change cities nature place

Sand martins, saints and speculators


Kelham island development
Homes for hipsters? The new look of Kelham Island

Kelham Island is a tale of regeneration, of an industrial landscape now buzzing with human life. Last year it won the Academy of Urbanism’s Great Neighbourhood award. In the last decade property prices have increased by a quarter. New flats are going up and new restaurants are opening.

This is the dominant story. If value is about money, Kelham Island appears to have struck a balance between the value of making money – a culture of enterprise – and the value of conservation, reusing and reviving a once run-down area. It is a happy coincidence of speculation and survival.

But there are other ways of thinking about value that disturb comfortable narratives of urban regeneration. These are the unofficial stories.

Kelham Island is seen by many Sheffielders as the home of hipsters, the speculative consumers who mirror the movements of the speculative investors (as considered in a symposium on ‘Brooklynism’ earlier this month). But it’s also the home of sand martins and saints. And the sand martins and saints offer a different perspective on what Kelham Island means and may become.

We can begin to understand those perspectives by understanding that stories of place are interwoven. The sand martins and saints are two of the hidden populations of this neighbourhood. Their stories are entwined with migration and movement, and both inhabit marginal spaces. Both assert an otherness. You would have to know their voices to make sense of them.

Urban nature, according to the academics Nik Heynen, Maria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw, is a process and consequence of socio-ecological change. Cities are not ‘unnatural’ or separate from nature – they are where the human and more-than-human co-evolve, and their evolution has been shaped by the pursuit of profit, usually construed in the narrowest of financial senses.

river Don
Whose place – the humans or the sand martins?

The sand martins live in holes, occupying the riverside foundations of industrial premises built to serve and to profit from empire, colonialism and the exploitation of working people. The ‘saints’ – members of an international church hidden in plain sight a stone’s throw from the hipster bars – create a space in which activities of profit-making are suspended in a quest to connect with a different dimension. The sand martins and saints are both engaged in alternative forms of speculation and risk-taking, occupying niches where different rhythms and values apply.

Without the activities of capital and profit-making, neither the sand martins, who spend their time searching for insects, nor the saints, who spend their time searching for a nourishment less tangible, would be there. But neither group add ‘value’ in terms recognisable to speculative investors.

These interwoven stories are a subplot in a bigger story. You wouldn’t know this on an averagely sunny day in Kelham Island, but the sand martins, saints and speculators are all caught in a threefold crisis. It is an interconnected crisis of climate change, species loss and social inequality.

The insatiable demand of capital is to generate growth and economic value. It makes cities and consumes them. It gives us the coffee and craft beer we enjoy, the funky flats that are bringing new residents into Kelham Island, and drives the climate crisis that, compounded with other human activities, is exacerbating the loss of plant and animal species and deepening inequalities between the affluent and marginalised.

Climate change, species loss and inequality will all change Kelham Island. The effect of all three is to force out those least able to adapt: those with fewer resources or less capacity to find new niches. The sand martins and saints are likely to disappear before the speculators.

But the sand martins and saints alert us to different ways of thinking about value: about the connections and meanings embedded in and generated by a place. In different ways they suggest that there are rhythms and relationships that offer more hopeful ways of co-evolving, ways that give humans and the more-than-human world a better chance. This is the opportunity to begin to tell new stories.

what kind of growth do we value?
Intertwined stories of growth and development

There are practical, achievable ways of expressing that shift in values and relationships – if we have the will and imagination.

We could make sure that every new building constructed in Kelham Island creates space for nature: mini-habitats in the form of green roofs, bird boxes, communal gardens and green walls.

We could turn the brick and cement infrastructure of Green Lane into a green lane: a traffic-free, colourfully planted ecological corridor that humans and wildlife can enjoy without a demand to consume.

We could create a network of publicly accessible green spaces to break up Kelham Island’s hard surfaces and ensure that all who live or work there, whatever their background, can enjoy a better quality of life.

And we can use those small actions as ways of asking bigger questions about what creates value in a place, and who benefits – saints and sand martins included.

By Julian Dobson

@juliandobson on Twitter, writer and editor on anything to do with place and society. Researcher at Sheffield Hallam University. Occasional academic and creative writing too.

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