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Urban Design Scholarships: Joe Morris, Walthamstow Marshes

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Growing up Joe Morris lived a stone’s throw away from Walthamstow Marshes without knowing of their existance. Now he aims to reunite the parkland with its urban surroundings

It’s market day and Walthamstow High Street is all hustle and bustle. The street stalls are busy with a chattering throng of shoppers and wanderers cruising the wares on offer.

Though there’s little clue of its existence here, 10 minutes down the road is Lea Valley Regional Park, London’s largest metropolitan park. Joe Morris’ site –Walthamstow Marshes – sits at the base of the upper Lea Valley between Walthamstow and Clapton Common. Abundant in fields and waterways, its post-industrial legacy is visible in its patches of degraded land and crisscrossing railways and canals that fragment the landscape.

Joe Morris, his Design for London (DfL) mentor Eleanor Fawcett and I head down the high street. Walking roughly west, we leave the shopping area and cross into Coppermill Lane, a wide Victorian terraced street. Five minutes down, a small, lonesome sign pointing west is the first hint at the marshland that lies at the end. On the north side of Coppermill Lane are large playing fields, bound in on three edges. The east edge is backed on by terraced houses and a railway line cuts across it to the north. To the west, the reservoir embankment separates the playing fields from the horses and geese in the land beyond.

The Marshes repeat this patchwork pattern of nature reserves, water refineries and playing fields, hemmed in variously by rivers, rail lines and the city edge. With the assets of Walthamstow Marshes so rich and lack of access so clear an issue, what occupies Joe is how best to knit the open space into its urban surroundings. ‘I’m enjoying the idea of threading and stitching; in making some barriers softer and more organic,’ says Joe.

The terrace on Coppermill Lane gives way to a row of post-modern housing with ground-level car parking and first-floor entrances. No attempt has been made to link the housing with the marshland behind. ‘It’s an example of how not to do housing,’ says Joe. ‘On the one side is a fantastic townscape, on the other is the marshes, but they’ve created something that totally ignores them both.’

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the Victorian houses ignored the marshes, which at the time of building were associated with industry, as Eleanor points out. Now the marshes are about leisure, as two joggers passing us and nodding hello testify.

Our journey takes us past a water refinery, a nature reserve, and a group of anglers, dog-walkers and canoeists. In his interim crit in November, Joe outlined the idea of bringing the street market into the marshes through
experiments with mini-allotments and different ways of pulling in the punters. With a site this vast, the challenge is to pinpoint the specific areas that best warrant intervention: if greater access is afforded, where should
it be and what should it look like?

At the Clapton Common edge of the Marshes, Joe takes us up Springfield Park, where an ornamental fountain heralds our re-entrance into urban life. In a wry reflection of the potential for linking the marshes to the
surroundings, Joe admits he used to live only a few hundred metres from the Marshes without realising they were there. But the challenge is to work on these threshold conditions, Joe points out, ‘without being detrimental to the
long-term legacy of the park’.

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