We spend up to 90% of our lives inside buildings. But parks, woodlands, gardens, rivers, and canals which stitch our neighbourhoods together play an important role. They are places to relax, play and exercise, and spending time outdoors helps to increase social interaction and support a sense of community. Since the start of the pandemic people of all ages now spend more time outdoors – and the public realm has taken on a new significance in community life. As we look towards a post-pandemic future, this case study explores Thamesmead, the lessons we can learn from how communities have used outside spaces during lockdown and how landscape-led placemaking prioritises and strengthens community.
Thamesmead: a place full of natural potential
Thamesmead is a 1960s estate which straddles the border between the RB Greenwich and the LB Bexley. It covers more than 760 hectares (which is the same size as central London) and is home to 40,000 residents. Green and blue spaces make up around 40% of the site. This provides “around twice as much space per head as is typical in London” (Lord Kerslake, 12 Nov 2020).
Thamesmead’s green spaces are a patchwork of parks, grazing marsh and nature reserves. Its blue spaces are a network of five lakes and seven kilometres of canals, which crisscross their way through the site.
Despite this natural bounty, only 20% of Thamesmead residents currently use the green spaces once a week or more. But this is set to change: estate owner Peabody has recently published a bold landscape-led framework (November 2020). This vision places blue and green infrastructure at the heart of Thamesmead’s future.
“Landscape prioritises and strengthens community”
Living in the Landscape, Peabody (2020)
Peabody’s ‘Living in the Landscape’ framework aims to transform Thamesmead by 2050, by creating a 10-kilometre new canal walk, 700 metres of new canals, three new parks, and one new beach. New and existing parks, gardens, canals and lakes will ensure life is better for all – especially the most vulnerable. This vision is a long-term one but, pre-pandemic, initial landscape-led changes were already shaping the way the community came together.
Many of these initial changes encouraged local communities to take greater ownership of their green and blue spaces. And encouraging residents to actively engage starts at a young age: Tump 53 (a Victorian-era ammunition storage facility which has since become a haven for wildlife) now regularly hosts local school visits.
These visits are designed to connect the next generation of custodians with Thamesmead’s unique landscape. The ambition is that “children will grow up…spending time outside, enjoying more active and sociable lives” (pg 45, Living in the Landscape, Peabody, 2020)
Other landscape-led placemaking measures which prioritises and strengthens community include the distinctive fences with integrated planters.
The striking design of these fences helps create a distinct sense of place for this area. Importantly, these fences were co-designed by the community and architect Jan Kattein: residents were involved in the design, the colour scheme and helped develop the idea of integrated community planters. This approach has the benefit of extending resident gardens beyond physical property boundaries, encouraging the community to spend time in their shared public realm.
Community wellbeing and Covid-19
Dr Phil Askew, Director of Landscape and Placemaking at Peabody, noticed an increased use of Thamesmead’s green and blue spaces throughout lockdown. This has highlighted just how vital a landscape-led approach is, especially when it comes to combatting loneliness. Green and blue spaces have helped to enhance community wellbeing in several different ways during the last eight months, providing safe spaces to socialise, offering a change of scene and boosting sociable behaviour.
“Green space has been a godsend for us – my son is vulnerable but [outside] you can keep your distance and still enjoy the greenery and see the neighbours… and friendships are built”
Lianne, Thamesmead resident
A safe space to socialise
As shared indoor spaces have become more difficult to navigate, outdoor spaces have become increasingly important social spaces for many people.
Green space offers an opportunity to bump into neighbours and make small, incidental connections – from a distance. In fact, when interviewing Thamesmead resident Lianne (left) she waved at and said a brief ‘hello’ to at least three different neighbours.
A change of scene – when travel is not an option
This year, an area which is typically grassland has seen an explosion of colour: Peabody’s landscape team planted a whole field of sunflowers. Over the summer, when travel was limited, the sunflower field provided a much-needed change of scene.
It’s been very popular with the bee community too! The sunflower field shows that low cost is not low impact.
A boost to social behaviour
Spending time in nature can boost social behaviours, such as generosity, helpfulness and cooperation. And spending more time in local green spaces during the first lockdown activated a group of local residents to create a new group called ‘Tidy South Thamesmead’. Since July 2020, the group have been meeting regularly for socially distanced litter picks.
Lessons from lockdown
Spending time outside has long been associated with a reduction in stress and increased social behaviour. It’s also estimated to save the NHS £952 million per year. Phil Askew thinks that the pandemic has highlighted these benefits in a very tangible way:
“I think Covid-19 has super-charged what we knew before in relation to health and wellbeing. We have seen a real appetite for greenspace, whereas perhaps that was not so obvious before.”
Dr Phil Askew, Director Landscape and Placemaking, Peabody
In the shorter term there are several key lessons we can learn from how Thamesmead residents experienced lockdown:
- Invest in capacity and infrastructure to ensure legacy
Community initiatives, such as litter picking, bring people together and help to immediately improve the public realm. However, enthusiasm for local initiatives may fluctuate when circumstances change and life goes back to ‘normal’ post-pandemic. Investing in structures which support bottom-up community initiatives (such as training, or the bespoke Jan Kattein planters) can help guard against this.
- Design for diversity
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of green space – but it has also shown that access is not equal for all. Thamesmead’s Living in the Landscape strategy recognises this, and sets out a strategy for improving access. For example, for anglers who are wheelchair users to access the lake.
- Expand the definition of ‘community’
Human communities are just one group who benefit from green and blue spaces. Communities of plants, animals and insects also share these spaces. The sunflower field in Thamesmead illustrates that net gains in biodiversity can be beneficial for all.
And, in the longer term, the pandemic has highlighted to Peabody just how vital a landscape-led placemaking framework that prioritises and strengthens community will be to tackling the challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, and physical and mental wellbeing.
This case studies is part of FoL’s People, Place and Community project. You can also catch-up on our Places, Spaces and Sociality webinar, which debated how architecture, planning and urban design can inspire social connection within our cities here