Welcome to the Elephant and Castle Urban Forest. Yes it’s true, there really is one (all be it a bit smaller than when this campaign began in 2011).

Elephant and Castle Urban Forest was a campaign created in summer 2011 to draw attention to London’s secret woodland. Hidden within the towering slabs of the Heygate Estate were 450 majestic trees, mostly London plane planted at the same time as the estate’s creation to be a healthy and relaxing place for the residents of the 1300 flats. In a part of London best known for concrete, cars and a big pink (now blue) shopping centre glimpses of woodland could only be seen by outsiders by gaps in the blocks along thundering New Kent Road and on the northern corner of Walworth Road unless they took a side street for the main entrance. It was a secret forest enjoyed by Heygate residents and the urban explorer, which as the old residents of social housing were forcibly decanted and evicted, became an increasingly wild place and perhaps more popular with the wider community than ever before as it’s potential loss became better known.

Threatened with comprehensive redevelopment and a proposed masterplan that ignored the existing green infrastructure residents began campaigning in 2010 to help the developer and council recognise the value of the trees. Beyond the obvious environmental and aesthetic value of greenery a price can be put on the trees too. Residents did this leg work to price the trees and expose how much the council had given away for free and the developers should now use for the wider benefit as well as inevitably to add value to their development. The Elephant and Castle Urban Forest campaign was created to bring the rational economic and environmental argument for the forest to life by engaging a wider more playful audience who would be inspired by the place to share the case for it’s survival.

Four years since the campaign we can count the saving of much of the mature forest as a result of the campaign as well as the developer’s heavy use of trees in the branding and marketing of what will be known as “Elephant Park”. The comprehensive redevelopment of the Elephant and Castle have presented risks for this precious place as the building density will increase. We have campaigned for valuation and appreciation of the forest and had a positive impact on the redevelopment.

While the forest has been largely sealed off since autumn 2013 it can still be appreciated from the thoroughfares nearby. In the coming years of reconstruction the developer Lend Lease has committed to provide access to the forest with a temporary park. Since May 2015 access to the core of the old forest has been possible through a new community garden project called Grow Elephant with it’s entrance through a little door on New Kent Road.

Click on the map to zoom in or download an A4 pdf of our illustrated map of the heart of the forest from 2011 here. Map illustrated by Rebecca Davies.

We define the forest as reaching far beyond the old Heygate estate and throughout the Elephant and Castle. You can see others maps of the forest, including the far reaches of the frontier on our Maps page. Learn more about the issues around the Heygate Estate and the pressures of redevelopment in this 15 minute documentary by the Bartlett Development Planning Group.

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