Peabody has taken over London’s Thamesmead, with bold plans to mend and expand its broken brutalist dream
There is a memorable video about the early days of Thamesmead which shows the first residents, the Gooch family, moving in on 3 July, 1968. Trees that are little more than twigs, windows still with their film on them, as the happy family unpacks family photos. Their infectious excitement is set against the brutalist concrete planes that defined this out-of-London new town.
A lot has changed since then. As flaws in the original thinking began to reveal themselves, the GLC which ran it was dismantled and replaced by complex organisational arrangements. Funding and resources were cut, leaving Thamesmead poorer and without a captain, to drift into decline.
In 2014 Peabody acquired the site, and Thamesmead had a steward once again. Talk of a ‘whole place philosophy’ for once does not sound hollow. If Peabody gets it right, this new phase may transform not only Thamesmead, but also, over time, how we think about regeneration in general.
Thamesmead is east of London and south of the River Thames. Built from the 1960s onwards, it has 50,000 residents, though it was originally intended for up to 100,000. Although it is popularly characterised by its concrete, modernist aesthetic – as vividly portrayed in Clockwork Orange and more recently Misfits – you are in a bricky suburbia within just a few minutes walk from brutalist towers. It has enviable green and blue landscapes that are protected as Metropolitan Land – lakes and rivers, a generous Thames river frontage and 30,000 mature trees – which can at times feel exhilaratingly wild.
Few visit, but you should. Just remember to pack a sandwich. The population is half that of Rugby or Dover; and famously there is not a single table service restaurant (or bank for that matter), and only a spattering of local shops aside from the large Morrisons, which means if hunger strikes after a busy morning exploring, you are out on a limb. It would be okay, perhaps, if in addition to your hunger, you didn’t have to keep back-tracking after wrong turns into dead ends. And don’t expect to last until you get home – Thamesmead is poorly connected not only internally but externally too. The hunt for a bite to eat is a page in the catalogue of Thamesmead’s urban design crimes.
This is set to change. This most recent chapter of Thamesmead’s history begins with two events. First is significant improvements to the site’s connectivity: the Elizabeth Line opens at Abbey Wood in 2019 and there is talk of extending the DLR to the area in the future. Secondly, Peabody’s acquisition of the site in 2014 means it now owns 65% of the land across an entire town, and 85% of the developable land.
I went to speak to John Lewis, executive director of Thamesmead for Peabody, and his colleague in charge of landscape and design management, Phil Askew at their Passivhaus zinc-clad retrofitted offices. They are practising what they preach by bringing much needed active street frontage to one of the main roads in Thamesmead.
They want to double the capacity of Thamesmead and revitalise the existing fabric
The plan they set out is bold. They want to double the capacity of Thamesmead (creating 20,000 new homes and 20,000 news jobs) and revitalise the existing fabric with better connectivity, more facilities, and an improved built fabric and public realm. In the pipeline are some serious chunks of city-making. Peabody is already on site with a new high street that connects Abbey Wood station to a new town square. There is a waterfront strategy along 5km of the Thames, a forward looking plan for its huge swathes of industrial land and the re-invention of a historic landfill site as a new piece of outer London.
It is also a sensitive plan, grounded in real curiosity about what is existing and the needs of local residents – an early indicator that it is being handled well is that across the four major planning applications that have just gone in for 2000 new homes (three outline and one detailed), there was only one objection.
Askew explained that they are finding that there is ‘loads you can do without doing any building’ – for example improving way-finding and activating under-used green spaces. Where there is uncertainty, they are experimenting – as with lighting, testing the best way to improve the feeling of security across green spaces at night.
Making it real
Peabody understands that Thamesmead will only really begin to work if residents take a lead on the transformation too. Though houses and balconies flourish with individuality, the formal public realm cries out for particularity and organic stories to take root and break up the rigid grain. Wandering around on a bright blue day there is almost no-one around – no-one energising the rich bounty of woodlands, parks, courtyards and watersides. In a bid to activate Thamesmead, Peabody is working with community groups to establish new uses – to re-instate Thamesmead’s historic nature reserve, and to establish commercial urban food growing. Askew says they are trying to get people ‘to take their fences down’ – spill out and introduce the messiness and colour of public life to the area.
The question all Jane Jacobs-inspired urbanists have grappled with and that Peabody now faces, is how to move from top-down to home grown initiatives to allow well meaning intentions to become real life experiences. Over by the lake I came across a planting bed outside one of the towers that could have been a guerrilla gardening exercise. As I reached for my camera, a woman in a Peabody fleece came over and began tending to it – which was in some sense disappointing. Observing my interest, she explained that last week someone nicked the centrepiece.
While Peabody has been busy working through these softer strategies, it is serious about getting spades in the ground too. There are five year and 30 year plans. Lewis points out that people ‘have invested decades of their lives into this place’ and are yet to see anything happen, and Peabody is keen not to over-promise and under-deliver.
To kick things off, architect Proctor & Matthews has begun with South Thamesmead; the first phase, Southmere Village, starts on site imminently. The design team including Mecanoo Architecten, landscape architect Turkington Martin, and Peabody’s in-house designers, has re-imagined the arterial stretch in South Thamesmead that connects Abbey Wood station to a new town centre by the lake. The 2,000 new homes are here, a new town centre with a library by Bisset Adams and a walking route off the main road.
Solid urban thinking in the masterplan seeks to respect the existing context. It takes its block plan from the surrounding site, and while it is ‘bricky’, pre-cast concrete features on the elevation reference the more well known architectural icons of the area. It borrows from the original masterplan using the calming and positive effect of water, re-imagined in a playful way – channels lining the route from the station terminate in a water feature in the main square.
Righting the past
However, the masterplan also seeks to avoid previous mistakes. It is positively pious about connectivity – way-finding and connections are paramount. Architecture is diverse and particular – a step away from the repetitive forms of some of the original estate.
There are flashes of brilliant good sense in some of the site wide thinking, such as the run of flexible ground floor units for commercial, retail or community uses which are adjacent to the neighbourhood squares lining the new pedestrian route. But in general, though new South Thamesmead has been designed well, it still lacks the X-factor.
More concerning, perhaps, is that the masterplan does not provide one of the main things that Thamesmead is missing – the type of informality that enables residents to take ownership. Everything is designed finished. Unlike many of the existing houses at Thamesmead which had large gardens to enable extensions as families and aspirations grew, this denser masterplan leaves no such room. This could have been a moment to make some bold architectural moves, leaving parts of the architecture and public realm deliberately and interestingly incomplete.
What is certainly true is that it’s great news for Thamesmead to have a steward again. As we have seen, Peabody is testing out where its role ends, and where the activation of local networks begins. And the spirit of collaboration is evident with boroughs and professionals. This is localism with guts – locally rooted power structures, capacity and resource. Can it make the leap from top down to lived empowerment that Thamesmead is so desperately crying out for, and convert some of that big thinking into bricks and mortar? If it can, Thamesmead may once again be a poster-city for regeneration.
Peabody’s architectural framework is up for review next year