Archipelago of Urbanities 2.0

Ben Stringer and Peter Barber

This year's DS12 project will include these ingredients: London's housing crisis, the place of industry in cities, the River Thames and the idea of the village as a small but complex settlement form. We'll be designing at the intersection of multiple social, industrial, ecological and geological processes of varying scales and time frames as they manifest themselves in the River in East London.

London's population is forecast to grow by around 2 million within two decades, but current political and economic systems seem unable to cope with this, even though London is one of the richest cities in the world. So shouldn't this projected new wave of urbanisation act as a catalyst for exploring new modes of existence outside the usual channels of corporate finance and power?

At present London discharges around 60 million tons of raw sewage into the Thames every year, but the new 'super sewer' under construction will reduce this by 90%, so the river East of London is due for brighter ecological future.

Once a tributary of the Rhine, the Thames is about 50 million years old. It first flowed into the north Sea through East Anglia. But some 450,000 years ago, ice diverted it south into freshwater lake. This lake's southern overspill led to Britain's separation from the mainland Europe at around 6000 BC, so the creation of London's Thames coincides with the beginning of the 'Anthropocene'.

Brief: Our brief for the year is to design densely populated, 'publicly owned' and productive urban island villages, as part of an archipelago of interconnected inhabited islands in the River Thames.

Collectively your islands will form a new experimental urban quarter of London. Each island will include between 1000-3000 homes, so our archipelago might house up to 100,000 people. We'll ask you to orient your schemes toward groups of people that are poorly served by the current property system: eg the elderly, the young, care-workers, homeworkers and so on. We'll also ask you to investigate and include some kinds of agriculture and manufacturing. The cost? Much less than the £4 billion quoted for restoring the houses of Parliament.

We'll ask you to work with ideas of public ownership and funding your design process, with the aim of re-imagining London as somewhere that ordinary people can take ownership of. Could the construction of new kinds of urbanity be funded through something like crowd sourcing, co-operatives or community share schemes? We will be designing with one foot outside the property market, in the river, which is publicly owned.

Rivers, Islands, Villages: The word 'village' conjures images of questionable rustic pastiche, but we shall use it to introduce social and environmental complexity, fungibility and self-determination at a smaller scale than the government's proposed “Garden Cities” and to raise the questions about the urban-rural divide. Cities can learn from villages. The Thames region has a significant history of small utopian settlements in fact and fiction, from Morris' 'Nowhere' in the West, to 'Bata-ville' and Mayfield in the East. We will keep this tradition alive.

As a cultural trope, in books and films, islands are often sites of experimentation, lawlessness, madness or paradise; Thomas More's original utopia was an island, free from the normal constraints of his Catholicism.

Rivers too have strong cultural connotations; they often frame narratives of exploration. How can our project usefully intersect with these cultural readings to produce new forms of urbanity without inadvertently creating ghettoes?

Technology and environment: What is the best way to construct an island? To create a land mass (with earth from the new sewer tunnel?), to float it? Put it on a skeletal framework to form habitats for river creatures and plants? What will your island village be made of? What resources and technologies are immediately available?

High tide levels are rising, and with it the threat of floods, our islands will not help unless we mitigate for any negative effects caused by our islands by improving flood water retention through landscaping strategies, increasing food plain territories, dredging and so on.

Semester one: In semester one we will develop our island villages and work out their social and construction logic. We'll aim to produce models of our village island, and maps and drawings that understand the space as a convergence process.

Semester two: After our field trip we'll continue our project at both a smaller domestic and detailed scale, and also much bigger urban and regional scale too. We may also work with some new 3D real time software.

Field trip: We'll be going to India where 70% of people live in villages. We'll be there to learn more about their relationship to cities and the future roles of industry and craft. Our itinerary will probably include Ahmedabad and Mumbai, as well as some rural locations in their vicinities. We'll also try to organise a little travelling exhibition of 'Villages in bags'.