Placemaking field trip: Thamesmead

With two housing zones, a committed DLR extension, a Crossrail station, over £1bn of investment and a place within the GLA’s Thames Estuary Production Corridor, Thamesmead appears set to overturn its negative reputation linked to the perceived failures of post-war planning.

Previous Future of London programmes have reviewed estate renewal and Housing Zones at Thamesmead. Our 20 June field trip took a different approach, focusing on open spaces and cultural strategy as part of our 2017 placemaking programme. The field trip was kindly hosted by housing association and major Thamesmead landowner Peabody.

Green and blue spaces

Ken Baikie, Peabody’s Director of Regeneration at Thamesmead, put its open spaces in context: Thamesmead covers more than 760 ha, of which some 40% is open space, split evenly between green (parks) and blue (waterways) assets – all integral to water management in a town built on a floodplain outside the Thames Barrier. As the area’s major landowner, Peabody manages around 65% of space in Thamesmead.

Phil Askew, Director of Landscape Design & Management at Peabody, described Thamesmead’s open spaces as extraordinary but poorly used. Although new meadow landscaping is improving the ecology and aesthetics of green walkways and some playgrounds have been updated, many lack the lighting, surveillance and activity that make such areas feel safe and welcoming. Poor connectivity – often from similarly unattractive routes – limits footfall, and spaces offer few activities once people do arrive. Addressing these issues is part of Peabody’s strategy to make better use of open spaces.

Thamesmead’s open spaces are also home to several ‘hidden assets’: important but hard to access amenities. For example, the Lesnes Abbey ruins, Crossness pumping station and Thamesmead Sporting Club are important heritage or community assets suffering from severance because of railway lines, major roads, and unwelcoming or unknown local routes. Weaving these assets into Thamesmead – through safe walking and cycling links, wayfinding and publicity – could be an easy way to boost visitor numbers.

Lesnes Abbey ruins (L) and other ‘hidden assets’ are severed from Thamesmead. Major roads and railways (R) contribute to this severance.

Lesnes Abbey ruins (L) and other ‘hidden assets’ are severed from Thamesmead. Major roads and railways (R) contribute to this severance.

To further encourage use of open spaces, Peabody hopes to promote community stewardship through local food growing, open to people of all ages and abilities. Operations will range from small-scale household grow boxes to commercial-sized endeavours. Askew also sees educational value in Thamesmead’s environment and plans to encourage local schools to interact more with the area’s green spaces and waterways.

By contrast, amenities with better visibility and access attract more activity. Southmere lake is one example, with a boating club bringing canoeing and sailing to Thamesmead. Peabody intends to further support local watersports with a new boat store.

Culture and Community

Southmere lake is also home to the Lakeside Centre, a disused community space that will be the first anchor of Peabody’s cultural strategy for Thamesmead. Embarking on a 30-year partnership with Peabody and taking on the Lakeside Centre lease, creative workspace provider Bow Arts is awaiting a decision on its planning application to refurbish the building and its surroundings. If approved, the new centre will provide a nursery, kitchen to support new catering businesses, café and studio spaces – intended to nurture talent within Thamesmead rather than import artists from elsewhere.

An upgraded playground (L) is surrounded by meadow landscaping, but is not always well-used due to lack of natural surveillance. Southmere lake (R) is used more frequently.

An upgraded playground (L) is surrounded by meadow landscaping, but is not always well-used due to lack of natural surveillance. Southmere lake (R) is used more frequently.

Adriana Marques, Head of Cultural Strategy at Peabody, explained how the housing association uses culture to engage with residents and businesses. A Culture Forum, moving to a new location on the estate each month, is open to anyone interested in culture and heritage. Peabody is also developing a Culture Guide which takes stock of local creative businesses and community groups people can approach for work or volunteering opportunities. With weak community networks and limited connectivity around Thamesmead, initiatives such as the Culture Forum and Guide are important for community capacity-building and empowerment.

Residents and businesses initially appeared sceptical of new masterplans and large-scale regeneration strategies, having seen previous estate managers fail to achieve change. Peabody hopes its cultural, environmental and development plans will boost local confidence as projects begin to show visible progress. Increasing attendance at Thamesmead’s four ward-based forums suggests this confidence is growing. Marques described the need to ‘hurry slowly’: build trust by demonstrating that things can get done, but make sure they are done thoughtfully and ensure the right strategies are in place.

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