Thames Estuary Airport proposed by Boris Johnson

A pilot's landing view of the Thames Estuary Airport. The sun is coming out and he can see the lido where he will relax before his next flight.

A pilot's landing view of the Thames Estuary Airport. The sun is coming out and he can see the lido where he will relax before his next flight.

Boris Johnson has proposed a new Airport in the Thames Estuary. It is a great idea but it needs to be much more than an airport plonked  in the Thames estuary if it is to get built. It should be a sublime feature in the landscape which also forms a new Thames crossing, a downstream flood barrier to protect Europe’s largest and richest city in the coming era of rising sea levels, a great lido facility and a wildlife habitat creation project. This is the proposal from Eleanor Atkinson, a MA Landscape Architecture graduate from the University of Greenwich – see her Thames Estuary Airport website for further details.

A friend’s father criticised the first proposal for an airport Maplin in the Thames Estuary: BROMHEAD, PETER The Great White Elephant of Maplin Sands – -the neglect of comprehensive transport planning in government decision-making Paul Elek, London, 1973. His case was well argued but, I believe, Eleanor’s proposal would overcome his objections. She has designed a Great White Swan instead of a tawdry white elephant. Her airport plan is comprehensive  and fits very well with the Channel Tunnel Railway and the Thames Gateway Development, both launched since Bromhead’s 1973 book.  Above all, her ‘ Swan Plan’ for an Estuary Airport is landscape architecture led. This gives it the best possible chance of overcoming the muddy waves of objections which greet any large development proposal in England.

The lower Thames Estuary can have a glittering splendour when the sun shines but it is NOT the most beautiful part of Britain. And when the new airport is built it will cure West London of the terrible curse of airport noise – and release a fabulously valuable development site. An intelligent approach to context-sensitive landscape design is the royal road to voter-support in England. I am pleased to report that the design has been sent to the Mayor of London’s office and they have passed the design concept to their consultants. A decision is expected.

NOTE: if you would like to see more of this proposal, and other excellent landscape architecture projects for London, they will be on Exhibition at the Menier Street Gallery near London Bridge 53 Southwark Street London SE1 1RU 10am-5pm from 22-26 June 2009.

Plan of the Thames Estuary 'Boris Johnson' Airport, showing the river crossing, flood barrier and habitat creation areas

Plan of the Thames Estuary 'Boris Johnson' Airport, showing the river crossing, flood barrier and habitat creation areas

25 thoughts on “Thames Estuary Airport proposed by Boris Johnson

  1. Advisor

    You will have to kill all the birds for airport and aircraft safety; not to mention all the environmental impacts.

  2. Christine

    Although, the concept of a sea airpost proposed by Boris is an appealing one I agree with both comments above.

    Eleanor Atkinson’s concept is superior in that its visual impact on the Thames mouth is more sympathetic to the existing landscape. I must say I was pleasantly surprised to find such a wonderfully low key, lovingly neglected, naturally evocative area still exists so close to London. It is always a shame to both find and lose something so precious in the same moment.

    Not withstanding the above comments, as an architect, I would also prefer to work with Eleanor’s beautifully presented and explained masterplan.

    If I could have everything, I would probably wish for another location for Eleanor’s scheme to avoid or mitigate the environmental impacts mentioned above and to maintain the ‘underdeveloped’ natural qualities of the Thames mouth. From Eleanor’s description;


    date of visit: 08-02-09, 2.30pm. dry, sunny spells, 3deg.C, windy
    sea character: calm, still, low tide, tranquil, grey
    land character: still, exposed, open, flat, luscious
    shore character: coarse, still, expansive
    activity: 3 x dog walkers, 1 photographer, me & Carl

    sounds: whistling wind, silence
    occasional seagull cries and crunching shingle

    feeling of exposure to sea as walking along shore,
    360 deg views are open and unsheltered

  3. Tom Turner Post author

    (1) One could decide that London’s airport capacity should not be expanded, or should be reduced, but I do not see this as a question to which any of the built environment professions can contribute much.
    (2)Wherever airport expansion takes place, there are certain to be adverse environmental impacts, and problems with birds.

    So, for me, the question to answer is ‘IF airport capacity is to be increased, where should the provision be made?’ And given the problems with expansion of Heathrow or Stanstead or Gatwick, I find the Thames Estuary Airport the ‘least bad’ solution. Then, if we can have the other benefits provided by Eleanor’s design, it can move into the realm of a solution with a positive cost-benefit ratio.

  4. stefan

    is the thames estuary an especially valuable habitat for wild fowl? ( i dont know but had the feeling it was). if so, i guess this could be one of the biggest objections to moving the airport. having said that this is a wonderful blend of landscape and architecture, and lets hope the project gets some decent publicity.

  5. Tom Turner Post author

    I believe the first comment on this post relates to the danger of what is called a ‘bird attack’ or ‘bird strike’ on an aircraft – but is in fact the problem of the damage caused to both the aircraft when and the birds when there is a collision. The implication that birds are attacking aircraft is most unfair but seagulls and waterfowl cause problems. They are large birds but they are most likely to concentrate where organic food is plentiful. I do not know how this relates to coastal airports but it is significant that the Dutch are also wondering about the construction of an offshore airport: – which is not as mult-functional or as well designed as the Thames Estuary Airport illustrated here.

  6. Christine

    Great to see both an ambitious and creative proposal being put forward and robust debate on the issues it raises!

    I am not familiar with the area, however a quick google search identified a few issues which may or may not be relevant:

    1. Perhaps someone with a better idea of the geography of the area could locate this 2008 wetlands proposal in relation to the proposed Estuary airport? []

    2. I haven’t read the proposal in full but the the mix of shipping and planes is sure to be an issue? []

    3. If the estuary is expected to experience greater tidal surges due to an increased incidence of gales and hurricanes because of global warming, would this increase safety risks to aircraft? []

  7. Christine

    ps. Is this a good map representation of the site? []

  8. eleanor atkinson

    Thank you so much for all your interest and comments.
    The project started off as a proposal for an airport in response to Boris’ plans, but it evolved into far more.

    I will try to answer your points, and all are very valid ones that I haven’t necessarily found all the answers for, but will try!

    1: the birds
    I have not solved this. You are right, it is an important habitat for waders.
    I have looked at situations such as in Gaza, which is a major migratory route for birds, and also has one of the densest concentrations of low flying military aircraft (
    The military uses infrared as well as flight mapping of the migration patterns to avoid collisions.

    2: the location
    the location within the thames Estuary is imperative to the scheme, as the project evolved into more than just an airport.
    a-The project addresses the need for infrastructural links between Kent and Essex, the need for a tidal surge barrier to prevent impact of sea level rise on both the habitats of the Estuary and most importantly London.
    b-Without some form of defense, we are likely to loose the protected mudfalts and salt marshes
    c-Location of Thames Island is located within one of the shallower parts of the Estuary, where sea bed is just 2 to 4m below lowest astro. tide. This will reduce amount of landfill required. This is one of the reasons Oakervee has supported the Thames as a potential location.
    d-also dont forget the pollution and noise that would be relocated from a highly populated area of the city.

    3: Character of estuary
    I agree that the character of the Estuary would change hugely if we were to have an airport here. But that shouldn’t be a reason not to develop. Perhaps it will open up the area to millions, who can enjoy it. It also begs the question of national identity. What added value does Heathrow give to your arrival in the UK? It would be far more exciting to land at Thames Island and catch a high speed water taxi to London!

    3: shipping
    I have spoken with Arups airport planners, who identified the shipping port as a positive benefit to an airport. I believe they use a similar process at the Chep Lak Kok airport. The shipping port is also to be used when the surge barriers are up, and the ships are unable to travel through.

    the 2008 wetlands proposal sounds fantastic, I hope it happens. I assume it is somewhere west of where the Thames Estuary Airport is, but wouldn’t it be great if it were linked? Tom, can you convince them??

    I hope I have answered all your questions.

  9. Advisor

    Evidently I did not make myself clear enough.

    Eleanor Atkinson, “1: the birds I have not solved this.”

    It is the FAA’s mandate to cull (kill) birds, since they are a significant aircraft safety hazard. Ask any pilot, generally, birds are their main safety concern, especially on landings and takeoffs (near the airport).

    The governments and industry have not been able to solve this one either…

    You might want to check with the governing body for aviation to see what its thoughts are on this: if it is like anywhere else in the world, they will state that estuaries – garbage dumps – and airports are not compatible.

  10. Christine

    See also Eleanor Atkinson: “2d: the pollution and the noise would be relocated from a highly populated area of the city” – which is an admirable goal….but will the estuary benefit or lose from this addition to its character? Can you still achieve 3: with a slightly different location perhaps?

  11. Advisor

    Comment by Christine — June 27, 2009 @ 6:06 am “Can you still achieve 3: with a slightly different location perhaps?”

    The area of air contamination from a small one runway airport is six miles around and 20 miles downwind.

    Chicago O’Hare airport presents what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems unacceptable cancer risks for as much as 32 miles from the airport.

    Then there are significant water pollution issues that are not common with normal urban areas.

    Note: Cancer is only one of the dozens of airport-poisoning diseases (and not even the worst airport-poisoning public health issues).

  12. Christine

    Advisor – I am sure Eleanor would appreciate your elaboration on the “significant water pollution issues” and other “airport-poisoning diseases.”

  13. Tom Turner Post author

    Advisor, you seem to be arguing against airports and air transport. Personally, I agree with this to the extent that I think air travel should be used for business rather than for leisure. But this is not a question which the built environment professions are capable of dealing with. I see the Thames Estuary Airport proposal as a response to ‘IF London’s airport capacity is to increase, HOW should this be done?’

  14. Advisor

    Comment by Tom Turner — June 28, 2009 @ 6:06 am “Advisor, you seem to be arguing against airports and air transport.”

    Actually, I am just presenting the facts, which are usually hidden by the members of ICAO.

  15. Christine

    Every so often at uni you learn a gem that says with you for life. One of those gems was the definition of a ‘weed’;

    A weed is just the wrong plant in the wrong place.

    Plant the weed in the right place and it becomes a plant again.

    Another important lesson was on process rather than definition;

    It goes something like this – the problems that you encounter while designing are often the source of your greatest creative advances. Blessings in disguise you might say.

  16. Friends of the North Kent Marshes

    We are wholly opposed to the construction of an airport anywhere in the Thames Estuary because of the immense damage it would cause to the area’s internationally important wildlife and the wider environment.

    The issue was exhaustively investigated between 2002 and 2005 in the Government’s Aviation White Paper. All the key players, including the aviation industry, contributed. An airport in the Thames Estuary was conclusively ruled out and this decision upheld by the High Court. In addition to the unprecedented environmental damage and the resulting massive legal implications, the investigation found that an estuary airport did not make sense economically, would not meet the requirements of the aviation industry and presented a significantly higher risk of ‘birdstrike’ than at any other major airport in the UK.

    For your information the Environment Agency TE 2100 consultation, looking at flood risk management within the Thames estuary over the next 100 years, has totally discounted any kind of outer estuary barrage over the next 100 years.

  17. Tom Turner Post author

    I am confident that it is possible to make an ‘overwhelming case’ against any aiport expansion – just as I am confident that it is possible to make an ‘overwhelming case’ for airport expansion somewhere . The landscape architect’s job is only to answer the question IF an airport is to be made in a certain location THEN how can it be done in the best possible way.

  18. Karina

    I find it astonishing that anybody could be so ignorant as to suggest that the Thames Estuary is a good site for developing a new airport. The area is an important biodiversity zone and ownership of land has recently transfered from the MOD to the RSPB to secure the further “development” of the Rainham Marshes Reserve to protect our indigenous and migratory wildlife. The migratory corridor on both sides of the Thames Estuary is crucial to the survival of many wading and fishing birds; not to mention the negative effect any development would have on fish, vegetation and invertebrate populations in the area.

    I refer the Landscape Architects to an area of study which I’m sure they must have undertaken at least at postgraduate level – Landscape Ecology – to further investigate the effects that their ideas would have on the biodiversity of this region.

    On another note, to suggest that you should move aircraft noise from central London (where I live) to a less populated area is merely expanding the high decibel zone of London. In central London we barely hear the noise of aeroplanes over the traffic, sirens, etc. In rural regions such as the Thames Estuary, there at least remains a preserve where bats can (hopefully) echolocate, birds can mate as they can hear each other singing and our other fauna can thrive. For this to be destroyed by a new airport would be a travesty.

  19. Tom Turner Post author

    Karina: I know of no landscape architects who are arguing FOR an airport in the Thames Estuary. One day, society may have the good sense to seek landscape advice on airport location. At present, the involvement of the landscape profession is conditional. I, for example, believe that IF an airport is to be built in the Thames Estuary THEN it should be done in the most environmentally sensitive way possible.

  20. John

    Putting a barrier lower down the estuary than Tilbury will completely alter the ecosystem of the region. I can’t see it happening. Why would anyone want to fly into an airport out there anyway?

  21. Tom Turner Post author

    The idea worked in Hong Kong and the engineer who designed it believes it would work in the Thames. Not being an airport planner, I wouldn’t know – but IF it is to be done THEN it should be done well.


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