WHERE IS THE ORGANIC, OPEN-ENDED THINKING NEEDED TO 'IMAGINEER' AT SUCH A SCALE?
David Price, partner to the late Gordon Cullen, and Reg Ward, a former Docklands CEO, draw on their Docklands experience to suggest a visionary strategy for the development of the Thames Estuary and examine the potential for a 'Green Thames'. Their piece is accompanied by a series of photographs by Jason Orton, part of an ongoing project exploring the transformation of post-industrial landscapes in the estuary area.
It is feared by many that the government is intent on maintaining the historical disregard and ill treatment of the banks that blight the River Thames east of the Royal Docks. Instead of being viewed as a magnificent focal point as the river flows through Essex and Kent, historically this area has been discarded; as the refuse dumps, shed cities and pylon heavens show. Following a flight over its banks, the Prime Minister and his deputy began to contemplate a new Thames Gateway - an intensive development of the area for low-cost housing - and with it the inevitable erosion of the sensational context provided by the river and estuary. The fears local people have of seeing their pleasant land turned into grim and over-developed suburbs are being confirmed by the way housebuilders and developers are drowning the area in a tide of gimcrack housing, banal shopping centres and business parks. Barking Reach, where nearly 11,000 new homes have tacit permission to be built, has been described as 'just the tip of a slagheap of grim new housing' and even its future may be uncertain.
Great emphasis has been placed on the use of socalled 'brownfield' land to accommodate the majority of new development. This is fine in the inner city or town, but a puzzle when one considers why it is 'brown' in more rural areas. Largely it is places where people once worked in factories or similar, but where nobody wanted to live. This deserves more scrutiny.
The answer to this threat lies in the genius and influence of the river and estuary; in a new perception of the waterscape, triggering its rediscovery and transformation. Essex and Kent can adjust to and incorporate the projected expansion of the 'bluescape' by subtle changes in the way their landscapes are used, avoiding the suburbanisation implied by the government's approach.
The experience of London Docklands, particularly from 1980 to 1988, provides an inkling of the new approach that is needed. In 1980, Docklands was described as 'a tip; 8,000 acres of forgotten, and to be forgotten, wasteland'. The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) faced this hostile opinion by daring to challenge conventional development wisdom and town-planning practice with adherence to what was perceived as a series of unlikely dreams shaped by the curves of the Thames and its relationship to the pattern of the empty docks. Its dreams were those of the creation of Eastminster, a fabulous new water city, the polarisation and rival of Westminster itself. It pursued this goal not through traditional masterplans, but through open-ended organic frameworks and direct response to its evocative marketing strategy. Unusually in London's recent development history, infrastructure was prioritised, and so by 1988 the dreams had produced the Docklands Light Railway, London City Airport, major road improvements, including the commitment to construct the Limehouse Link tunnel, and a good attempt at riverbus services along the Thames. The relocation of the newspaper industry, the Canary Wharf Central Business District and much high-quality residential development, along with many open spaces and conservation projects were also secured, all threaded together in a network created by the geometries of the river and the docks.
The Thames Gateway is, however, a huge dimensional shift away from Docklands, embracing a full 56km of the river and estuary from Leamouth to Foulness Point and the Isle of Sheppey - 518km 2. But where is the organic, open-ended thinking and sequence of visions needed to 'imagineer' at such a vast scale? All we have seen so far are formulaic patent remedies dispensed by the ODPM in the form of planning guidance, and two seemingly diametrically opposed ideas, independently from Farrells and the Richard Rogers Partnership on behalf of City Hall.
Taking the river itself as the central theme of the whole concept, and also recognising the realities of rising sea levels in both the Thames Estuary and the Medway Delta, a number of sublime individual strategies emerge that address development and improvement for both the built-up areas and the countryside.
What we need are some concepts that will transcend the incoherence of the Government's thinking.
The solution to an apparent need for 200,000 or so principally low-cost homes, especially for the keyworkers of the capital, in 'sustainable communities' can, and should, be entirely provided for within the walls of the metropolitan area, and can be completely entrusted to City Hall and the existing boroughs in imaginative and creative new development. This releases us to paint a picture of far greater significance of the neglected areas to the east of the centre of London, as far as the estuary takes one into the North Sea The great threat of increased flooding of the river basin can be creatively countered by constructing a moveable flood barrage between Tilbury and Gravesend, with protection on the Essex shore using land-art techniques. This will create a fully controlled sector of the river to the west protecting metropolitan London, in complete contrast to the drama of the liberated water to the east, where it may be allowed to make room for itself as the river is transformed into the sea. That heightened surge levels will occur is not in doubt, so we must start to plan for the consequences.
Three magnificent, free-standing water cities can be created. The first is the realisation of Eastminster, centred around the Isle of Dogs, the Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks, and limited by the gateway bridge carrying the inner-circular ring road. The second, the true gateway city, embraces Grays, Tilbury and Gravesend, incorporating the docks, river and new barrage as the distinction point between river and sea. The third is at a remarkable confluence of history and opportunity, reuniting Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham, creating the proper capital of Kent and engaging with the waters of the Medway Delta.
One could go so far as to consider a fourth, naturally emerging around Southend and Basildon as the coastline changes over time.
The natural creation of new island communities could evolve as the water level rises at Southend and Shoeburyness in Essex and the Isle of Sheppey in Kent along with, in a newly reorientated landscape, organically grown settlements at natural growth points in the 'green grid', in the form of small towns, extended villages and localised communities. Irrigated by the railway lines and local road network, these developments would take full advantage of the outstanding scenic opportunities afforded by the new landscape on both shores, and absorb any future development pressure in a new and thoughtful manner. This will also need a new economic future to be envisaged for the land and households that will eventually become submerged or marginalised.
There could also be the timely re-establishment of the Pool of London at the gateway city, with a new international ocean terminal and berths for the great liners and ships of state.
The fantastic contexts deserve no less than an equally superb range of development responses, crucially in the choice of development and placement and in their architectural design.
The first project to finish would be Eastminster, the incomplete original Docklands water city, the final stage of which can be readily accomplished given a firm hand and mind.
Its ultimate delivery would require the following:
? The provision of the missing matrix of cross-river connections linking the new and older but reactivated communities on both sides of the river from Tower Bridge to the Isle of Dogs, painfully denied by the air-draught restrictions to the old Pool of London.
These bridges, perhaps slender, perhaps inhabited, would achieve the connectivity this sector of the Thames and the city so desperately need, and our proposition to replace the Pool at Tilbury and Gravesend makes them possible at long last; and - The use of the apex of the Greenwich Peninsula as the centrepoint of a new elevated local transit system (not dissimilar to the proposals being made for Oxford Street) radiating aerial spokes towards Canary Wharf, Blackwall and Poplar, Leamouth and the Royal Victoria Dock. These will integrate with the DLR and main railway lines into Fenchurch Street and London Bridge and form the 'diamond clasp', the very centre of Eastminster, engaging all of the unfulfilled development focal points.
Concepts need to be projected for the magnificent potential of the Royal Docks - the culmination of Eastminster.
This could be a new crystalline 'citadel'; an urban architecture of translucent sails, aerial pocket-parks, water-squares, sky-tubes and bridges, and at approximately ten times the size of the Barbican, the natural foil to the office blocks of Canary Wharf. The airspace needed exists on both sides of the docks, but imagine what might happen in the future should the City Airport require expansion, perhaps to a new location at Dagenham riverside?
At least for now, and for good measure, we have the 2012 Olympic Games for London to stimulate huge improvements to the Lower Lea Valley between the Isle of Dogs and the Royals.
We can also concentrate specifically on the river and its immediate influence. East of the gateway bridge it should be regarded as the artery of a progressive landscape, where natural forms dominate the banks rather than buildings. The portals of the bridge should set the precedent, set in parkland rather than crowded by development. Twickenham Bridge on Chertsey Road supplies a reasonable clue, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Downstream, from Barking to Purfleet and Thamesmead to Dartford, the banks become populated by undulating green terraces, water meadows and public riverside parkland. Over time, these will naturally regenerate within this ambitious framework and become accommodated by it.
This could reach a climax at Rainham and Dartford Marshes, where a great International Water Park at the same scale as Richmond could expand to grace the setting of the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge on both shores, using land art of the highest imagination and quality, with the gleaming spires of the gateway water city just beyond. This is a project which should be given the utmost priority and inspire the country's best land artists to achieve something not available since the creation of Regent's Park in the centre of the capital.
The gateway city itself would lie at the critical junction between the riverscape and seascape and the new barrage would combine the energies of both. We can think of no parallel concept in western Europe, but the thought of a symbiosis of Grays, Tilbury and Gravesend is surely hard to match, with the new barrage providing the physical link between Essex and Kent in a way the Queen's bridge does not. Upstream of the barrage, the river belongs to the city and the docks, and downstream to the floodplain of the estuary. The positive architectural and developmental formats will follow and result in a rich and stimulating aesthetic for the urban fabric and public realm. And all in the place of refuse dumps, shed cities, landfills, pylons, contaminated eels, dispossessed water voles and the threat of grim, over-developed suburbia.
Where does the imagination stop beyond the gateway city on the threshold of the controlled river being released into the estuary and the sea? Unfortunately there seem to be no signals of the organic, open-ended and dynamic series of visions that are needed to bring the release of such fabulous scenic opportunity into being. They will not arise from an organisation such as the ODPM. There are also, so far, no signs of them emerging from the 'locally' orientated development corporations, either by lack of remit or ODPM control.
The rediscovery and reformation of the River Thames and estuary will generate the most original solutions and hopefully persuade the formal Town and Country Planning systems to act in an atmosphere of creativity rather than reaction. Ours is a manifesto that seeks to use the genius of the river and estuary to generate a new perception of the waterscape and landscape, to lift the aspirations of people's lives in the manner the great city and London's Thames so properly deserve, banishing the shroud of neglect forever.