The Bankside Urban Forest

Questioning common design on “safe” neighbourhoods

The regeneration of London’s Bankside quarter, most famous for the Tate Modern, is being accompanied by a public space strategy with an ecological approach.The Bankside Urban Forest is a proposal for a wholly new concept of urban green space networks and linkages.

This scheme for the London Bankside urban renewal has grown out of a strong sense that local residents perceive the area described in the scheme as being “calm”,“safe”, and enjoying a strong sense of local identity already. It is not the case, however, that labyrinthine means dangerous, as local residents confirm. Conventional public space strategies are often informed by safety concerns which suggest that large open spaces and long straight vistas must invariably feel safer. Yet many people find large, hard-surfaced landscapes threatening by their sheer lack of incident and anonymity. Local residents around Bankside find no contradiction between describing the area as feeling safe, along with praising the irregular network of streets and back doubles. What they do fear, however, is the “Manhattanisation” of Bankside north of Southwark Street, and the forest concept is one which it is intended will weave human scale and engaging pathways and networks linking old and new Bankside together. Local residents interviewed for this study have confirmed the importance to them of the distinctive irregular street patterns of the area, together with the many courtyards, railway arches, viaducts, bridges and alleyways. Thus, there were great strengths in respecting the existing labyrinthine set of streets and settlements, which inspired the idea of the Bankside forest.

Bankside Urban Forest plan Bankside is a densely populated and historic quarter on the southern bank of the River Thames in London.The area is being regenerated, with about 50 projects currently under consideration. Several illustrative projects (dark green) have been proposed to help bind the public space network together.

This proposal imagines the Bankside public realm strategy as an urban forest rather than a park. There is an important difference. The term park originates with the Latin parricus or French parc, both meaning enclosure. The early English deer-parks were royal hunting grounds and strictly policed, for instance, whereas the forest has always been regarded as a place of liberty and without distinct boundaries.
Over time, “forest space” has acquired a set of architectural and topographical associations with a sense of open-endedness and permeability, a place that can be entered or exited at any point at its edges, and which visually changes and re-configures itself as the traveller moves through it. Because of their organic origins, forests offer a multiplicity of paths, routes, changes of direction, as well as clearings, copses, streams, rides and allées. “A person should be able to walk through a forest on the way from home to work,” the architect Alvar Aalto once said.

“If forests appear in our religions as places of profanity, they also appear as sacred. If they have typically been considered places of lawlessness, they have also provided havens for those who took up the cause of justice and fought the law’s corruption. If they evoke associations of danger and abandon in our minds, they also evoke scenes of enchantment. In other words, in the religions,mythologies an literatures of the West, the forest appears as a place where the logic of distinction goes astray.”

Thus, there were great strengths in respecting the existing labyrinthine set of streets and settlements, which inspired the idea of the Bankside forest.

Though the forest idea introduces elements now associated with “greening the city”, and largely determined by ecological imperatives – to counter CO2 emissions, to lower ambient temperatures, to increase surface water retention and avoid flooding – there are equally important social and economic imperatives in the forest strategy too.

Bankside Urban Forest perspective trunks

The intensification of existing public spaces allows for a hybrid of new urban forms. In Flat Iron Square, the existing café could be turned into a woodland hut built around the trunks of the mature plane trees.

In addition to strengthening the historical jigsaw of spaces and places, the forest concept also introduces a slowing down of time, based on the experience of irregular pathways and frequent and engaging visual incident. Urbanists have for some time now been drawing attention to the “overscripting”of public space in many urban regeneration schemes, so that all conflicts and loose ends are designed out, and the public are organised into patterns of use and timetables decided elsewhere. This disallows for that sense of wandering and of discovering a neighbourhood by serendipity. The very qualities for which we admire historic European towns and cities.

Bankside Urban Forest section
Bankside Urban Forest perspective spider

Client: local stakeholders led by Better Bankside BID Company, including the
London Borough of Southwark,Tate Modern,Transport for London, Cross River
Partnership, Land Securities, GC Bankside LLP, the Architecture Foundation
Architects: Witherford Watson Mann, London, with Ken Worpole
Area: 1.7 square kilometres

Witherford Watson Mann were one of eleven competitors in an invited
competition.The framework was completed in March 2007, and launched
in September 2007.

London Bankside Urban Forest (pdf)

(link) bd on Bankside Urban Park by Witherford Watson Mann


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