Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A 1970 film celebrates the construction of Thamesmead, the largest housing project development in the city’s history.
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It’s hard to resist the ringing sense of optimism in this 1970 film charting the construction of London’s largest ever single housing project, Thamesmead. A 1,000-acre site on a part-derelict, part-marshy brownfield plot on the banks of the River Thames, Thamesmead was the kind of opportunity planners dream of. Moving on from the grimy row housing, rumbling traffic, and often treeless bleakness of London’s existing inner city, Thamesmead would provide decent, well-proportioned state housing for a working class population—one initially hoped to reach 100,000—enjoying the benefits of Britain’s post-war upward mobility.
When the film, created by the Greater London Council, came out, the paint was barely dry on many of Thamesmead’s gleaming towers and stepped housing terraces, and the whole place must have seemed fresh and new. Accordingly, the narrator talks with confidence of the bright idea to separate Thamesmead’s pedestrians from its vehicles and—in the days before state-built high-rises were stigmatized as the last resort of the desperate—new tenants “lucky enough to live at the top of the block.”
There’s a poignancy to the optimism, given Thamesmead’s subsequent ups-and-downs. The area never quite became the gleaming international role model it sought to be. Its aesthetic of concrete towers and long rows of stepped, balconied condos may have been futuristic at the time, but wasn’t universally loved even when it was sparkling new.
That celebrated separation of cars and people created an inefficient zigzag labyrinth of walkways whose design seemed almost intended to reduce the number of “eyes on the street,” promoting a feeling of insecurity among users. By attempting to draw a line between Thamesmead and the grubby, smoky world of older London, its planners did little to join it to its surrounding districts. A railway ran between the new quarter and its southern neighbor, while the project itself remained something of a backwater, ill-provided with shops.
That striking modernist aesthetic gave Thamesmead both fame and notoriety. Chosen as a key setting for Kubrick’s film version of A Clockwork Orange—a film withdrawn in Britain after fears of copycat violence—the area came to be identified with the perceived callousness of modern life, less a place of escape from London’s grime than a place of exile.
An example of state planning gone wrong, then? Not exclusively. Much of the area was further developed in the early 2000s by private developers hoping to attract wealthier professionals. The attempts failed, leaving the speculatively built housing under-occupied and associated with home loan fraud—and often in worse condition than its state-built counterparts. If the area’s immediate post-millennial history showed anything, it’s that contemporary planning culture was better at critiquing Modernism than providing a successful alternative.
That sense of optimism present in the 1970 film isn’t entirely gone. Now a diverse area in which Afro-Caribbean residents narrowly form the largest group, if not an overall majority, within its current 50,000 residents, Thamesmead matches still poor transit links with a peaceful end-of-the-line feel. That could soon change.
London’s Crossrail—a new east-west heavy rail link—arrives on its southern edge next year, and plans by current social housing provider Peabody Trust are seeing the place revamped to make wayfinding easier and public spaces more usable. Go for a walk along the tree-lined river banks here—at their widest breadth in all London—and it’s not hard to see why the area and setting so caught planners’ imagination, and why it could indeed be a good place to live.