Cities and floods

Thames Gateway model

What will be built in the Thames Gateway? Will it be more like Broadacre City or Carpet City?

The Thames Gateway is an ideological battlefield. It is the stage upon which all architects, urban designers, theorists and doom-mongers can project their hopes, fears, visions and nightmares.

Not since the heady days of the Docklands development has their been a project of this scope in the capital. There is a tantalising prospect to make a new London, build a bright new future, and reject the mistakes of the past.

Thames Gateway has also become a massive investment opportunity for speculative house builders, property tycoons, and real estate magnates, clamouring for a piece of the baitball with all the decorum of a feeding frenzy.

With over 160,000 new homes proposed, over an area of 450 square kilometres, already home to 1.6 million people, the proposed density of the Thames Gateway development is actually very low. As the recent research by Chora puts it:

"The Thames Gateway is a complex urban field. It is 9 times the size of Barcelona, has the same population as Berlin and the equivalent density to Los Angeles."

But what kind of landscape will be created in the Gateway? In a recent Buidling Design 'debate' article (Is the Thames Gateway project a busted flush?), Grossmax's Eelco Hooftman eloquently busts the hyperbole of what is really happening in East London.

"The Thames Gateway is predominantly treated as an overspill housing scheme when it should really be about restructuring a landscape in a dynamic flood plain which considers flood defence, water storage, waste recycling, carbon footprint, ecological corridors, infrastructure and landscape frameworks.

It should be an architect-free zone until such a proposition is on the ground. We are heading for a diaspora of speculative toy town sink estates, a potent mixture of low-rise and high tide. We have dull, shifty opportunism when what we need is a long-term vision where imagination can take hold.

Large-scale landscape planning of any reasonable and positive kind is shamefully absent here. In fact, where is the plan at all? The proposition for a Green Grid across the Thames Valley is an anorexic, token gesture for a straightjacket landscape at odds with natural dynamics - what Thames Gateway needs is an altogether more voluptuous, ecological Wonderbra!"

If the secret "project" of Manhattan was the "culture of congestion", then the secret project at work here across the floodplains of the Thames Estuary is the culture of suburban sprawl.

Thames Gateway planning area

Trying to understand what is actually proposed for the Thames Gateway is a difficult undertaking. It encompasses a large number of projects over a massive area, with well known elements such as the Olympic park in Stratford directing attention away from the real folly of the Thames Gateway - the massive suburbanisation of the Thames Estuary.

As the introduction catalogue for the 2006 exhibition Turning the Tide at New London Architecture, puts it:

"Tony Travers of the London School of Economics has described Thames Gateway as a ‘muddle of overlapping mechanisms’. Myriad organisations have an input into the development of Thames Gateway under the overall guidance of the Department for Communities and Local Government within central government. This list covers those connected with just the London end of the wider Gateway area and includes the interplay between local authorities, urban development corporations and local regeneration partnerships. "

Trying to read any coherent sense of a masterplan in the Thames Gateway is a tough exercise. There isn't even one coherent website for the Thames Gateway, just a lot of sites for the various development agencies each hawking the 'vision' for its own patch of turf. Surveyed as a whole, they run the gamut of the inept and the inane to the shockingly awful. If the online presentation of the Thames Gateway vision is such a dog's breakfast, what hope for any actual built form?

Thames Gateway - Estuary Park

Thames Gateway - Estuary Park

While he may have his detractors, Terry Farrell at least tried to bring some semblance of a grand vision to the Thames Gateway, and put landscape and nature at the centre of his masterplan vision (see also AR, Sep 2007). Farrell has been critical of an unfocused sprawl approach to the Thames Estuary, and instead favours concentrating the development closer to the centre of London, with 90% of the new housing proposed within the M25, leaving the outer limits as a new National Park.

While Farrell's plan ladles on the environmental buzzwords, promising 'eco-industrial parks' and 'sustainable floating islands', at its heart it provides a strong focussed vision that the current muddled approach sorely lacks.

Farrell's proposal, to more heavily urbanise central areas, building concentrated 'eco-cities' and leaving the outer gateway land largely undeveloped, is a heroic attempt to counter the prospect of suburban sprawl.

The current destiny of the Thames Gateway is as a new Los Angeles.

From Hodge to Hooverville

The madness of Margaret Hodge

Could Margaret Hodge be our very own Sub-prime Minister?

There are more insane ramblings from UK architecture minister Margaret Hodge in this weeks Building Design (20,03.2008). Cleverly giving herself enough rope to hang herself, BD invites Margaret Hodge to show them around her consistuency of Barking, East London, and see what kind of architecture she likes - "Now that’s what Margaret Hodge calls architecture".

She starts off well enough, criticising a spec housing development by Bellway homes, (albeit for reasons that should be within the council and planning departments ability to enforce):

"It's horrible, cheap housing with no facilities: no schools, no transport infrastructure, no buses, no shops. This is just want you don't want."

Then she starts to show a little of her own design 'vision', for the Barking Riverside masterplan:

"I don't think it works," she says. "There are enormous pedestrianised areas. They haven't integrated the housing properly. New communities only work if people have their own gardens, fenced off."

Now it's possible that Margeret Hodge has been feverishly reading nutters like Oscar Newman and Alice Coleman et al, or channeling the spirit of Jane Jacobs through a kind of New Urbanist distortion field, since landing in the poisoned chair at the DCMS in June 200. However, it's more likely that she has made this gross, sweeping statement off the top of her head. Margaret Hodge has nailed her colours to the mast of environmental determinism.

Barking Learning Centre

But the killer comes when Hodges takes BD to Barking Learning Centre:

Among her high points is Barking Learning Centre, formerly the central library, designed by Alford Hall Monaghan Morris. This mixed-use building, which is the centrepiece of Barking Town Square’s redevelopment, is an example of the government’s vision for integrated public spaces, with council services, a lending library, educational facilities and residential apartments all on the same site. Hodge is very proud of it.

"Look, a buggy park!" she exclaims, as we view the children's library, a book club meeting in progress. Hodge points out the "welcoming entrance", which she sees as friendly and inclusive, and insists there ought to be a coffee shop here too. Her only disappointment is that the flats have been sold to a buy-to-let investor. "There’s nothing you can do about that." [My italics].

There's the money quote. With one throwaway comment the UK's architecture minister washes her hands of the parlous state of the UK's housing.

Buy-to-let, where investors buy properties as a business venture and enjoy tax breaks, has completely altered the UK housing landscape over the last 10 years. Fed a diet of 'you can do it' property investment programmes such as Relocation, Relocation, Property Ladder and How to be a Property Developer, the middle-classes of England have been steadily sinking themselves in debt taking out multiple mortages and riding the milktrain.

But now the chickens are coming home to roost.

Writing in the Guardian, Sympathy for the buy-to-let devil?, (22.03.2008), Patrick Collinson states:

Lenders keep telling us Britain doesn't have a "sub-prime" problem like the US. Yes we do - in the shape of a million buy-to-let mortgages.

Collinson then details some of the scams and sharp practices that have dominated the buy-to-let feeding frenzy:

"On paper, you couldn't obtain a 100% mortgage for a buy-to-let. But developers offered fake 15% "discounts"; credulous surveyors gave fanciful valuations; lenders skimmed over loan applications. Hey presto, wannabe landlords were able to obtain an "85%" loan which was really 100% of the purchase price, and start building a "portfolio" without spending a penny upfront. And they didn't even have to pay tax on the income.

It wasn't much of a worry to the lenders that the whole thing might later go wrong. They could "package" or "securitise" the buy-to-let loan, mark it down as a profit and take it off their books. Only in the coming few months will we see where in the financial system the losses turn up.

Compare this with first-time buyers. They have to stump up a deposit. They have to prove their income. They have to make monthly mortgage payments from a taxed salary. There could only be one winner in such a one-sided game. With access to easy finance, the buy-to-letter could outbid the first-timer and push prices up to ever more ludicrous levels."

Now the bubble has inevitably burst, not only are tens of thousands of get rich quick investors stuggling to make interest payments on mortgages, but overstretched owner-occupiers are faced with large mortgage hikes, while the banks and financial institutions who have been ridden by this loa of greed and exploitation get bailed out by the Bank of England. As a nation we are overextended on credit per capita to a much greater extent than the US.

Barking Learning Centre, held up by Hodge as the shining example of urban regeneration in Britain, is actually just the mirror to the failed state of housing in the UK. Who will maintain the properties at Barking Learning Centre? What can motivate investors, who are losing millions of pounds on the empty promise of buy-to-let, to look after their properties and ensure that they are good places to live?

To bring it back round to Robin Hood Gardens, and it's recent threat of demolition, Amanda Bailieu states in her recent BD editorial:

As one would expect from this government, Margaret Hodge believes the newly built Barking town centre in her constituency offers a more hopeful model for the future of British housing than the rugged, generous and light-filled flats at Robin Hood Gardens.

And yet Hodge cannot find any housing in Barking that actually works.

Tent City, Ontario California


In the US, the credit crunch and the fallout from the subprime mortgage farrago is refiguring communities and the suburban landscape, creating new housing archetypes - subprime shanty towns and exurban slums. The death of the buy-to-let market in the UK could do the same in this country. Margaret Hodge could find herself with a Hooverville in the midst of her constituency.

What is needed, now more than ever, is a richer mix of housing types and typologies. This needs to encompass social housing, letted accommodation, housing associations and cooperative living, as well as owner occupied dwellings.

Instead of hanging round Barking, Hodge should try visiting Rotterdam.

Introducing Superspatial

Zaha Hadid parametric urbanism

Just a quick note to mention the launch of a new collaborative weblog, called Superspatial, that I am involved in.

Superspatial will focus on architecture, urbanism and architectural speculation, while Kosmograd will hopefully become more refined in tackling issues of disurbanism, urban representation and virtual space.

Currently the only other author on Superspatial is Lewis Martin, from the excellent Helsinki-focussed archi-blog lewism. If you are interested in joining in, get in touch.

Some recent posts on Superspatial:

004. The urban futures of rising tides

003. A bridge too far?

002. Parametric Urbanism on the Thames Estuary

001. Seattle Art Museum Sculpture Park

Guinea airport car park is seat of learning

Guinea airport

Guinea airport

In a syndicated news story by Rukmini Callimachi, (viewable here), we learn that each night, children in Conkary, Guinea head to the car park at G'bessi International airport to study under the floodlights.

It's a tale that illustrates strongly how a dream-myth of globalisation, with an international airport bringing empty promises of prosperity, contrasts with a poverty stricken nation, "ranked 160th out of 177 on the United Nations' development index", where only a fifth of Guineans have access to electricity, and power cuts are frequent. But the counterpoint is the resourcefulness of the children, desperate to gain an education, and what William Gibson would call "the street finds its own use for things". A concrete bollard becomes literally a seat of learning, a floodlit car park transformed into a vast study hall, with it's own spatial hierachy:

"They sit by age group with 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds on a curb in a traffic island and teenagers on the concrete pilings flanking the national and international terminals. There are few cars to disturb their studies."

Elsewhere across Guinea, students have to study at gas stations, or crouch on the curbs outside the homes of wealthy families.

"'We have an edge because we live near the airport,' says 22-year-old Ismael Diallo, a university student."

Meanwhile the precious, fragile nature of electricity in Guinea highlights the ubiquitous excess of energy that is consumed in the West.

"According to U.N. data, the average Guinean consumes 89 kilowatt-hours per year — the equivalent to keeping a 60-watt light bulb burning for two months — while the typical American burns up about 158 times that much."

Recent power outages in San Francisco in the US or water shortages in Gloucestershire in the UK are seen as outrageous affronts to our civility. Taking electricity and other utilities for granted makes us forget how privileged we are.

It's an urban world, after all

urban world graphic

urban world graphic

While the timing may differ, everyone is agreed that imminently, more than half the population of the Earth will live in cities. Thoraya Obaid, executive director of the UN Population Fund, proclaims that this will happen next year, as reported in The Guardian.

The article is accompanied by a superb infographic which shows at a glance the urbanised areas of the world. Surprise is that Venezuela is the most urbanised country in the world, with 94% living in cities. The UK and Argentina come in second at 90%. Of course, city-states like Singapore probably score 100%, but that's not the point.

London Loves Lawn

National Theatre grass Flytower

National Theatre grass Flytower (image from Flickr user Jonny2005)

FlyTower, by Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey is an art project to grow grass on two faces of the Flytower of the Lyttelton Theatre at the National Theatre on London's South Bank.

Intended to last up to 10 weeks, the artists expect the grass to turn yellow and die, a poetic reminder of global warming.

Turf puns are essential, it would seem. "When the going gets turf .." chirps the Times, while "It's turf at the top" chimes the Telegraph:

"The couple have dreamt of "growing" the theatre for years. "We used to get the 59 bus across Waterloo Bridge to Brixton, which is where we were living," says Ackroyd. Then Harvey chips in: "We joked about growing the whole building."

But I think this is less about greening the grey brutalism of the South Bank and more about tapping a national obsession of the English with their lawns. We have a fundamental basic desire to each own a patch of grass (which partially explains why we've never taken to apartment living).

It's no surprise that Wimbledon is the only world class tennis tournament to be played on grass, or that the turf at Wembley or the pitch at Lords are hallowed, sacred terrains. (Indeed, in the 1970's, Scottish football hooligans delighted in digging up the Wembley turf as an act of desecration, much celebrated by PM in waiting, Gordon Brown, who proudly proclaims: "There's a pub in central Scotland that displays a lump of Wembley turf to commemorate the victory").

Vertical Garden

Elsewhere, Pingmag features the work of Patrick Blanc, who has been growing Vertical Gardens, or mur vegetal, for many years:

"It has been proved that the Vertical Garden enhances atmospheric humidity in its vicinity, thus enabling small ferns and mosses to appear and seeds to germinate. Shops and museums turn out to be very suitable places for this kind of implementation indeed. And even though a car park is supplemented with specific artificial light… tropical plants that survive by growing in the shades are perfectly suitable for sunless locations."

My own patch of lawn is a failure. The grass is lumpy, mossy, has bald areas. In the summer the ground cracks, and the grass yellows. Not for me a verdant green carpet. I detest mowing. My secret plan is to install Astroturf, but I can't help but feel I'd be betraying my Englishness.