Designed for life? Waterstone Park
CABE is the the government’s advisor on architecture, urban design and public space. So they've got a big job to do in the Thames Gateway area...
For years the big question about the Thames Gateway has remained unanswered – what kind of place do people there want it to be? One thing is for sure – the region cannot be defined by its potential to accommodate large amounts of new housing. Existing communities deserve a better deal, with new opportunities for enterprise. And any development should value and protect what is special about the region.
Lack of identity
The historic problem with the Gateway is a lack of clear identity to reflect these special qualities, which can then be expressed through design – not just of buildings, but also of the spaces around them, and through neighbourhoods and new communities.
Until recently there has been no real understanding of the relationships between the different towns in the Thames Gateway and its unique natural environment. This can be damaging. For instance, private housing developers in Thurrock have even failed to exploit its most amazing asset - the river. So as the government’s advisor on architecture, urban design and public space, CABE was asked in 2006 to study the character of the Gateway.
The inquiry was launched by a workshop run by the Kent Architecture Centre, where people with a strong interest in the area made clear that engendering a sense of community was a priority. They also warned that the Gateway should remain a working place, not just a dormitory or a playground. They felt that the region could position itself as a pioneer of low carbon and low impact development.
CABE has compared the Thames Gateway to the San Fransisco Bay area – each is a set of individual places grouped around water and with a spirit of newness. CABE believes that the Gateway’s identity should encompass themes such as reconnecting with nature and the estuary, linking to greener, more sustainable communities, and redefining work away from factory production to newer forms of enterprise.
The Thames Gateway has a powerful industrial past: modern factory production started in Chatham with ship building in the dockyards during the 16th-century. Now there are new opportunities for employment in Kent, offered by the growing Multiversity at Medway and by the financial and business centre at Ebbsfleet, with the channel tunnel rail link plans. All new development, though, needs local workers with the right skills, and vibrant local economies.
Reconnecting with nature
The river is the dominant influence in the Gateway: people living there have a strong relationship with it. Battles have been fought for centuries against its incursions but now the most forward-looking development is working with nature: for instance at Ingress Park, a housing scheme overlooking the Thames at Greenhithe, where flood defence is designed to maintain a relationship with the river. Because of the rich local ecology – which you can see for instance on the Hoo peninsular in Medway - a new Thames Gateway Parklands concept is being proposed. This would be a working landscape – in other words, provide fantastic recreation minutes from everyone’s front door but also provide renewable energy through growing biomass crops, supporting more local food production, and water management.
Estuaries appeal to an adventurous imagination and Kent has always been a centre of trading, so new cultures easily join the stream here. There is a rich and varied local culture in the Gateway - although the huge expansion that came with industrialisation did little to nurture it. Now there is an interesting new wave of immigration, of young people with the university expansion. Rochester already has the feel of a slightly quirky, relaxed university town.
The region reflects every stage of England’s collective history, with its minsters and pillboxes, Roman forts and disused power stations. Strong local identities combined with a continuous influx of new ideas is central to the Gateway. This has potential for enormous benefit - if the expansion of existing communities carries the local population with it. In Kent, major developments are being centred on existing settlements at Dartford, Ebbsfleet, Gravesend, Rochester and Chatham. Local people want to ensure their presence is recognised by continuity. This can come down to very simple things, like naming streets after local characters.
So what will the Gateway look like if planners and developers apply these lessons? New development would grow from existing centres, instead of being plonked down as “everywhere and nowhere” places. New communities would be walkable with local facilities and good public transport, an attractive local environment and easy access to green space.
The findings have been published in a guide called 'New things happen'. CABE argues that working with the unique identity of places within the Gateway is the key to successful change in the area.
last updated: 04/06/2008 at 16:26