A chance remark by urban design guru Lord Rogers caught my eye the other day. The architect and doyen of urbanism commented that one of the problems with the Thames Gateway was that it lacked a sense of place - specifically, that many buildings don’t look towards the Thames.
Last week I had a very enjoyable stroll along the Thames near Marlow. It’s the sort of place where buildings do indeed look towards the river; where the waterfront is lined with boathouses; and where pubs and restaurants cater for the kind of clientele that does its business over a leisurely lunch.
Far be it from me to suggest that people shouldn’t aspire to that in Dagenham Dock, Rainham, Purfleet, Thurrock, Grays, or Canvey Island. And none of us have the right to assume that people who have to shop at Netto or Matalan wouldn’t rather be sampling Ruth Rogers’ fare in the River Cafe. All I’d suggest is that the inhabitants of those Essex riverside towns might have more pressing needs.
Lord Rogers is right to say that communities need a sense of place. But they don’t, and won’t, find that through the kind of urbanist visions that exclude those who don’t fit the bill: the cash-strapped, the sick, the old, disabled or plain ordinary. Buildings, both the elegant and inspiring ones and the ugly ones, impose their presence on a community. To that extent Lord Rogers is right. Line the Thames with discount warehouse sheds and you’ll facilitate a discount warehouse mentality.
But there are other things that create a sense of place. Living close to family and friends is one, and that’s always been the backbone of many of those Essex towns. A shared interest, whether it’s a faith or a football team, is another. It’s when those aspects of social capital and neighbourliness break down that the sense of place disappears too.
For those whose concern is limited to the built environment, Lord Rogers provides a good starting point. Much can be achieved through thoughtful and sensitive design, making the most of landscape, and prioritising the needs of pedestrians. Get those wrong and you’re saddled with problems for years to come.
But if we ignore the need for social capital we’re even more likely to store up long-term trouble. Unless work to encourage cohesion and involvement permeates every aspect of the plans for the Thames Gateway, long after the masterplanners have gone, it won’t matter much which way the buildings are facing.
Julian Dobson, editor
- New Start Online Online magazine