Jan Kattein Architects is commended in the MacEwen Award, working with locals to turn an uninspiring Tarmac cut-through at Thamesmead estate into a valued, interactive green space
‘Until recently, it didn’t even have a name. It was known as the black path because of the Tarmac.’ So says Gabriel Warshafsky, director of projects at Jan Kattein Architects, of Claridge Way, the site of the practice’s recent community co-design project in Thamesmead, south east London.
Visiting on a bright winter’s morning, the path is now anything but anonymous. Playful floor markings weave along the length of the approximately 500m stretch of public realm, which is also populated by clusters of brightly coloured exercise benches, a woodland play trail, planters and a school gardening club area. At this time of year you have to use your imagination to picture the wildflower meadow in bloom. However I’m assured it was an ‘Instagram moment’ by Kate Batchelor, head of landscape and placemaking of Peabody, which since 2014 has owned the majority of the land in Thamesmead.
Certainly this is a project that is far greater than its sum of fairly modest parts.
It reflects Peabody’s placemaking approach to an area that had suffered from long-term under-investment and found it hard to shake off negative perceptions, fuelled in part by its association with A Clockwork Orange, which was filmed there 50 years ago.
Claridge Way is situated in the Moorings, part of the third phase of Thamesmead constructed in the mid-1970s. The stretch of land formed an important thoroughfare linking the Moorings to local schools, a nature reserve and the small retail centre, which includes a soon-to-reopen social club. The challenge was how to turn this rather featureless and unloved space into a place that locals could enjoy and would want to spend time in, rather than just passing through.
Instead of starting out with preconceptions of the outcome, the key to the £400,000 project was forming a creative dialogue with the community, which enabled the architect to ‘tease’ out a brief. This was achieved through a broad range of consultation events – kicked off with a giant street party along the path – that included VR sessions and workshops with residents, schools and youth clubs. These events reached hundreds of residents of all ages.
‘It wasn’t about dropping a shiny masterplan onto the place,’ emphasises Warshafsky.
‘Our contribution as architects was to work with the community to gain their expertise and input, co-ordinate it and develop it spatially.’
Despite diverse priorities across the community there were some common threads, for example how residents particularly value green space and nature. And while there is plenty of this in Thamesmead, which has an extensive network of lakes and canals, access to it is not always maximised.
Our contribution was to work with the community to gain their expertise and input
Three key ambitions emerged from the consultation – that the area should be an interactive play landscape, that it should be an open and liberating place to socialise, and that it should be a place to grow things and linger. These underpin the strategy for the site, known as A Common Plan for Claridge Way.
The plan consists of a series of micro-interventions that encourage a greater sense of involvement from those bordering the site, by (in some cases quite literally) breaking down the barriers. The path is bordered on one side by the garden fences of homes backing onto the path. Willing residents were able to choose attractive new fences from a variety of style and colour options. These incorporated new back gates that gave them direct access to the path in exchange for tending new planters, some integrated into the fences themselves. Similarly the Hawksmoor School now has a new garden and growing club located alongside the footpath and Windrush School has moved its main entrance to open onto Claridge Way.
The introduction of five sets of exercise benches has proved popular as focal points along the path since they double as seating and informal play structures.
‘Very rarely do you see people doing exercises but I do see people sitting on them and chatting,’ says Batchelor, adding that they’ve become ‘social spots’. More work may be needed to encourage their use for fitness.
There is also seating integrated into some of the planter structures in the growing club. Larger planters have been created using recyclable concrete manhole rings in order to accommodate new fruit trees including cherry, pear and apple.
The community consultation certainly appears to have been key to shaping the brief and manifestations of the micro-projects. In particular, workshops with school children yielded a key idea for the playscape that runs through the new public realm – ‘snakes and ladders of doom’ proved too good an idea to pass up, says Warshafsky of the suggestion that inspired the playful new floor markings now meandering along Claridge Way. More colour has been introduced in a jungle-inspired mural beneath an undercroft along the route. A woodland adventure playwalk, created by thinning a dense thicket, includes a treehouse, plentiful logs and stumps and the inclusion of bird boxes, bug houses and scavenger hunt elements. Bees are also encouraged by the introduction of a wildflower ‘bee road’ along the path.
Warshafsky has been heartened by ‘really positive’ feedback from local residents. ‘The overall tone is that there’s clearly been a step change. People spend a lot more time in the green space. Children love it,’ he says.
The project, which completed in late 2020, has been a very positive experience for the practice: ‘We’ve learnt so much from the conversations we’ve had with people about the ways they connect with public space.’
People spend a lot more time in the green space. Children love it
Judges liked both the extensive collaboration and the end result. Percy Weston felt it ‘ticks all the boxes’ by engaging with communities along the route, and being executed ‘with sensitivity and innovation’.
And Robyn Poulson described the project as ‘nicely thought about – it is re-enlivening the route, doing the job’.
While not every idea that emerged from the consultation was implemented at this stage, all the consultation has been ‘captured’ in the Common Plan document and will help inform future projects in the area.
For example, the suggestion for an off-road cycle track wasn’t considered appropriate on Claridge Way, but may be able to be accommodated elsewhere in Thamesmead. Meanwhile the Claridge Way project as a whole has been valuable in helping Peabody test the co-design process.
The hope is that the improved spaces along Claridge Way will help local people to reconnect with their environment and encourage them to take ownership of the public realm. Already, a Moorings Neighbourhood Forum has been established and is now in the early stages of putting together a neighbourhood plan.
While all involved know that maintenance will be key to the long-term success of the new public realm, the re-energised Claridge Way has certainly got off to a promising start thanks to a large extent by prioritising a co-design approach.
‘It’s an amazing platform to build off,’ says Warshafsky.
For more on the MacEwen Award and architecture for the common good see ribaj.com/MacEwen-Award
Jan Kattein Architects
Collaborators: Hawksmoor Youth Hub, Windrush Primary School, Hawksmoor School, Woolwich Polytechnic, Safety Net, Good Life Garden, Titmuss Avenue Gardening Association, Radio Thamesmead, Hobs3D
Contractors: CL Roadmarkings, MJO Signwriting, Accent London, Demco Construction, Duncan & Grove, James Green