Thames Gateway Architecture Week Piece June 2005
There has been lots written (and its been largely negative) in the press about “The Thames Gateway Project “but I would hazard a guess that were I to stop a 100 random people on any street in London a good number might imagine it to be a big gate being build in the Thames or another strange piece of modern art featuring various gates from B & Q placed strategically along the river. I believe few would know it is possibly Britain’s most ambitious development concept in many a decade with talk of anything between 200,000 and 400,000 new homes being built. If we disregard the fact that some dispute that we actually need that many new homes and disregard the argument over whether some of these should actually be built in the north , there is no denying that there is a shortage of affordable housing and that this is a nation where home ownership is an emotional, social and financial goal that for most cant be reached now until well into ones 30’s and there can be no denying that thousands of these new homes in “The Thames Gateway Project” will start to come out of the ground over the next months and years.
My company, Hemingwaydesign are part of the George Wimpey team delivering a project in The Thames Gateway..“The Bridge”, a new community in Dartford, Kent. Whilst The Bridge is going to be fantastic (naturally!!!!) with its 1134 modern homes complemented by wonderful landscaping, leisure space, parkland, community facilities, a new school, healthcare, shops, an innovation park with 4000 jobs and a new transit system, the fact that I describe it is a stand alone” project” as are all the other schemes up and down The Thames poses a problem.
On a building programme of this scale “The Thames Gateway” should be a Project with a capital P and fully co-ordinated rather than a series of small projects all going their own little way , possibly duplicating their offers (without doubt some of it will end up monocultural, soulless identikit Noddy boxes set in seas of black tarmac).
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to create something wonderful for Britain that could be the envy of the world, an opportunity to create a series of “sustainable communities” all having their unique characteristics and offers,set in an undervalued environment that has great potential to be brought into public use and managed so that human beings can live in a natural environment that, in parts, has been abused by industry but with modern methods and understanding can be reclaimed..
With great brains throwing ideas around (like Sir Terry Farrell’s wonderful idea to declare all the land around the new developments a new National Park), with the governments laudable emphasis on housing, and with the great architects and designers that Britain has, it is possible. When you see what the Dutch are doing in Amsterdam on the reclaimed island of Ijberg and how they create inviting visitor centres for new settlements like the 30,000 home developments at Liedsche Rijn then the precedents are there. But we can’t even set up a body with overall responsibility for The Thames Gateway. I fear we are about to throw the opportunity away and end up with something disjointed and mediocre.
The public are not stupid and they respond to brand and at the moment The Thames Gateway is a damaged brand. Without a “feelgood” factor positive placemaking becomes very difficult indeed