The Landscape Guide

4.9 Planning a new town on a marsh

Contents list

As towns often develop beside water, and the margins of water are often marshy, urbanization of marshland is common the world over. Normally, the interests of the town have been placed above those of the marsh, which is only sometimes the best policy. The following examples are of marshland development beside the River Thames in London.

In the 1870s, Battersea had one of the few surviving marshy areas in Central London (Chadwick, 1966). It was thought to be unhealthy, because of the bad odours that emanated from the marsh, to be unsightly, because it was neither neat nor tidy, and to be socially undesirable, because licentious public fairs took place, with singing and dancing. To the Victorians, it was a very unplace. Excavated material was brought in and the land "reclaimed' for Battersea Park and for housing. It remains a good example of the shortcomings of survey-based, problem-solving design. For what was "the problem' at Battersea? To "reclaim the marshlands', to "improve an unsightly view', to "discourage licentious behaviour', to "improve the value of the surrounding houses', to "dispose of the excavated material from the dock excavations', or to "create a recreational facility'?

Should one seek to make a case for tipping spoil on wetlands, one would survey "noxious odours', "bad drainage', and dead dogs. Should one wish to make an opposite case, for retaining wetlands, one would make detailed surveys of fauna and flora, as environmental impact assessors do. Survey work is always selective, and is always carried out for a particular purpose. The only full "survey' is the site itself. At Battersea, after surveying all the un features, the marsh was made into a public park. The social pattern behind the park design was that of dressing up on a Sunday afternoon to look at the flowers and listen to brass bands The aesthetic pattern was the Serpentine Style.

Between 1870 and 1940 many other Thamesside marshes were developed for manufacturing industry. As at Battersea, no surveys of fauna or flora were conducted. Instead, surveyors concentrated on drainage conditions and foundation conditions. Both were judged to be "bad'. The Ford Motor Company's plant at Dagenham is a good example. Almost all the land was hard-surfaced, and the sole layout objective was to create an efficient circulation pattern for motor vehicle manufacture (see note on Modernist, or Fordist, design). The patterns on which the layout was based were those of circulation and drainage.

From the 1950s onwards, other marshes beside the River Thames were developed for residential use. Thamesmead South was developed in the 1960s and 70s. Looked at retrospectively, it is evident that the planners used a combination of the Battersea and Dagenham approaches. Little or no effort was made to understand the natural patterns of the ecosystem. The dominant social pattern was that of vehicular circulation. The dominant aesthetic pattern, so far as there was one, was that of the Serpentine Style. The result was semi-Corbusian. Tower blocks and slab blocks rose from shaven grass mounds interspersed with trees (Figure 4.8). Similar developments could be found in Sweden, Spain, America, Taiwan and most other countries. This is because the development patterns did not come from the local site or the local people.

Thamesmead North shows the beginnings of a new spirit (Figure 4.9). A decade of environmental protest, supported by new educational courses in ecology, led to a serious interest in the patterns of the natural environment. Because of soft foundation conditions, low-rise houses were used instead of high-rise blocks. Drainage water was collected in canals and ponds instead of underground pipes. Where possible, marshland vegetation was used instead of mown grass and exotic shrubs. The natural patterns of the site were brought to the surface, and the result differs from Sweden, Spain, America or Taiwan. Aesthetically, the dominant pattern is that of the Picturesque Style of garden design, as used in England between 1800 and 1820.

On the north bank of the River Thames, in East London, is a great expanse of semi-derelict, semi-industrialized, semi-marshland, which was proposed as the site for a London garden festival (Turner, 1987). Amongst other things, it had been polluted by a sewage works and a coal-burning gas works. The illustrations were made as glazed clay tiles to dramatise their status as patterns.

  • Figure 10 shows the existing site as it might be shown on a survey map.
  • Figure 11 shows this as a diagrammatic primary pattern, with some artefacts included, because man is part of nature.
  • Figure 12 shows a butterfly. It is an aesthetic pattern, which, as a metaphor for metamorphosis, is the idea that begat the design.
  • Figure 13 shows a social pattern, for vehicular and pedestrian circulation within a garden festival site.
  • Figure 14 shows the circulation pattern integrated with the aesthetic pattern
  • Figure 14 shows the integration of the natural pattern, the social pattern and the aesthetic pattern into a garden festival. It is as described as an archetype because it could be re-used
  • Figure 15 shows a metamorphosis of the garden festival into a special type of urban area (a New Town) with a marshy character and an ecological approach to stormwater and vegetation management (like McHarg's plan for Woodlands in Texas). The past, present and future of the marsh can be recounted as follows.

4.10 Site Survey: as it might be shown on a map

4.11 Natural (Primary) Pattern

4.12 Aesthetic (Secondary) Pattern

Fig 4.13 Social (Tertiary) Pattern - for circulation

Fig 4.14 Circulation Pattern adapted to Aesthetic Pattern

Fig 4.15 Archetypal (Quaternary) Pattern for a garden festival: some land in temporary layout and some in permanent layout

Fig 4.16 Metamorphosis Pattern. After temporay use as garden festival the site becomes a new town on the Woodlands model.