Architectural diversity and community living are at the heart of The Bridge, a Thames Gateway development that banishes the idea of repetitive streets of identikit boxes.
The man from George Wimpey isn’t happy. Someone has attached pseudo-Victorian lamps to the outside of the first houses to be finished at The Bridge in Dartford, the first major mixed-use development completed in the Thames Gateway. In old-style Wimpey developments, no one would have batted an eyelid. Not so at The Bridge, designed by Broadway Malyan with Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway. Here, the offending lamps will swiftly be replaced with a light fitting more in keeping with the contemporary design of the development.
It’s a small detail but a telling one. With the help of its design team, George Wimpey is really trying to up the ante. The talk is all of sense of place, variety not uniformity, “homezones” that prioritise people rather than vehicles, public transport not cars, and above all, sustainability — not through the eco-bling of wind turbines and solar panels but by creating a mixed-use place people will want not only to live in but to cherish. With aspirations to lead the way in place-making in the vast empty acreage of the Thames Gateway, The Bridge is aiming high.
To create a sense of place in such a bleak environment, the design team has taken an introverted approach, playing up the site’s natural water features and mature trees, and breaking up the scale of the 1,134 units with distinct neighbourhoods. When complete, the development will consist of five districts divided by four “greenways” leading to a community hub of school, health, sports and retail facilities. Each neighbourhood is broken down into “homezone” clusters that give people priority over cars, and have “pocket parks” opening off back gardens to encourage social interaction.
Fitted out with barbecues and playful themes, the parks are one of the Hemingways’ many bright ideas. With the benefit of its experience at Wimpey’s Staiths South Bank development in Gateshead, Hemingway Design is passionate about the benefits of shared social space and offering a variety of styles. But that’s not all they’ve contributed — the pair have worked with the architect from the concept onwards, campaigning on issues from design quality to the positioning of radiators and power points.
“It’s been a blast working with Wayne and Gerardine,” says Broadway Malyan director Peter Vaughan. “They’re always on the case with new ideas, driving us forward.”
The Bridge project manager, George Wimpey’s David Rose, also jokes that anything at an angle is Wayne’s idea — the bold, raked balconies on the corner blocks of flats, the playful bird-box totem poles and the leaning bollards all have that telltale Hemingway look.
Phase one — the 235 homes in Bridge Heights — is now mainly complete. The neighbourhood demonstrates the design team’s approach of using different housing types — in this case, seven — within close proximity, each with further variations like different front door designs or fenestration. For example, a cluster may have a two-bed terraced house next to a three-storey townhouse, and cedar cladding next to render, or sandstone yellow brick next to zinc. “Every single unit will be different in one way or another, whether in layout, fenestration, materials,” says Rose. “It’s been a mammoth exercise for us as a developer. We’d love to do standard products but that’s not the philosophy for the site.”
While the hope is that residents will feel they have a property with its own identity, there are also pragmatic reasons behind this approach. “Repetition can work, say, on Georgian townhouses,” says Wayne Hemingway. “But we can’t have that quality of materials on the first-time buyers’ market. One of the reasons why a lot of mass housebuilding looks so soulless is that they’re doing that repetition using cheap materials.” Broadway Malyan’s Vaughan says the differences “give a magical personality to the place. It’s playful and personal, but there are controlling elements — it’s not chaos.”
Magical may be putting it a bit strong, but the variety is certainly pleasing, avoiding the usual numbing sameness of mass housing. Bridge Heights is formal in streetscape and dense in layout — at 60 units per hectare compared to 35 in the final phase eco-village — and with lots of energy-efficient terracing and apartment blocks on some corner plots. This contrasts with less dense, informal arrangements in some of the later phases — for example, the fourth will be rustic in feel, with more detached and semi-detached properties.
Achieving a Breeam Ecohomes “good” rating on a volume housebuilder’s budget has been quite tough, says Vaughan, and involved specifying high levels of insulation, energy-efficient lighting and white goods, and recycling facilities and amenities.
But what’s it like inside the houses? There are few surprises, either good or bad: no grand gestures or huge spaces, but then again no cramped entrance halls or meagre kitchens either. Lifetime Homes compliance means every house has a wide entrance hall and a downstairs toilet. Kitchens are generally open to the living space to reflect the trend away from a separate cooking area. A two-bed terraced house has reasonably sized bedrooms, while the four-bed townhouses have a generous top floor master bedroom. A useful novelty is the information screen in the hall which tells you precisely when the next bus out of The Bridge is arriving.
The Bridge’s distinctiveness, however, if all goes to plan, will not be the homes’ interiors, but the overall site masterplan, the quality of the external public spaces, and the ways that design can engender more community ownership. Whether this will be enough to create a sustainable development on this difficult Thames Gateway site is the question. At this early stage, admits Wayne Hemingway, buyers are real pioneers, taking a leap of faith in the end result. Once the second phase completes, with its school and other community buildings, that should start to change.
But for all the planning, the human factor will be crucial — will Bridge residents use the Fastline bus service rather than cars and not litter the homezone with vehicles? Will the idealistic pocket parks be used in the spirit that they were intended? In a now uncertain housing market, it cannot be assumed that the development will be built at the planned rate of 200 units per year, though the design code should ensure that the agreed approach continues.
Although 70% of the first phase has been sold already — many of the homes going to buy-to-let investors — it will take years before The Bridge is firmly bedded in. Only then will we know if the team has truly led the way in designing a successful sustainable community for the Thames Gateway, or if the exposed site instead becomes a graveyard for good ideas.
Homezones will make it possible for this community to thrive together. The idea is to use shared spaces to connect people. It originated in the Netherlands in the 1970s. Taking away thresholds between the road and pavement is intended to ensure pedestrians “own” the space, so that they threaten the car rather than the other way round. People feel a sense of community and ownership of the public realm rather than having cars hammering through.
For The Bridge, we visited similar homezone schemes in Sweden, Holland and Finland. George Wimpey and Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway had already completed one at Staiths in Gateshead, and we also knew about a project in Leeds where they mapped the pattern of who knew who in a street, then closed the road, turfed it, and then mapped the pattern again. Once the road had become a landscaped space between people’s homes, the matrix of relationships was fantastically more intense.
Homezones do have something of the historic cul-de-sac about them, although these are largely discredited, but there’s an enhanced sense
Meet the neighbours
In our scheme, clusters of 15-20 homes are arranged around each homezone. With flush concrete kerbs creating a shared space, it’s all about using surface finishes and edge definition such as granite setts across the road to create rumble strips that delineate when cars move from one area to another.
Pavements are made of concrete blocks arranged in stretcher bands, except for areas where cars will be turning where the blocks interlock to avoid being dislodged. Parking areas are indicated with tarmac.
They’re one of three different ways of meeting your neighbours, along with the pocket parks that open off the backs of the gardens, and the four “greenway” linear open spaces that divide the neighbourhoods.
Ability to move
The Bridge’s success will be fundamentally connected to people’s ability to move around it. Without the homezone, I genuinely believe you’d have people living in isolated ways on either side of the street instead of inclusively as part of a community.
Photographs by Morley von Sternberg
For more information on The Bridge, see Product Gallery.
Original print headline ’Taking it to The Bridge’