The Landscape Guide

17.3 London Greenways 1943

Contents list

This plan was published in two documents (London County Council, 1943, 1944), both guided by Patrick Abercrombie, an architect, town planner and landscape architect. His plans were distinguished by their wide geographical scope (a 50 km radius) and by the author's broad professional interests. They carried forward the 1929 ideas and introduced a visionary proposal for creating an immense network of greenways to interlink open spaces in central areas with those on the periphery of Greater London (Figure 173). His objective was to make it possible for:

...the town dweller to get from doorstep to open country through an easy flow of open space from garden to park, from park to parkway, from parkway to green wedge and from green wedge to Green Belt... A great advantage of the linking parkway is that it extends the radius of influence of the larger open spaces and brings the latter into more intimate relationship with the surrounding areas.

Abercrombie's conception was described as a park system, not a greenway system. It was a heroic idea, which I believe will continue to influence open space planning for as long as London survives as a recognizable entity. The City of London and the 32 London Borough Municipal Authorities rarely mention Abercrombie in their Unitary Development Plans - but the deep logic of his plan compels them to proceed with the task of providing green links between public open spaces. London has new greenways every year.

Abercrombie gave special attention to the Thames riverside, declaring that 'The River Thames is the largest single open space in the County' (p.46) and 'every riverside community should have access to the river' (p47) and devoting a full chapter of his report to the topic. Chapter 11 dealt with The River Front and the South Bank AreaIt states that the Thames:

  • presents unequalled opportunities for public enjoyment, civic splendour and residential amenity
  • in East London, 'at few points only is the river front accessible to the public'
  • the proportion of riverbank used for non-industrial purposes should be increased from 27% to 51%, and the proportion used for public open space should rise from 9% to 30%
  • the long-germ goal (p.128) is that 'on the east, a green strip would suplant the narrow stretches of warehouses which occupy sites of uneconomic depth' so that 'the new open space would link up the existing parks and provide a continuous treed riverside walk from the Tower to King Edward VII Park'.

These proposals are shown are the excerpt from Abercrombie's riverfront plan.

Between 1943 and 2005 the decline in industrial and warehouse-wharf use of the riverside was far greater than Amercrombie conceived possible. By 2005 it was closer to 4.9% of the riverfront than the 49% he imagined. However:

  • most of the riverfront from 'the Tower to King Edward VII Park' remained inaccessible to the public, because the wharfs and warehouses were simply converted to residential use
  • the only new section of with a substantial 'treed riverside walk' was on the South Bank
  • in most places the new riverside walk was narrow and dramatic but unplanted
  • in many places (eg the Isle of Dogs) the banality of the waterfront landscape design is beyond belief

A public inquiry would help uncover who is responsible for the appalling quality of the landscape design. The possibilities are as follows:

  • the developers, who own much of the waterfront land, were miserly
  • the architects were incompetent at landscape design
  • the planners did not perform their duty in securing the provision of public goods
  • the elected councilors who cared more about maximising local taxation than about design quality
  • the Port of London Authority waved a dead hand over the designers' imagination

I seriously doubt if there is a first year landscape architecture student in the whole of Europe capable of such banal, ugly and badly detailed work. The public response has been to leave this magnificent planning achievement (a new riverside walk) almost unused. So what should be done?

  • apologise
  • allocate a budget
  • hold a series of design competitions
  • introduce new uses to the waterfront (moorings, launch points, pubs, restaurants, wildlife habitats, barbecue facilities, ping-pong-tables, beach steps, sandy beaches)

17.3 Abercrombie's 1944 Open Space Plan for Greater London

Near Canary Wharf

Looking to Greenwich

Looking towards Canary Wharf

By West Ferry Circus

Opposite the Dome

The South Bank was an area of 'semi-derelict' wharfage in 1943 and Abercrombie proposed the 'wide esplanade' which has been created.

Long sections of Thames riverside walk have been planned without tree planting (west of Tower Bridge on the south bank of the river)

The City section of the Thames walkway is often ingenious, interesting - and privately owned.