Losing ground in Matthew Benjamin Coleman’s Heygate: A Natural History

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Completed in 1974, London’s Heygate Estate was once a symbol of triumph over destruction, public housing that was home to some 3000 people on the site of Victorian tenements destroyed by World War Two bombing. The estate was also home to an ‘urban forest’ planted in the 1970s, which included the best part of 500 mature trees by 2011, when Matthew Benjamin Coleman started to photograph the site.

But by 2013 Southwark Council, which owned the estate, had moved out the estate’s tenants and leaseholders, and sold the land to property developer Lendlease. As the estate depopulated, “guerrilla gardeners, graffiti artists, skateboarders and parkour enthusiasts, as well as photographers, film-makers, and other assorted ruin-tourists” moved in, says Coleman; he adds that, of the 406 trees on the estate in 2013, at least 283 have been felled to make way for building work.

All of the Heygate buildings have now been demolished, and the new ‘Elephant Park’ development is due to be completed by 2025. The new owner, Lendlease, have promised to replace the lost trees and more, but only a small percentage of the former residents have been able to return: Southwark Council’s planning policy requires a minimum of 35% affordable housing for new developments such as this, but Lendlease successfully lobbied to make it 25% instead.

https://cargocollective.com/matbcoleman Heygate: A Natural History by Matthew Benjamin Coleman is on show until 24 September at PARCspace, UAL Photography and the Archive Research Centre, London College of Communication, London SE1 6SB. The exhibition is open from 11.00–16.00 on Mondays and Tuesdays and at other times by appointment via Robin Christian at r.christian@lcc.arts.ac.uk  www.photographyresearchcentre.co.uk

From Heygate: A Natural History © Matthew Benjamin Coleman
From Heygate: A Natural History © Matthew Benjamin Coleman
From Heygate: A Natural History © Matthew Benjamin Coleman
From Heygate: A Natural History © Matthew Benjamin Coleman
From Heygate: A Natural History © Matthew Benjamin Coleman
From Heygate: A Natural History © Matthew Benjamin Coleman
From Heygate: A Natural History © Matthew Benjamin Coleman
From Heygate: A Natural History © Matthew Benjamin Coleman
From Heygate: A Natural History © Matthew Benjamin Coleman
From Heygate: A Natural History © Matthew Benjamin Coleman
From Heygate: A Natural History © Matthew Benjamin Coleman
Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy