utopian vision of large-scale planned housing. As well as one of the first, Churchill Gardens is one of the largest and most ambitious social housing developments with several innovations at its heart, notably the Accumulator Tower, a structure designed to hold hot water for heating the entire estate, which was pumped directly from Battersea Power Station across the river.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the estate is how it is enveloped by green space and mature trees. Unlike the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century urban ideal emphasising the separation of houses and greenery, Churchill Gardens represents a modernist vision of living among the trees. At every turn, mature hornbeams, tree privets, southern catalpas and other species are present. Well-kept gardens, tended by residents, pop up all over, and secret green corners among the tower blocks offer natural sanctuaries.
Unlike that other notable modernist development, the Alton Estate in Roehampton, where high quality architecture is scattered among a former Georgian parkland overlooking Richmond Park, the landscape at Churchill Gardens was planned from scratch. Consequently the trees reflect mid-twentieth century tastes that show both far greater species diversity and a modern sensibility regarding their purpose.
Unlike the Millbank Estate, the trees are no longer structural adjuncts to the built environment, instead they have become alternative focal points to the buildings. They act to soften the potentially brutalising effects of the monumental architecture, whose scale they cannot compete with. Between the slab blocks, gardens exist containing specimen trees which have more in common with park trees than street trees – a crucial difference between Churchill Gardens and the Millbank Estate, which has also led to different management practices.
Instead of well-pollarded planes, the trees here have been given ample space to attain fine maturity. Notable among the species are goblet-shaped hornbeams of the ‘Fastigiata’ cultivar, and evergreen Chinese tree privets, both neat, medium-sized trees. Elsewhere, a few larger trees like Italian alder, red oak, sycamore, Norway maple, southern catalpa and Japanese pagoda tree rub shoulders with smaller trees including ornamental cherries, magnolias and white mulberries. But perhaps the most exciting trees to look out for are an exceptional example of a southern European nettle tree next to Bramwell House, and a very rare (and poisonous) varnish tree next to Coleridge House.
According to Powell, the architects worked with a former Kew gardener on the landscape planting. As a result, Churchill Gardens is full of fine, well-tended trees that the people who live here are proud of and that help to foster a palpable sense of place and community.
Trees have been part of our town and cityscapes for centuries, but their use on streets and among housing is a late nineteenth century innovation. As the first social housing schemes were built, tree planting was considered an essential part of their development. This impulse continued over subsequent decades with a shift away from London plane monocultures to much more diverse planting which, at its best can be akin to parkland or even botanical collections.
The use of trees within planned housing developments arguably reached its zenith in the heroic modernism of the post-war period expanding on new insights, derived from pioneering schemes like the Millbank Estate, into how buildings, people and trees interact. As estates have aged, the trees have too. Now we can reflect on the benefits of living among the trees and appreciate the grandeur they bring to developments through softening and humanising the architecture, while also providing seasonal interest and tangible environmental benefits.
(1) Percy J Edwards, History of London Street Improvements, 1855-1897 (London County Council, 1898)
(2) Harold Dyos, Victorian Suburb: A study of the Growth of Camberwell (Leicester University Press, 1966)