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Friday18 August 2017

Patrolling the windowbox war zone

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Whatever the scale, it’s not always easy to reach consensus in battles over our environment

My inner-city council flat in Edinburgh’s Old Town is part of the Unesco World Heritage Site; and that means that while it is not itself listed, or indeed a masterpiece in its own right — it was designed in the mid-sixties as part of Robert Hurd & Partners’ rebuilding of the lower end of the Royal Mile — it’s bang in the middle of one the most carefully monitored built environments on the planet. I shan’t pretend that that’s not why I live there, but it puts us into some very curious situations.

Our courtyard holds residents’ meetings once a quarter. In fact, we’ve just had one: it was as vituperative as ever. I shan’t go into the details, but let’s say that the, err, discussion centred around a windowbox about 300mm tall, 1,000mm long and 250mm wide. Made like a barrel, it contains, at the moment, daffodils. This window box was installed last week by a well-meaning neighbour in front of one of his windows. He lives in the 18th century tenement to the other side of the courtyard from my rather less well-heeled (ex) council flat.

The meeting divided into two parties, implacably opposed. The anti-windowboxites proclaimed the planter a disgraceful intrusion. The plants, they claimed, distracted from the architecture, and besides, their container was out of period with the building. The boxites dismissed the objection. The planter represented sustainability and progress: the latest episode in the long tradition of greening of the city in the manner of Patrick Geddes who, to those of us who inhabit Auld Reekie, is something of a bearded prophet.

It wasn’t a happy meeting. One among us — an anti-windowboxite, actually — sensibly suggested that we needed to evolve a plan, or at least a set of guidelines for the courtyard, allowing it to develop, and respond to new needs on the one hand, and on the other, for its architectural character to be preserved. Do without such a plan, it was darkly hinted, and we would sink into an estate of uPVC windows, heaps of litter and aesthetic anomie.

Sensible it seems but it’s not going to be easy. In the first place, there is no straightforward consensus: what does, for example, “in period” mean for an 18th century tenement renovated as council housing in the sixties? More generally, we all need to think about the extent we are prepared to accept another layer of regulation. We, like the residents of other, better known, war zones, are already being monitored by an arm of the UN — isn’t that enough?

The affair of the windowbox, Lilliputian as it may appear, reminds us that all buildings are unavoidably political. Walls divide us from our neighbours, and they are what we share with them. Bricks and mortar, and working together to work out how and why we build them, look after them, and, sometimes, knock them down, turn us all into politicians whether we like it or not. It’s not just the big boys in Westminster who are in charge of our environment. We all are.

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