Are these London’s chicest tree-huggers? Inside Kensington’s eco-wars
Six feet above me, on a frosty afternoon in North Kensington, bartender Kay, 24, is trying to help his neighbors breathe a little easier. “It’s not coming down if I’m not,” the entrepreneur and mixologist tells me from halfway up a cherry tree, nodding towards lurking diggers who want to bring down his tree to make way for flats.
A few meters away, a banner pinned to blue hoardings echoes Kay’s sentiments: “Protect our old trees, they capture three times more CO2 than new trees,” it reads.
More than 200 trees have been felled in Kay’s immediate postcode in the past 10 years and the fury among residents has been escalating, fast. It’s been more than a decade since Catalyst, a housing developer, secured planning permission to redevelop North Kensington’s Wornington Green Estate by a single council vote, promising to rebuild council housing, bed for bed, alongside lucrative new homes – at the expense of a “ forest ”of more than 300 trees at the heart of the estate, one of the most socially deprived and polluted parts of the borough.
Furious residents have been objecting since 2010, saying developers have cut the “lungs” of the neighborhood in an area that already has one of the worst air quality levels in London. Some 110 planning objections have been submitted to the council over to the next phase of development – but recent months have seen the situation escalate, spurred on by rolling coverage of Extinction Rebellion’s London protests, Insulate Britain’s motorway blockades and Glasgow’s Cop26 climate summit. In December, protesters scaled the trees.
Kay is used to getting his hands dirty – his friends obstructed loggers clearing room for the HS2 railway – but since W10’s tree wars started escalating at the end of last year, a rather glossier posse has been joining him and his fellow Kensington climate activists.
Fashion mavens and film stars in gold nail polish, faux fur coats and jazzy red cowboy boots have all turned up to feed friendly neighborhood tree protectors like Kay over the past three months, bringing soup and pizza and offering to clean dirty laundry for protesters, the most hardcore of which have been here for 87 days without a break.
Goldy Notay, the Ackley Bridge and Sex and the City 2 actor who lives nearby, recently said she feels “devastated” by the loss of old trees beloved by generations. Daisy Hoppen, founder of luxury fashion agency DH-PR, says she is “incredibly sad” that the developers “do not see the value and importance of saving this urban forest … Over these past few years during Covid, green areas in London have been vital for locals to enjoy – especially when not everyone has their own personal outdoor space or garden. ”
Olivia von Halle, the fashion designer and another neighbor, agrees, calling the tree protectors heroes. “These trees are things that I enjoy every day. To see these guys who care passionately and are prepared to be cold, wet and uncomfortable to try to save these trees – and help our wider community and be a part of trying to save the planet – is amazing, ”she says.
Indeed they are. Kay and his fellow tree protectors stayed despite freezing temperatures and the 110mph gales of storms Eunice and Franklin, determined to save the trees they see as a symbol of a wider eco-war in the capital. Kay says he can scale a tree in 45 seconds. How does he stay up there when it’s windy? “Luck,” he tells me, steadfastly.
But three months on, that luck seems to be running out. This week, despite locals’ efforts, a flurry of buzzsaws saw yet more trees felled. Eight big trees have come crashing down at the end of Athlone Gardens, where Kay and his army spent three months fighting developers.
“It was shocking to witness,” says Jessica Jones, who helps run the Wornington Trees pressure group. “In order to avoid being seen by local residents, the operatives knocked a hole in the wall of the empty flats adjoining the park and accessed the site through that. They then felled all the trees in around 10 minutes, running from tree to tree, and cheering as each tree splintered and crashed to the ground. ”
When a storm takes a tree down, it’s sad. When developers rip one out, people riot. The outrage is primal, says James Canton, author of The Oak Papers – we come from trees, we built ancient settlements around trees, and “they’ve been around a lot longer than we have”.
What Catalyst hadn’t bargained for was an explosion in lockdown environmentalism. Saving the planet has never been more in vogue, and Jones says that despite this week’s setback, she and her fellow Kensington residents will continue fighting “to save every tree”.
After all, it’s far from just a Kensington problem. Eco wars are building across the capital and Londoners from Emma Thompson to Ellie Goulding are asking themselves – and the authorities – the same questions: who is the city for? Can we go green in a way that works for everyone? How does living space fit into that equation?
Catalyst developments have provoked similar ire elsewhere. Cap the Towers, a community action group in Acton, has complained bitterly about “eyesore towers” in Friary Park. Comments by Henry Faun, head of London international sales at Knight Frank, attracted particular anger from locals concerned new builds are simply bait for overseas investors: “We expect this development (Friary Park) to be popular with Middle Eastern families looking for a foot on the ground or investment in London. ”
Catalyst was the Kensington Housing Trust until a merger in 2002, and is still in charge of caring for its tenants in council flats on the estate. But it’s remodeling. There’s no respite from the din of construction work. Around the red brick flats, signs for “The Auria”, Catalysts’ new Portobello Square development, are everywhere. “Where classy meets cute,” reads one glossy sign, displaying aspirational lifestyle portraits: a Bloody Mary next to a pedigree cat.
“We understand the concerns that residents and the local community feel around the removal of trees at Wornington Green,” says a spokesperson for Catalyst. “We have listened to the concerns and done all we can to revise our plans in response to feedback. As a result, we will be planting and retaining additional trees in the final phase. However, we need to remove some to build the next phase of the regeneration, which will deliver 230 new homes, including 108 for social rent, and will see 69 new trees planted. Where possible, we designed the buildings and streets around the existing trees, but the layout of the new buildings and the creation of Athlone Gardens means we can not do that in this case. ”
Still, protesters aren’t losing hope. There’s another phase of this development to come; Catalyst plans to remove 32 more trees. “My message to the world is to keep an eye out for our trees, watch what these companies are doing as it’s happening all over London,” says Digga, another tree protector alongside Kay, who is still holding on. “Public land is getting sold off. These private developers or councils care nothing but to make money, destroy the area, pricing people out. And they are taking parks and trees with them. ”
But everybody can do something, he says. “They can stand up and say no in their own way. People just do not understand how much power they do have until they start to exercise it. ”
Lockdown has changed the way every Londoner thinks about what’s around them. “Something has gone very badly wrong here,” said Kensington councilor Marie-Therese Rossi at an oversight meeting last December, urging Catalyst to “look again”. New trees will take decades to mature. Air quality matters.
What’s more, an independent auditor estimated the value of trees felled as more than £ 20m. “Who’s going to pay that back?” says Jones. Judging by the e-scooters, chi-chi flower shops and the Amazon Prime delivery trucks sweeping into the neighborhood, I can not help feeling that piles of new money will not be in short supply.