Friday, 4 June 2010

Heathrow Free Zone

Noise footprints around Heathrow. Image from the BBC.

The proposed third runway at Heathrow airport has been scrapped, and there will be no expansion at Stansted or Gatwick. Viewed purely in environmental terms (as it probably should be) this is the right decision, and hopefully it will increase economic pressure on the coalition government to do something about the lamentable state of rail travel within the UK (hollow, cynical laugh). Nevertheless, like most green initiatives, it is mostly just a way of buying us time as we make the transition away from a fossil fuel economy. There will come a time, hopefully in the relatively near future, when kerosene-burning aircraft are supplanted by hydrogen-burning aircraft (or a similarly clean technology). When that time comes, the debate on air traffic, like the debate on road traffic, will start again almost from scratch. We will find that the economic case for a lot of currently very unpopular infrastructure - runways, motorways - is back and stronger than ever. So for Sipson, the village that would have been obliterated to make way for the Third Runway, the reprieve might only be temporary.

So I wasn't surprised to read a letter in the Evening Standard suggesting that homes and public buildings are built around Sipson to make a Third Runway an impossibility forever. It's a bizarre view to take, given that the Sipsonians already complain that their lives are made hell by the airport. Sure, why not move in more residents, plus a load of hospital patients, sixth-formers or whatever? But there's some very strange thinking around Heathrow (and, to a lesser extent, the other large airports - but no airport is problematised like Heathrow, being both huge and embedded in the city).

If we were starting from scratch, Heathrow might not be the best site for London's main airport. However, we're not starting from scratch, and Heathrow has been an unavoidable fact on the ground for half a century. Large jets have been using it since the 1960s. It's horribly noisy, the traffic around the airport is a nightmare, and air quality is low. But this didn't happen overnight and it's not going away - there's no prospect of a technological fix in the short term and the airport's closure is just a fantasy of a few hardcore NIMBYs and green activists.

Given that it's a longstanding and persistent condition, it sometimes troubles me that the problem of noise around Heathrow has not corrected itself “organically”, as people move away. Obviously there are people living inside the Heathrow noise footprint (as illustrated above) who cannot move away because of their economic circumstances – either simple poverty or the knot of obligations and unfreedoms that come with being a “flexible” worker in our economy. But that cannot account for all of the population: many of these areas are prosperous. Presumably there is also a great deal of British stubbornness and inertia involved, not a negative force in itself, but it can come in the form of a peculiar denial of reality – the villagers of Sipson still maintaining their vision of a village idyll long after their Domesday settlement found itself up against the security fence of one of the world's largest airports, surrounded by London. This is understandable in the elderly, but you have to be fairly old to be able to remember life before Heathrow (where the modern jet engine was first heard half a century ago). Alongside this is Britain's bizarre secular religion, the cult of house prices, which holds that the value of one's home must always go up, and that impediments to this divine accumulation of grace are against nature itself.

I don't mean to condemn any of this behaviour, or to say that the people who live around Heathrow have no right to complain because they are free to move away if they please, or because they enjoy the benefits of cheaper housing. The area around Heathrow is a “zone of sacrifice”: the value of the airport to the city and the country at large is so great that the severe loss of amenity in the area around it is easily tolerated by those who aren't resident in its immediate vicinity.

But is there a more creative approach that can be taken to the noise footprint? What we have here is a readymade zone – an area held slightly apart from the rest of the city, with unusual hazards (the noise and pollution) and unusual advantages (the airport itself, its value as an economic engine and transit hub, the vast tangle of infrastructure that surrounds it. This area is ripe for experimentation. The ideas here aren't serious proposals; they're more an effort to show what kind of imagination could be applied to the Heathrow Zone.

Travel launchpad. Give residents within the HZ airmiles, to allow them to get more use out of the airport. Make the neighbourhood a destination for outward-looking youths; tie in with local universities.

Emporium. Limit sale of airfreighted flowers and luxury foodstuffs to the HZ, turning it into a global Covent Garden and destination for seekers of the exotic. Let souks and flowermarkets bloom in Hounslow. If people cannot do without their airfreighted goods, let them at least buy them in the areas impaired by air travel.

Data entrepot. Saturation wifi coverage. Data havens.

Free zone. Reduced restrictions on drugs and vice and incentives for an artistic population to move in, to create a west London Weimar Berlin. Legalise indoor smoking.

Transition burb. In the environs of the headquarters of British aviation, a massive source of carbon emissions, create a chain of neighbourhoods devoted to experimentation and training aimed at a post-fossil-fuel future – government research, but also small-scale architectural and social experimentation, retrofitting houses and teaching useful skills, funded by the airport. The alliance between Sipson residents and Greenpeace during the battle against the third runway might have represented a temporary alignment of interests rather than a lasting sympathy, but perhaps a more general compact could come of it.

Idle speculation, really. Nevertheless, the area around Heathrow is already a zone in a number of important and overlooked ways – it has different rules, different conditions, and an unusual and provocative relationship with modernity. It's a considerable area of interest, one that has under-explored potential.


Micks Desk said...

I think it was the right decision by the new coalition govt as it would have been bad for the environment and not really essential to the economic well being of the city.
And with hindsight, being as it was Gordon Brown's idea for economic growth, and seeing what a mess he left the country in, it seems there's plenty to support this decision as being the right one.

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