Dreaming Thamesmead

By 2050, the population of Thamesmead is expected to double, bringing new waves of investment.  Neil Mattinson argues that without a clear blueprint guiding change, investment alone won’t result in the quality of place being enhanced in a surprising and sustainable way.

When the Greater London Council decided to reclaim the marshy eastern reaches of the River Thames for a New Town, its project design team had a modernist utopian vision of 21st century living in mind.

With the spirit of early pioneers, they seized on the opportunity to create a new way of living for 60,000 people. In this vision, concrete and modern amenities went hand in hand with unrivalled green space and waterways. A promotional film in 1970 spoke of “environmental conditions unmatched by anything that has existed before”.

Londoners chose the name Thamesmead, a place where the land and the river are valued equally. Generous provision was planned for recreation, play and education, with a town centre connected to a yacht marina.

Quirky and spontaneous, today Thamesmead’s landscape needs to work much harder

In the end, though, the design demanded a level of conformity that proved impossible, and Thamesmead experienced decades of shortfall in investment. Development has been piecemeal and incoherent, with housing turning its back on the waterways. The town centre has gone AWOL and the Thames itself is largely invisible within Thamesmead. Even though the town is home to 45,000 people, it feels curiously empty.

Now the population is set to double, and Peabody is investing £1 billion in making Thamesmead a great place to live. The one thing everyone has in common is their physical environment and so Peabody has started by commissioning a landscape strategy. This is because they believe that the journey to put high quality landscape at the heart of Thamesmead will dissolve barriers. These include the cultural barriers keeping diverse communities apart, and the physical and psychological barriers separating people from the spaces and amenities on their doorstep.

Many people in Thamesmead are living on low incomes and in poor health, and a transformed landscape will benefit them enormously.  For example, Thamesmead was designed for the car and not for active travel, walking or cycling along safe and inviting routes. That will change. It needs destinations, with public realm that is far more ‘sticky’, attracting people and keeping them there, so the place feels busy and safe, and lives can start to overlap. That is what will make people feel more connected to their place, and a sense of belonging.

The landscape needs to work hard, whether that is providing flood protection, or richer biodiversity, or play, trails and leisure. New jobs can come through green industries and social enterprise such as food growing and urban farming.   

In working on the strategy, we are conscious that settlements along the Thames Estuary have always attracted the pioneering, the alternative. The difficult, even.  In the midst of 21st century regeneration, it is the landscape that will help Thamesmead to keep its delightful informality, spontaneity and quirkiness.

Neil Mattinson is a director at LDA Design. Neil co-led our work on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. He is currently leading our work in Thamesmead. 

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