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Tonkin Liu imagines turning London’s road system into ‘tree and rainwater infrastructure’

Trees come first as Tonkin Liu ‘flips the paradigm’ in its Public Space Design Day proposal for the post-car city that draws on Japanese ideas to put nature at the heart of public space

Tonkin Liu applied its own placemaking process: ‘Asking, Looking, Playing, Making’.
Tonkin Liu applied its own placemaking process: ‘Asking, Looking, Playing, Making’.

Project team:
Anna Liu (director)
Catherine Healy (architectural designer)
Hannah Lewis (architectural designer)

‘We approached this project using our placemaking methodology,’ said Catherine Healy. ‘We asked questions which redefined the brief, looking at nature, people and place through a time perspective’. Taking London as the point of departure, the group considered ‘what was’, ‘what is’, and ‘what could be’.

Cities were once forests, fields, rivers and mountains, but today’s environment suffers the fires, floods and droughts of climate change. Landscapes are defined by roads and contaminated by the detritus of human habitation. Clans have been replaced by globalised cultures, siloed communities and loneliness. Yet cities have the potential to be ‘exuberant, nature-powered’ places even in climate change. ‘Many communities around the world have a sort of built-in intelligence,’ explained Anna Liu, ‘sharing a support system and intelligence that helps the community become climate resilient’.

  • Trees are paired with light masts.
    Trees are paired with light masts.
  • The mound is integrated into a  ‘blue-green tapestry’ landscape.
    The mound is integrated into a ‘blue-green tapestry’ landscape.

‘What is the origin of a public space?’ asked Liu. ‘In my mind it was meeting someone under a tree.’ Trees have the potential to be landmarks, valued as part of a ‘cultural economy’. Liu cites a Japanese tradition of propping branches with walls and the like to support growth. These assemblages of limbs and struts are often ‘really beautiful spaces’ she said.

If London’s road system became obsolete, the network could become a ‘tree and rainwater infrastructure’, where these hard-working providers of oxygen, shade and habitat, rarely given enough space in the public realm, become focal points of outdoor community life.

A mound housing a precast Marshalls rainwater harvesting tank would provide seating, its gradient nourishing the tree roots with water. SuDS (sustainable drainage systems) replace asphalt, forming a ‘green-blue-tapestry’ based on Marshalls’ Grassguard paving and Biofilter systems. A beautiful tree unique to each local community, paired with a singular mast that hosts light and habitats for wildlife at a high level, would give height and legibility. These multifunctional ‘Social SuDS Spots’ would form part of a broader, holistic network – an architecture of SuDS and trees – that integrates people with nature, activates spaces and mitigates against flash flooding.

  • A blue-green tapestry.
    A blue-green tapestry.
  • Marshalls' Grassguard paving.
    Marshalls' Grassguard paving.

This proposal explored how ‘nature-powered conveyance, retention and purification’ can create a ‘water-sensitive city’, forming the basis of placemaking and thereby social change. ‘It is not just about repurposing the hard landscapes, it is moving beyond that’, said Connor McDonagh. Cany Ash agreed: ‘It flips the paradigm so that trees come first’.

See all the ideas explored by the five practices on the day



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