Thames Gateway Parklands

A landscape framework which uses green space as the defining idea for the Gateway.

The river, its estuary and vast horizons towering over marshland define the Gateway region.

Over the last hundred years, heavy industry has colonised much of this natural setting, changing perceptions and linking the area with power stations, gasworks, oil storage depots, ports and electricity pylons.

Today, with industry in the region a shadow of its former self, development and change are providing a huge opportunity to transform the area, this time in tune with the landscape and its heritage.

This approach has been pioneered to great effect at Emscher Park in the Ruhr, the former industrial heartland of Western Germany, where the concept of a "landscape park" has been used to drive regeneration.

Ecology and environmental restoration is the organising principle behind the regional park network which is at the heart of the Ruhr, renaturalising the Emscher River, bringing its banks back into use and integrating agriculture and grazing with industrial buildings.

Instead of demolishing the gasworks and chimneys, they have been treated as iconic landmarks providing exciting locations for art, culture, leisure and living space. So now concerts are given in former steel plants, and the twelve-storey Oberhausen gasometer is used for cultural events. Another gasworks is a diving school. And what was once a coalmine, coking plant and foundry is a leisure destination with hiking trails and climbing walls.

'We try to find a new way of development,' explains Michael Schwarze-Rodrian, from ProjektRuhr, an expert in the transformation of industrial landscapes who has considered the links between regeneration in the Ruhr and the future of the Gateway.

The environment is a key driver for both CABE’s identity work in the Gateway and the Interim Plan from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), and will lead the "new way of development" in the Gateway. Here, though, the emphasis is less on the heavy industrial heritage than in the Ruhr, and more on cultural and ecological history.

The former Ministry of Defence site at Rainham Marshes, for instance, blends the military heritage of the area with a nationally important wildlife reserve, creating a unique haven for birds of prey in the shadow of former firing ranges.

The concept of a "landscape framework" - now known as the Thames Gateway Parklands - is strongly supported by CABE. It means planning through landscape rather than political or man-made boundary.

Using green space as the defining idea for the Gateway is not new, of course: the value of the Gateway's natural landscape has been recognised for years, featuring in local and regional policy thinking ranging from green grids to area investment frameworks. It lies behind the Thames Path City to Sea, and the Thames and Medway/Swale Estuary management plans, and RSPB natural heritage projects. DCLG has promoted strategies including the Greening the Gateway.

Architect Terry Farrell has for several years promoted the designation of the Thames Gateway as a new type of National Park. This has started to change perceptions about the area, building more strongly on the positive elements of landscape character and identity within the Gateway, and raising aspirations for what the region could become.

'We need to make the landscape the first element of infrastructure,' Farrell says. 'This is not the era of new towns and housing estates, it's the era of the public realm. We need to look at space - the spaces between the places, the forests and the buildings.'

CABE has been exploring, with the landscape architecture practice LDA Design, practical ways by which the region’s landscape and natural heritage can be protected and enhanced at the same time as accommodating development, generating high quality employment and restraining climate change. The idea of a National Park has triggered the imagination of what could be possible, but CABE believes this is a working landscape, embracing settlements and industries, rather than a National Park in the sense that the Lake District is a National Park.

The importance of a landscape framework means that rather than having a park as part of development in the Gateway, landscape considerations can be at the forefront of the development process.

This approach to regeneration is crucial in a region susceptible to the impact of climate change because so much of it is on the flood plain. It will for instance designate land for flood mitigation and storage, to protect people and buildings.

The aspiration for the Gateway is that it will not only be a low carbon area, but could in time be a net producer of energy. It can be used to grow more local food, with a growing doorstep market as London tries to cut its food miles to become a more sustainable city. It can integrate management of water quality and supply. It can manage waste. It can encourage a new model for living, with opportunities for partial self-sufficiency.

Can such a Parklands concept work? It has elsewhere, and we believe the Gateway is the perfect place to pioneer it in England. Now it needs a promise of quality from the top, and a team to develop the idea and committed partnerships. It needs a robust governance structure, community engagement, and resources.

The Thames Gateway Parklands needs to be something everyone is talking about.