Saturday, 22 March 2014

Top John Evelyn scholar backs Sayes Court Garden project

Mark Laird is Senior Lecturer in the History of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University and the foremost authority on John Evelyn. He has recently written to the Mayor of London from Harvard Design School with respect to the Convoys Wharf application and in support of the proposals from Sayes Court Garden CIC:

"It is impossible to overstate the significance of Sayes Court and the history of John Evelyn's life and work at the site that is under threat of irreversible development. Over the past twenty years, I have written three scholarly articles on Evelyn at Sayes Court. My forthcoming book, A Natural History of English Gardening (Yales University Press, Spring 2015) will open with a chapter on his significance as horticultural and technological innovator and as environmental policy maker. His Fumifugium (1661), Sylva (1664) and Acetaria (1699) laid the groundwork for a sustainable London of the 21st century – clear air, tree canopy, and food in the city.

"The Greater London Authority has shown leadership through policy documents (from London Biodiversity Action Plan and East London Green Grid Plan to the March 2012 report, London World Heritage Sites – Guidance on Settings). These documents are in line with the  new UNESCO Recommendation on Historic Urban Landscape (HUL, November 2011), which seeks to integrate 'policies and practices of conservation in the built environment into the wider goals of urban development'. In the Foreword to the March 2012 GLA document, Boris Johnson reiterates the importance of London's built and natural heritage in benefiting 'our economy, culture and quality of life'. Sayes Court is the test case for his claim: 'How we manage this dynamic juxtaposition in ways that respect the past, while welcoming the future, will be a mark of our success in maintaining London as a really world class city'.

"The arguments in the 'Sayes Court Garden Programme and Analysis' report (February 2014) – and especially the modifications to P16 proposed in the 26 February 2014 statement – are built on very solid foundations. As you are aware, the Sayes Court Garden website features my own reconstructions of Evelyns's parterre and grove, which, until the better winter of 1683/4, lay immediately adjacent to his manor house. The archeaological site plan of Stuart Structures may look insignificant, yet the trace of the garden wall on the west side of the important vestiges of the manor house and the trace of the dockyard perimeter wall on the east side are absolutely critical to what I have reconstructed. The proposed P16 block would forever destroy and cover over these traces and vestiges and obliterate the core of Sayes Court – the manor house that was the intellectual home of Evelyn's environmental vision.

"Creating, by the modifications to P16, a new Centre for Urban Horticulture on the archaeological site of the manor house is precisely the accommodation of the old within the new that the Mayor sees as a measure of success and that UNESCO would deem a model for Historic Urban Landscape. The Centre would join other models of 'best practice' from around the world. Using the Evelyn cabinet of curiosity as a starting point for a modular and flexible layout of the garden spaces would unify the geometries of the blocks with the geometries of urban horticulture and forestry, mediciinal gardening, beekeeping and fruit growning, and greening technologies. The opportunity for local communities to benefit from learning about health and nutrition with environmental education at the primary school level makes Evelyn's teachings relevant now and for the future.

"The Royal Horticultural Society and the National Trust have both identified an acute skills shortage in areas that Evelyn would have understood when writing his Directions for the Gardiner at Says-Court in the mid-1680s. A Centre for Urban Horticulture, while training a new generation of local youth as skilled gardeners, could also become a centre of excellence in the fields of landscape urbanism and ecosystems performance. It could advance natural and cultural heritage studies in cooperation with the World Monuments Fund, English Heritage, National Trust, the Council for British Archaeology and the Garden History Society. In this vision for the Centre, the four pillars of sustainable development identified in the UNESCO statements on HUL – economy, ecology, community and cultural resources – are integrated in an appropriately holistic way: [HUL] seeks to increase the sustainability of planning and design interventions by taking into account the existing built [and natural] environment, intangible heritage, cultural diversity, socio-economic and environmental factors along with local community values'.

"The international community of scholars and practitioners is watching the debate over Convoys Wharf and Sayes Court with great interest and some anxiety. Will the GLA's guidance in the debate feature positively in textbooks to come as it has in the past in books devoted to biodiversity and climate-change planning? I, for one, am putting my faith in the Mayor and the GLA to reach the only right decision."

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