A proposal by Create Streets for the creation of ‘Thames Towns’ – a populist programme for a series of low rise, high density traditional towns along the banks of the Thames Estuary.
Think of the Thames Estuary and you think of Dickens’ description of it “dark, flat, wilderness… intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it.” But change is afoot. It is to be developed. Dickens’ Pip spoke of the ‘immensity of London,’ but it is set to get more immense yet.
London has a housing crisis, with far more houses needing to be built than it has shown the capability of building any time recently. The Thames Estuary, with all its space, seems in many ways to be a good place to build. 87,000 homes are already planned for the north Kent riverside alone.
So, you might be forgiven for thinking that this should be a cause for rejoicing. Yet, as so often is the case with new development, it’s not. Or at least not for everyone.
In Tilbury there are gripes that the gentrification process, once reserved for trendy inner-city London, is impacting the town negatively: development being done to people rather than by or with them. Being beyond the M25 does not seem to leave such places immune to urbanity.
And on the whole nor should they – there’s lots of very good things about living in cities. But likewise there are lots of good things about living in suburbia. There is a ‘sweet spot’ where you can get the advantages of the town (walkability, better access to work and schools) and of suburbia (more personal space, more greenery).
In many ways, the Thames Estuary is already somewhere in between the two. Whilst it is correct that places like Tilbury, or Gravesend to the south of the river, aren’t quite London, to walk around them is to realise that they are very much within the orbit of the capital.
The swathes of industry that dot the landscape are not there by chance. A great many of them are specifically located to bring goods into London, the necessary physical link between the capital and international capital, one that can’t be metal-and-steeled away in the computer screens and offices of the City of London.
Elsewhere, Lakeside and Bluewater are vast sprawling shopping centres, places for those who make their money in and around London to spend it.
And there are places to live even now. It’s neither correct to think of the Estuary as the preserve of industry, nor as an untouched wilderness (although Rainham Bird Sanctuary is a lovely place to see some real nature inside the M25).
The need for more homes in London is a city-wide issue that affects us all. But despite this urgency it is still fair to say that the people who live in the Thames Estuary already are the most important people to consider when we think about what new development should be like there. After all, they’ll be the neighbours of these new residents. They will deal with the changes from the very start.
I’ve alluded to some of the Dickensian heritage already. There’s plenty more: Bram Stoker set Dracula around here: If you go to Purfleet you can still see his old house, they say.
But there are also examples of attractive and popular new housing. Chafford Hundred, built by Lakeside, was once deemed ’the most coveted address in Britain’ by The Evening Standard. Stroll around its streets and you could forget that you are wedged in between Lakeside to the east and the roar of the A13 to the north. It might be not quite dense enough for the housing needs of 2017. But density doesn’t need to be high-rise, and density doesn’t need to be unpopular.
What will work here then? Across the country, similar types of housing tends to be popular. It doesn’t have to look like a certain era, but it shouldn’t be totally oblivious to local history either.
Look at London, and ask where is densest? And where is the most expensive? It tends to be similar places: Kensington, parts of Islington. Buildings here are often narrow but taller (but not high-rise). This enables fantastically large amounts of housing to fit into relatively small areas, without going above 5 or 6 storeys.
NIMBYism is often used pejoratively, but there are often very understandable reasons why people oppose new housing. In many parts of London, new development is simply a by-word for bad development.
Development that doesn’t adhere to fairly simple but time-honoured principles. The kind of principles that you can find in housing all over the world. Interestingly, these sorts of qualities tend to be popular both when you look at who pays the most for them, and also when you poll people on what they like or will support.
Human scale. Lots of doors onto the street for feelings of security and neighbourliness, whilst preserving some privacy and autonomy. Broken up facades that bring a sense of horizontal as well as vertical scale.
Too often, some of these basics, which are provably good for wellbeing, are value-engineered away somewhere along the process. Unattractive, unhealthy and sometimes even defective homes are built. In the short term the developer might do well by flogging them off and disappearing, but beyond that many more suffer. It needn’t be like that.
So here’s the proposal: a series of ‘Thames Towns’. Some of London’s world-renowned character lies in the fact that it is made up of various town centres that have gradually been subsumed organically into London. As such, these areas have their own distinctiveness. Whilst they might be suburban, or full of commuters, they also have their own centres and their own specific qualities. They are not just dormitory towns.
We want Thames Towns to be like this too – and we want the people who will be living there to have a genuine hand in designing them. We’re proposing a populist programme for a series of low rise, high density traditional towns along the banks of the Thames Estuary. We’re not looking for towers, but nor are we looking for a sprawling car-dependent suburbia.
The amount of development set to happen in the Thames Estuary is huge. But we know what works, and we know that if people genuinely get to influence new development they will support it, often actively. We see Thames Towns as the right way to answer the difficult questions London is facing in the coming years. Thames Towns, if you’ll excuse the mangling of Dickens, could bring us the best of times, and avoid the worst, for the Estuary and for London.