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Meet Bob Gilbert, Author Of The Green London Way - A Guide That Teaches Us To Appreciate Urban  Walking

Image adapted from original by donchili“Our concern for the environment and for what we are doing to it should stem not from a sense of guilt or from fear, but from a positive celebration of the world around us and a joy in it” – these are the inspiring words of Bob Gilbert, author of The Green London Way - a book that describes a walking route of over 110 miles connecting different parts of the city.

In contrast to other guides which tend to focus on rural trails, it pays tribute to urban walking and teaches us to look at the city with new eyes. It also tracks the relations of the social and natural history of London and gives an insight into urban wildlife. In this exclusive interview with Frontier, Bob Gilbert discusses topics including the differences between the appreciation of urban and natural spaces, the connection between our attitudes to local and global environmental problems and the reasons why London stands out from other cities.

You run campaigns to protect urban open spaces. Why are these areas important?

Open spaces in urban areas are the pores through which the city breathes. They are part of our natural and historical heritage and even if we are not aware of them, or do not use them, they are ecologically, socially and psychologically important. They reduce noise and pollution and stress; they contribute to sustainable drainage and to ecological diversity; and most of all they provide spaces to play and access to the outdoors for a generation that is increasingly cut off from the natural world and from the environment which sustains us.

In earlier generations the greatest threat to our open spaces was that of enclosure and development. Today we are facing a more insidious problem. The decades of austerity and cuts to local authority budgets mean that many of our parks are suffering from a serious deterioration of their infrastructure, from cuts in maintenance budgets and from the loss of skilled, horticultural staff. We are witnessing the decline of a once great and still essential heritage and the need to campaign for their protection is as great as ever.

Have you always enjoyed living in the city or did you experience moments when you wanted to move to the countryside?

I have always been a bit ambivalent about where I live. I was born and brought up a Londoner and I find it an interesting and exciting place. I have longed sometimes to live amongst trees or within sight of mountains or the sea, but as a community worker or an educationalist, my work has always been here in the inner city. Much of it has been about helping children and young people enjoy the experience of growing things or appreciate the natural environment, so I feel a bit as if I’ve had a calling to stay here. And now my wife is a priest in the inner city and has the same sense of vocation.

My compensation has always been to notice, explore and enjoy the wildlife of the city; the mistle thrush that sings in the morning, the moss that grows on top of a wall, the cherries flowering in the local park. I try to remain constantly alert to what is around me in even the most unlikely and unpromising locations. 

Photo courtesy of Bob GilbertWhy should people set out for urban walks?

Because we should always start by ‘digging where we stand’ and by appreciating what is immediately around us. Since the city is where most of us now live we should have an appreciation for it; for its history, its natural history, its culture and its people. And there is always so much to look at; interesting buildings and diverse building styles, parks and open spaces, canals and abandoned railways, street life and street trees and a surprising diversity of wildlife.

This is particularly true of London which is actually a collection of centres, small towns and urban villages, each of them with a character and an interesting story of their own.

You say that urban walking requires a different sort of appreciation. How does it differ?

Many urban walks that are now being produced treat it as an urban version of the rural walk, a sort of scaled-down equivalent of the countryside. My view is that urban walking is of a different order and requires a different sort of sensibility. Approached without preconceptions it offers constant surprises and unexpected rewards, uncovering unsuspected routes and magnificent yet little-known buildings. More than this, it reveals hidden facets of history and a surprising wealth of wildlife. And even in the most squalid surroundings there can be a strange beauty that is completely unconventional.

Do you think there’s a connection between our attitude to the local environment and current global ecological problems?

Our concern for the environment and for what we are doing to it should stem not from a sense of guilt or from fear, but from a positive celebration of the world around us and a joy in it. And that can only begin from noticing what is around us in our local environment and from a constant alertness to it and an excitement in it. The causes of environmental degradation are pretty much the same wherever you encounter them - particularly excessive consumerism and the unequal distribution of wealth and power - but we should begin where we are. If we’re called to go on to campaign for the elephant and the panda, that’s fine, but it starts from the trees on our streets, the insects that visit our gardens, the sparrows that nest in the gutter.   

Flickr | Henry Hemming

Do you think that an urban lifestyle can be sustainable and eco-friendly?

I do not only think it is possible, I think it is essential. By 2050 two thirds of the population of the globe is expected to live in cities. As the cities come to occupy more of our lives and more of our land, it has become essential that we find a radically different approach to designing the townscape - thinking of it not as a sterile setting stripped of all species but our own, but as a shared space, a place where humans can spend their time, more happily and more healthily, alongside other living things.

We must stop thinking of nature as something that is permissible ‘out there’, in some bucolically imagined countryside, on a beautifully filmed TV documentary or on a specially managed reserve - but as something that is welcome, here, among us, in an integrated city. We have the tools and knowledge enough already for this; for green roofs and living walls, for parks which permeate estates, for wild areas in our open spaces, for dykes and ponds and sustainable urban drainage, for trees on our streets, for the encouragement of invertebrates, for homes for starlings and swifts, house martins and hedgehogs. As Gary Snyder put it, ‘Civilisation is permeable and could be as inhabited as the world is’. 

How can urban residents restore or maintain their connection to nature?

By walking with their eyes open.

Flickr | Paul HudsonIt took you several years to connect various urban trails and subsequently form the Green London Way. What have you learnt during your city walks?

Two things. First that London has not just one historical and cultural centre but many. It is an amazing collection of small towns and urban villages with their own history and natural history, interesting buildings and open spaces, local stories and cultures. Walking London looking for a connecting and circular route led me to places I might not otherwise have discovered, from Brentford Butts in the west to Charlton House in the east. There are so many unexpected gems to be discovered right across this great sprawling city. And secondly that just about every park, common, heath or wood in London has had to be fought for at some time in its history, whether to get it established in the first place or to save it from subsequent development.  The creation and preservation of London’s open spaces is a result of the struggles of the city’s people and almost every inch has been lobbied over, campaigned about and demonstrated for. The stories of these struggles is one of the most exciting and inspiring aspects of the Green London Way.

How did you collect material for your book? What were your sources?

I am an inveterate book buyer and have a large collection both on London and on wildlife, but beyond this I had two main sources. The first was walking and looking, and taking and recording notes. There is no substitute for seeing things; for noticing trees or buildings or street names or contours of the land that need explaining. This is my real raw material. And beyond that I owe a debt of gratitude to all of the local history libraries and archives across London. I visited one for every London borough that the route passed through and that was where most of my best stories came from. They were, and are, an invaluable resource, but they are another one that is under threat as local authority finances tighten year on year.

WikiMedia Commons | Acabashi

What does London miss in comparison to other cities? And inversely, what is in your opinion special about London?

My eldest son recently went to live in Milan and in one of our first telephone conversations he told that it had made him realise just how green London was as a city, lined with trees and dotted with open spaces. This is a very special aspect of London which has a virtual urban forest and I support the campaign to declare the city an urban National Park. This is a resource we must conserve, unlike in Sheffield, for example, where they are chopping down mature trees and replacing them with smaller species in order to save on maintenance costs.  

As for what London misses, we seem to have lost control of development. In Paris, for example, high rise buildings are restricted to certain parts of the city, whilst the skyline and townscape of the rest of the city is protected. In London, following the removal of height restrictions in the City of London, high rise development seems to be going on everywhere with whole districts being demolished to make away for bland mega-projects. It is a destruction of culture, of character and of community.


A huge thank you to author and environmental campaigner Bob Gilbert for this inspiring interview.

By Eliška Olšáková - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs conservation, developmentteaching and adventure travel projects in over 50 countries worldwide - so join us and explore the world!

Get more from us on social media with FacebookTwitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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Tackling Fast Fashion With Zero Waste  Design

Image adapted from original by Peter GriffinThe number of people that are concerned about the consequences of their consumption is growing and it is no surprise that the fashion industry is attempting to respond to this trend. Even global chains like H&M and Zara, which are often blamed as symbols of spendthrift fast fashion, are taking small steps to assure their customers that the environment is one of their main concerns. Following up the concept of sustainable art, the fashion industry is reconsidering its ways of production and discovering a new source of inspiration - zero waste design.

The vast negative environmental effects that fast fashion causes are more frequently pointed out by NGOs and the media. Their criticism is based on the fact that the industry uses an immense amount of resources and toxic chemicals, causes water pollution and contaminates agricultural lands. Last but not least, it’s a source of enormous textile waste. Clothing manufacturing creates more than 15% of textile leftovers.

And there is also another aftermath of this system. Fast fashion forces consumers to want more. Our insatiable demand costs us money, time and even happiness as we are losing the connection to our possessions and tend to be wasteful. With new trends coming out in short periods of time, we can hardly appreciate one particular piece in our wardrobe. Reversing this trend became a part of a minimalistic agenda and brushed up the concept of the 10-item wardrobe.

In December 2016, a trend forecaster Li Edelkoort declared that the current fashion is old-fashioned as it fails to reflect the demands of today’s society, which is becoming more conscious about the environment and human rights. Fashion should no longer profit off of low-income countries and the enslavement of workers. Edelkoort’s speech has inspired a New York based designer Daniel Silverstein who is running his Zero Waste Daniel store.

“I was sick of making cocktail and evening dresses. I was so stressed out designing all the time and I just thought like this isn’t helping anybody,” explains Silverstein. Zero Waste Daniel aims to make social and environmental change in the fashion industry. The company believes in fair wages for workers, thoughtful design and that “putting energy into reusing wasted materials is better than creating new ones”.

Fast fashion and zero waste fashion are based on fundamentally different ideas. While fast fashion builds on speed and low costs, the zero waste method requires thoroughness, creativity and a personal approach to every piece of clothing. This seemingly insurmountable contradiction might have been part of the reason for Estonian designer Reet Aus’s lack of success.

The documentary Out Of Fashion (2016) by Jaak Kilmi and Lennart Laberenz follows the ambitious designer on her mission to convince large fashion corporates that the sustainable upcycling production of clothes is not incompatible with their ideology. She travels to Bangladesh and with a help of local clothes producers tries to incorporate the upcycling principle into mass production. Although she proves that it is possible to use textile waste in this environment, complicated designs and the need for creative solutions slow down the whole process and the initiative was ultimately rejected by H&M management.

Nevertheless, Reet Aus still tries changing the fashion industry with the method of upcycling. Her Up-Shirts are made of textile waste and apparently save 91% of water and 87% of energy. She also started the project Trash to Trend based on her doctoral research on upcycled fashion and aims to connect the community of young designers that are interested in this more eco-friendly method.

Designer Mark Liu admits that creating zero-waste designs is incredibly difficult, especially if the final results are supposed to fit the body. Every piece of fabric has its function in the final design. In his PhD research, Liu combined fashion techniques with scientific principles. He believes that with more funding, this combination could be ground-breaking. For instance, we mustn’t merely rely on cotton to create fabrics. Our world is full of alternative materials such as seaweed, banana and coconut waste.

Zero waste designers prove that there are countless possibilities to turn our environmentally harmful consumption into something eco-friendly and original. We only need to be creative and look for the potential in seemingly valueless things that surround us. Second hand stores might be a good place to start your design career. Getting inspired by DIY upcycling ideas is, thanks to social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, easier than ever.

By Eliška Olšáková - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs conservation, developmentteaching and adventure travel projects in over 50 countries worldwide - so join us and explore the world!

Get more from us on social media with FacebookTwitter, Instagram and YouTube.