By Martha Isaacs
Since my arrival as an Intern at The Glass-House Community Led Design, I have heard the term ‘place’ constantly, with my colleagues referencing past projects in placemaking, preparing for discussions about how to improve the built environment, and speaking of the dynamic places in London that comprise a complex urban centre. Throughout these conversations, I have learned that place does not merely refer to the structural elements in a setting, but multi-layered facets such as the place’s social connections, resources available, and its diversity. Site visits to see to a handful of London neighbourhoods have allowed me to understand the unique difficulties that different places face, and the innovative techniques utilised by each to improve the lived experiences of residents.
As a part of the London Festival of Architecture, I attended a walking tour and discussion withShad Thames Area Management Partnership (STAMP) and was able to get an in-depth perspective of a specific London region, observing how its history, geographic location, and demographics contribute to its identity. Although I currently live in Southwark, the same borough as Shad Thames area, Shad Thames’ proximity to the river gives it an entirely different character to my residential street a few blocks south. Not only did the river historically define Shad Thames as a trading hub of the Port of London, it still encourages high pedestrian activity along the riverfront in modernity. Nevertheless, the event sought to educate participants about a more comprehensive picture of Shad Thames, shedding the iconic tourist exterior and unveiling more subtle details.
Led by a local resident, the tour started with visits to 19th century warehouses and breweries, such as Butler’s Wharf, which stored tea, rubber, sugar, spices and grain when Shad Thames reigned at the height of England’s financial dominance. As industry decreased in the 20th century, some wharves and old buildings were converted into artist’s spaces, slowly evolving Shad Thames into a creative space with galleries and studios. The transition between the old and the new was apparent in the Circle Apartment complex on Queen Elizabeth Street, as a dray horse statue, meant to echo the dray horses in old Shad Thames that would transport high-quality beer, stands at the middle of the roundabout.
The tour served to both celebrate Shad Thames’ rich history and critique aspects of its current conditions, ranging from the fact that the area’s 400 mismatching bollards reduce mobility to the lack of vitality in the mixed retail-apartment buildings in Tower Bridge Piazza. The discussion that followed the tour hoped to bring together design and planning professionals with community members to discuss these concerns, exploring methods to improve Shad Thames for those who call it home. Three main themes STAMP chose to examine included increasing animation and activity in the area, adding more greenery and public space, and improving walkability. Residents explained how the lack of full-time tenants in the area decreases the sense of community, and the foot traffic on the river does not trickle down to the silent streets farther back. I was amazed to hear how motivated they were to add benches or parks to the area, or perhaps organising festivals to bring people together.