INTERVIEW: “urban is my joy”
I first came across Lorna Walker at a ‘Sustainable Cities’ event at the British Library, organised by the Natural Capital Initiative. She delivered an inspiring speech that made me proud to call London, the greenest city in the world, home. She focussed on empowerment and the benefits of urban greening, rather than statements of doom and gloom. Lorna seemed sure that people could do much to equip urban areas to cope with climate change.
The second time I met Lorna was in the leafy surroundings of her south London home. I walked there across an autumnal Wandsworth Common, admiring trees gently haloed with gold and bushes studded with bright red berries. We sat in her airy conservatory and watched birds swarm over her feeders and squirrels hop noisily across her roof.
Lorna was born and brought up in southern Africa, but has lived in London for over 30 years. She’s worked as a director at Arup and was a member of Richard Roger’s Urban Task Force. She now runs her own business and is a commissioner for CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment).
“Urban is my joy” she says. “Cities are fantastic. They are where you will find the solutions to many of our problems.”
London is definitely her favourite. “I just adore London, I think it’s the best place to live in the world, it has such choices and such diversity. When I got married we moved to Wandsworth. It has the most green space of all the London boroughs, plus you’re close to the river and it’s not that far from town.
“London has parks all over it, squares and hidden little jewels – it’s 37% designated green space, not counting gardens. Green spaces mean better air and trees clean up pollution. In the future, they are going to be more important than ever if we’re to cope with extreme weather events.”
Sustainable design is becoming an often heard term, but what does it mean? “It means common sense and good design, for people. Sustainability is about doing one thing that has about five positive effects. And one of the imperatives is continuous improvement – you don’t have to change the world by Tuesday, but you can do a bit, if you believe every little bit counts.
“A lot of effort is going into improving the energy efficiency of buildings, but there’s also now much more work focusing on the edges of buildings and nurturing green space around them. For example, urban ventilation systems, where you allow areas for air to move, quite often over water, can help mitigate against the urban heat island effect.”
For Lorna, green space is central to happiness. She says she wouldn’t survive in London without access to nature. She also suggests that happiness is starting to become accepted as a kind of science, explaining that it’s connected to health and community, which are in turn intrinsically linked to spending time outside. Statistics show that vast swathes of the population, young and old, are depressed. “Parks and furry things, talking to other people and being active, the spaces where people can do those things are really important.”
Access to green spaces for Lorna, who is a wheelchair user, can be difficult in London but she is full of praises for improvements that are slowly being made. The Thames footpath is a particular favourite. “It was originally designed for cyclists but it’s great for wheelchairs. My pet hate though is gravel, it’s absolutely impossible for wheelchairs, you just can’t get over it.”
And what are Lorna’s favourite green spaces and London views? She loves Wandsworth Common and the Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park, which is “totally magical all year round”. The best views are to be had from buildings like the OXO tower and Centre Point, or along the river from the Albert and Hammersmith bridges.
But most of all she loves her “green but unkempt garden”, where she and her sister counted over 23 species of birds last year. She works mainly from home and says the more she looks the more she sees. She keeps it wild and spends as much time as she can simply watching, delighting in everything from bees and beetles to bright green parakeets.
Lorna Walker is managing director of Lorna Walker Consulting, which focuses on sustainable development and urban regeneration. She is commissioner for CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) and has just finished working on a Foresight report about sustainable energy and management in the built environment. Find out more on www.lornawalker.co.uk
This article appears in the winter 2009 issue of Wild London magazine