Thames Gateway - a sustainable vision

Written by Peter Barber. Building Design, 17 November 2007


It strikes me that some really stark choices face the politicians, developers and quango-meisters meeting to discuss the development of the Thames Gateway next week.

Their conclusions will have a decisive impact, both on the lives and lifestyles of millions who will live there in forthcoming generations, but equally significantly on the kind of society that is likely to emerge from it.

Are we to create what James Howard Kunstler has called a “geography of nowhere”? River view apartment blocks ranged along the river’s edge — gated, high-rise with undercroft parking, complemented by endless lower rise infrastructureless neighbourhoods. Three cars per household, shopping malls, business parks, drive through school runs. Atomised, ghettoising isolating , socially and environmentally unsustainable: a form dominating the physical and social landscape of the United States and beginning to emerge in the Bluewater world taking hold in parts of Essex and Kent... Or is there another answer?

It seems to me that the only feasible solution to the complex challenges of the Gateway, and to avoid the socially disastrous implications of a suburban sprawl, is to create a new city, sufficiently compact and dense to sustain the necessary infrastructure that large-scale residential development requires — a city which is socially and economically sustainable, that does not rely on the motor car or fossil fuels. A city contained by strict area dimensions and surrounded by forests, flood plains and farms.

Let me paint you a picture.

The half million homes to be built in the Thames Gateway during the next decade or so could be constructed as an experimental zero energy city, three miles long by two miles wide and averaging four storeys high. It sits on opposite banks of a slow bend in the river close to existing rail and road links. The remainder of the unbuilt Gateway is given over to farms and forestry.

The farms provide low food-mile produce for the city’s market and shops (enough to feed the whole city). The forest is laid to short rotation willow coppice (three year cycle) used to power a bio mass power station sufficient to meet 75% of the city’s energy needs, with the remainder supplied by outlying wind farms plus heat-sink foundations and solar-cell roofs in the city itself. Thus the city is embedded culturally, economically and spatially in its surrounding landcape. City and countryside are co-dependent.

Our city is compact, street based and properly urban. It is small enough to be walkable; compact enough to sustain a complex economy and infrastructure. It is mostly laid out on a ladder of intimately scaled streets running down to a promenade along the river. Streets are well integrated and foster strong visual connection between adjacent socio/economically diverse neighbourhoods and with the countryside and river beyond.

Streets are interspersed with parks and sports facilities, small shops and workplaces. Schools are small, walkable, and embedded in their local neighbourhood. Somewhere the street grid might give way to a more complex picturesque, labyrinthine bit.

You can walk from one end of our city to the other in 45 minutes or from its centre to the countyside or river in 20 minutes. There are no private petrol powered cars — public transport, car clubs and electric cars are used.
Housing in the city is arranged in street-based terraces. Where possible people have good sized external private spaces — courtyard gardens and roof terraces. Recently completed schemes show how housing at this density can have good sized space.

Our city should be destination not dormitory — more Brighton than Basingstoke. Such treatment is not just what the Gateway needs: it could set a benchmark for socially, economically and culturally sustainable cities of the future

Peter Barber