PD Smith


15 June 2017 | cities, Guardian, London, Reviewing, Writing & Poetry | Post a comment

I've reviewed a wonderful book on the green belt for the Guardian. Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt is by John Grindrod, author of Concretopia, a celebration of postwar British architecture (“I do love a bit of concrete”).

Part history and part memoir, Grindrod’s evocative and intelligent book explores the green belt and its place in our national consciousness. As well as explaining the history of the green belt, one of the great strengths of the book is that Grindrod tells his own story of growing up on a council estate in New Addington, developed during the 1930s on an exposed Surrey hilltop. Grindrod’s family moved from a flat in Battersea to New Addington in 1969: “a modern phenomenon: the once urban poor transplanted back to the edge of the city, to the country”. Their home was on “the outskirts of the outskirts” and opposite the green belt. His brother said it was “like everything a child could want! There were trees, fields of wheat … It just blew me away.”

Grindrod's wonderful book struck a chord with me. I also grew up on the fringes of London in the 1970s, near the green belt. My parents lived in a rather unlovely 1930s semi on the outskirts of Romford, not far from the rather more desirable garden suburb of Gidea Park, which was inspired by Ebenezer Howard's idealistic vision of a decentralised urban future. "Town and country must be married," Howard had gushed, "and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilisation."

As Grindrod shows, it was largely Howard's vision of garden cities that inspired the green belt, an urban planning compromise designed to limit the growth of big cities such as London, a barrier to save the countryside from an all-consuming tide of subtopia. I was never particularly keen on Romford (although its raucous, colourful market was memorable) but I loved the sense that green spaces were never too far away.

Today 13% of England is designated as green belt – a striking figure when you consider that only slightly more than 2% of land is actually built on. But Grindrod shows that we need a new approach to the green belt to deal with the current housing crisis: “To city dwellers, the green belt is tightening around our throats. To country folk we are ignorant barbarians, intent on its destruction.”

Read my review here and do buy Grindrod's book. You won't be disappointed...

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