Down a narrow walkway across the road from a large social housing estate in East London’s economically disadvantaged Tower Hamlets borough, the concrete gives way to a tangle of green. Hundreds of plants are crammed into a space the size of a two-car garage, forming a thriving mess of a garden where strawberries ripen and bell-shaped foxglove flowers stand at shoulder height. Just over the fence, the banks of the Regent’s Canal are lined with residential narrow boats, a mostly itinerant, unconventional form of floating affordable housing in one of the most expensive cities in the world. For an area with the highest rate of child poverty in the United Kingdom, the highest unemployment in the city, some of the lowest levels of air quality, and a 19,000-person waiting list for housing, the garden is an oasis in a defoliated urban jungle.
Sally Hone is one of the self-described boat people who call this stretch of London’s 8.6-mile canal home, and her pruning shears attempt to bring order to the dozens of species teeming in the garden. Ducking under the drooping, fruit-laden branches of an apple tree, she turns back and confronts the obvious. “You can tell it’s a developer’s dream,” she says.
Hone is the unofficial head of the Canal Club Community Garden. She and her partner, Dominique Cournault, have been licensed since 2010 to cultivate this space, which is owned by the council of Tower Hamlets, one of London’s 32 boroughs. They open it up to the public for gardening workshops, art classes, and shared pizza lunches that they cook in the garden’s clay oven every Tuesday. “For a lot of the mums in the estate, it’s a free meal,” Hone says.
Not long ago, this land was a barren chunk of concrete, a leftover parcel from a city building effort in the early 1980s. Hone and Cournault worked for about eight years to gain legal access to the site, which sits next to the Wellington Estate, a council estate with 300 apartments, and slowly replaced its concrete surfaces with raised planters and soil. Around the same time they began the garden, the council closed the community center next door. “They stopped repairing, they stopped cleaning, they stopped doing the roof, they just let it run into managed decline,” Hone says. At some point, the council’s property team, she notes with a wince, had its name changed to Asset Management. “And then we heard about a year ago that they had plans to demolish all this and build affordable flats. So that’s where the fight started.”
The Tower Hamlets council identified the site of the garden, community center, and neighboring ball court as part of its land inventory that could be converted into housing relatively easily. Plans are still taking shape, but the council is looking to build somewhere between 12 and 20 units on this site. Though early designs include a community space and room for a rooftop garden, the project would completely replace everything that’s currently there.
Hone and Cournault are trying to rally the 300 or so people who periodically come to their events as well as the broader community to protest the plans. But the defender with perhaps the best chance of saving the garden is no bigger than a human thumb.
The common pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus pipistrellus), with a wingspan of about 20 centimeters and a kiwi-fruit body of golden brown fuzz, is one of the newest species living in the Canal Club Community Garden. Like the garden space, the common pipistrelle is endangered. Unlike the garden, it’s protected under U.K. and EU environmental laws. That’s why wooden bat boxes now poke out from the garden’s apple trees and crawling vines.
The bat boxes are Michael Smythe’s idea. Through on-site public art, medicinal gardening workshops, and, more recently, bat-box-building workshops for kids, Smythe has brought life back into a nearby World War II bomb site that is now a thriving nature reserve and community space. “The goal is getting people to see these spaces as critical infrastructure, not peripheral,” he says.
Which is why he helped put up the bat boxes at the Canal Club Community Garden. By turning these community spaces into habitats for a protected species, the bat boxes throw a wrench—arguably a small one—into the development process. “It goes from ‘How sweet, you’ve got bats,’” Smythe says, “to ‘Oh shit, you’ve got bats.’”
Smythe is no NIMBY. Though his bat habitats are tactical interventions in the intertwined workings of real estate, capital, and government, he’s less interested in stopping development than saving spaces of ecological value.
“Taking away any green space in a city like this is not tenable,” says the 42-year-old Smythe, who’s trim with sandy hair that’s just starting to gray. He’s sitting in a small wooden shed in the deep shade of the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve, his main site of artistic and community intervention and a 10-minute walk from the Canal Club’s garden. It’s a thick woodland about the size of a soccer field and surrounded by housing estates, a school, a neighborhood park, and the elevated tracks of the London Overground. Still lumpy with the bricks and debris from a bomb that fell during the war, a small forest has emerged here over its decades as a ruin. From within, the city is barely visible.
Smythe first noticed the site after moving to the neighborhood in 2002. Originally from Australia, he grew up on a 25-acre farm outside of Sydney, raising sheep, goats, cattle, and horses. He left to study art in Berlin, but his art practice kept close to his farming roots by exploring interactions between humans, animals, and land.
Smythe established himself as a practicing artist in London, gathering commissions and foundation support for installations exploring native plants and their historic uses. One project sought to grow a medicine garden of historically used plant species on a vacant piece of land nearby. But when the parking space-sized land turned out to have no fewer than eight separate landowners, the project was stalled indefinitely. Mindful of the waning patience of the foundation supporting the project, Smythe decided he needed a new site for his medicine garden. So, in early 2013, he got in contact with his neighbors, who had been informally caring for the former bomb site by picking up garbage and tending to plum and cherry trees, and asked to get involved.
Today, six years later, the medicine garden he planted is just one of a handful of art- and community-focused projects underway at what’s now known as the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve. Working with the community, Smythe secured an informal 15-year permit to use the site, which is jointly owned by the Tower Hamlets council and the Church of England. Through Nomad Projects, the arts commissioning organization he founded in 2010, Smythe and a team of paid assistants have gradually turned the abandoned lot into a programmed community center. They host a monthly plant foraging, identification, and medicine-making workshop, and four different school groups regularly use it as an outdoor classroom. A series of ponds mimic the wetland habitats of toads and newts, and a hand-built wooden “wormery” breeds worms for the garden’s soil. A tiny wooden hut serves as a writing and work space for invited artists in residence, and a large billboard on the lot’s most visible corner serves as an oversized canvas for rotating works of art. One recent installation featured an image of an old cherry tree that was tagged by the council to be cut down. The billboard inspired a public outcry, which saved the tree.
“Coming here was the best thing we could have ever done. Because we’ve protected the land from immediate development, we’ve brought it back into use, and we try to manage it sensitively,” Smythe says. “It could have been a housing project and a car park.”
The common pipistrelle bat doesn’t make its own roost. A crevice dweller, the pipistrelle careens through the night eating thousands of small flies and mosquitoes before echolocating its way at dawn into whatever nook, crack, or hole it can find. That used to mean the bat roosted in trees—in the holes pounded into the bark by woodpeckers or the crooks of broken tree limbs. But city trees are typically managed to such a degree that those sorts of features are rare. That’s why bats in cities tend to live where humans live, squeezing themselves into cavities between the skewed boards or loose shingles of buildings.
These are less than ideal conditions, according to an ecologist who works with Smythe and the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve. (He asked to remain anonymous due to his day job performing ecological surveys on development sites.) The night lighting used in human environments can be unhealthy for the bats, he says, as can some chemical treatments on construction materials, and these spaces sometimes don’t provide enough shelter for the annual breeding period. Like humans, pregnant bats typically carry one child at a time, so habitat instability can pose survival problems. For an endangered species, these are also existential problems.
One solution is to build more places where bats can roost. Walking through the nature reserve, a path leads to a clearing where a stack of sharp black forms towers above the underbrush. It’s a sculpture by the artist DJ Simpson, commissioned by Smythe’s Nomad Projects, but it’s also a bat habitat, with small openings on the undersides of its geometrical facades into which bats can climb to roost. The ecologist clambers up to its side and runs his fingers beneath the openings, feeling for evidence of roosting: poop. Sometimes other creatures can use these types of spaces—if the poop “squidges,” he says, it’s from a rodent, but if it crumbles, it’s from a bat. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence this summer day, but it’s still early in the season. By fall, there could be dozens of bats roosting inside.
And even more could be roosting elsewhere in the nature reserve. He points to the sides of trees and the tops of poles where more than a dozen bat boxes have been installed. Since 2017, the nature reserve has hosted a series of workshops in which community members learn about bats, assemble bat boxes, and install them in the neighborhood. “What’s great about them is they’re very simple to build,” he says. “We’ve got kids at the age of 4 building them.”
The workshops have been a good way to engage the community, but they’re also strategic. The ecologist says he identified potential habitat sites throughout Tower Hamlets to create a network of bat-friendly green patches, including local parks and community-run spaces like the Canal Club Community Garden. Bat boxes have been installed in seven different sites in the area, some of which are also seen as potential areas for development. They now serve as a web of bat habitats while also creating a kind of support group among the community members involved in each of these sites. The main goal, he says, is to increase the biodiversity in what are small pockets of urban green space, but that biodiversity is also a way of defending these spaces. “If you’ve got bats in an area, that tends to suggest that the wider ecosystem is healthy,” he says. “It would be a shame to lose that.”
Animal habitat and development are often in conflict. One tends to destroy the other, and it’s usually development that comes out on top. But sometimes, habitat perseveres.
But in this part of Texas, where soft limestone makes up much of the surface geology, water flows can turn the underground into cave-like features called karst, which can be home to a variety of weird, dark-loving species. It’s hard to know what’s going on below until you start digging.
“Once they got to excavating, they found habitat,” says Jean Krejca, president of Zara Environmental, a consulting firm that works with TxDOT. “They did the right thing, which is what they were supposed to do, which is stop and do surveys.” Krejca’s firm arrived to survey the underground habitat. What they found was an individual identifiable Bracken Bat Cave meshweaver spider, an eyeless dime-sized arachnid that is listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an endangered species. At the time it was known to exist in only one other location in the world. The freeway underpass project was stopped in its tracks.
Two years later, construction was back underway. “It just made the project have to go back and get the proper permit,” says Krejca. “Part of that proper permit involves having to do avoidance and minimization measures, and those avoidance and minimization measures were the overpass.”
Instead of tunneling down into what was now recognized as an endangered spider habitat, the underpass was changed to an overpass—a transformation that ended up nearly tripling the project’s cost to $44 million. For a brief period a tiny spider had effectively halted a freeway. In the end, the spider dramatically changed the shape of the project. Today, its habitat remains untouched while cars rumble overhead.
“To my knowledge, an endangered species has never stopped a project,” says Krejca. “I used to work at Fish and Wildlife Service, and it’s a big deal, everybody has this idea that Fish and Wildlife Service black helicopters are going to come in and stop my project. Never, actually. I’m 99.9 percent certain on that.”
But endangered species are often part of the reason that some projects are opposed and ultimately abandoned, says Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biodiversity.
“Occasionally you see projects that just have so much public opposition and are just so ill conceived that they collapse under their own weight,” he says. “People fight projects because they’re terrible ideas and they’re just terribly destructive to places that people love and provide solace and other values to people. And species are definitely part of that mix.”
Nick Bridge is the United Kingdom’s chief climate change diplomat. Appointed by the Foreign Secretary in 2017, Bridge is in charge of the U.K.’s climate-related foreign policy, working with outside governments and politicians like the president of Colombia to develop agreements that address and reduce the impacts of climate change. It is complicated and sometimes confounding work. When he needs to clear his head, Bridge comes to the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve. “I’ve found it quite important to have this as a place where I can have a different perspective on that work,” he says.
Smythe invited Bridge to become the nature reserve’s writer in residence. He comes to the site and often sits in the small writer’s hut, near the wormery. It’s a space where he can process his formidable assignment and surround himself with the kind of biodiversity his diplomacy aims to protect. He’s also been using his time there to reflect on his work in the form of letters, sending written notes to colleagues around the world to create a more personal dialogue about the work of grappling with climate change. The plan is to post some of these dialogues online.
For Bridge, the space is something of a refuge. For Smythe, having the U.K.’s top climate change diplomat on site sends a powerful message about the value of the nature reserve.
Smythe argues that Bethnal Green should become a permanent community space, not just a nature reserve with an informal 15-year usage agreement. He and his collaborators are now trying to work through the system to make that happen.
“This is about occupational protection, this land, this project. But if I’d said that in the first year, I would have been tossed out,” Smythe says. “I think it had to take a few years before we could say, okay, we want to have this conversation. Like land management, like a woodland, you need to wait a bit and understand the ecosystem around you. If I had bulldozed in in that first year and said we want to turn it into a community asset, they would have gone, ‘Who the hell are you?’”
In coordination with the local tenants’ association, Smythe and his collaborators have created a formal charity associated with the site, the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve Trust, which bestows a level of legitimacy on Smythe’s growing list of reasons—the neighborhood programming, the workshops, the art—it should be made into a permanent community space.
And then there are the bat boxes. “Bats are an entry point,” Smythe says. The more people are familiar with the possibilities and experiences a natural space provides, “the more likely they’ll be to get involved in advocacy for more sensitive development in the city,” he says.
But he also knows that there’s a limit to how much power people—and bats—can have over what gets developed in the city. For a space like the Canal Club Community Garden, where the council is pushing forward with plans to build, even a protected bat habitat can only do so much. “Our bat project is like a splinter in the developer’s finger,” he says. “By no means do I think this is the answer, but it’s a part of a toolkit.”
In Tower Hamlets, the pressure to build housing has made council-owned sites like the Canal Club Community Garden seem like easy pickings. Councilor Rachel Blake says it’s just one of 14 sites throughout the borough set to be developed into several hundred units of housing, and though she understands the concerns of garden club members like Sally Hone and Dominique Cournault, sometimes sacrifices have to be made. “I think it’s reasonable to say we want a community center, it’s reasonable to say we care about our garden, we’ve invested in it,” she says. “But I think it’s also reasonable to ask people to think about what else could happen, what else could be possible.”
Hone and Cournault have at least one ally in Councilor Gabriela Salva Macallan, who actually grew up on the Wellington Estate that borders the garden and the now-closed community center. “I utilized all the facilities that were there when I was younger, so I’m very aware of how connected people feel to that site specifically,” she says. “This is very much a personal viewpoint, but I very much believe that with the amount of development that’s happening within Tower Hamlets, if we have space which works, we should be doing everything we can to support that space rather than develop on every single piece of land.”
The council has staged two consultation processes to weigh community concerns about the project, but it still seems likely that it will move forward. Blake says the council is hoping to secure planning permission for the new housing development within the next few months. A final community consultation about the project will be held at the end of October.
Down by the canal, Hone is tending to the flowers and vegetables bursting out of this little pocket of land. Looking up at the bat box posted above the dense vegetation, she says something’s been using it, though she’s not sure if it’s a bat or a bird. Either way, it’s serving its purpose as a habitat.
Hone is holding on to the possibility that the development won’t go through, but she knows the odds are long, even with an occupied bat box. A garden like this forces you to be optimistic, she says. Planting seeds, watering, waiting to see which plants grow and what animals visit—it’s all an exercise in hopefulness, she says. “It makes you believe in the future, don’t you think?”
Nate Berg is a freelance journalist writing primarily about cities, design, and technology.