London calling: Interdisciplinary studio tackles large-scale development along Thames
Graduate students in the interdisciplinary Advanced Design Urban Studio travel to London, learn to collaborate, reimagine a large-scale site — and win an award in the process.
When 22 College of Environmental Design (CED) students from three master’s programs arrived in London to see Thamesmead, the site of their Advanced Design Urban Studio (CP 240) project for the first time, it was a revelation.
“Before we went to London, we hadn’t realized the scale of the site,” says Diksha Singh (Master of Urban Design 2022), who is now an urban designer at Opticos Design, Inc. “We had looked at photos and Google Earth while we were in Berkeley, but it was only when we reached Thamesmead we realized how massive it was.”
“It was really quite far from central London and landmarks like The Shard. It was eye-opening to understand the site as a suburban location,” says Aditi Subramanian, an urban designer at Perkins&Will in Atlanta who was also in the studio.
The students had come to London with prepared design schemes, "so they were able to make intelligent adjustments to their designs in response to their experience of the site," says John Ellis, the lead studio instructor and a consulting principal at Mithun in San Francisco. Ellis had organized the studio through his friendship with architect Jonathan Rose, whose firm Prior & Partners is the master planner for the Thamesmead expansion.
Thamesmead, in the east of London along the Thames Estuary, is far from the tourist sites of the British capital. Developed in the 1960s as a new town for 50,000 residents, it was built following a Brutalist design that you might recognize as the dystopian environment depicted in A Clockwork Orange. Cut off from transit links, the area quickly declined, beset by poverty, crime, and drug addiction.
With the promise of the 2022 opening of a new underground line linking the area to central London and a planned expansion of the Docklands Light Rail, however, the nonprofit housing agency Peabody Trust in collaboration with global developers Lendlease launched a plan for a 300-acre extension of Thamesmead.
Tackling a large-scale development project on an actual site like Thamesmead meant that the students’ projects had to account for existing constraints in their plans. The site, situated in a historic floodplain, required them to address resiliency, flood control, and sea level rise. In addition, designs had to meet London’s 2040 targets for sustainable urbanism by reducing car travel and creating walkable neighborhoods.
The cohort had spent the first 10 weeks of the semester in Berkeley preparing an existing conditions report, considering alternative strategies for development and phasing, exploring economic engines for the project, and sketching out initial urban design plans for a mixed-use development. The proposals had to accommodate at least 12,000 dwellings, set out a street and block pattern, locate the transit hub and town center, provide for mixed-use parcels, and reserve 25 acres for a public park. Teams also had to determine the heights and density of a range of residential and commercial building types.
They were working in interdisciplinary teams that combined students from Real Estate Development + Design (MRED+D), City & Regional Planning (DCRP), and Urban Design (MUD). Each team came up with a master plan that explored a different strategy for development: connecting with preexisting communities (A Clockwork City), designing for transit (A Car-Free Thamesmead); using tidal power for energy (City of Choices); creating a zone of studios for London’s emerging movie industry (A Studio City); and establishing a hub for health care (City of Villages).
This was the first time students from MRED+D, DCRP, and MUD had teamed up to tackle such a large-scale project. This pushed the urban design students to take into account financing, economic viability, phasing, and policy while real estate and city planning students had to consider design priorities and learn to work iteratively. Teams had to negotiate among themselves about design and development.
“The city planners on my team really pushed me to understand policy,” says Wenzheng Fan (MUD 2022), a designer at Aecom in San Francisco. "The input of my MRED+D teammate kept sending me back to the drawing board," says Singh.
At the end of their ten-day visit, Thamesmead’s master planners and representatives from the client organizations Lendlease and Peabody Trust visited the studio for a review. London architects and critics, including Ying Jin of Cambridge University, London architect Peter Howard, and architect and critic Peter Buchanan of the London School of Architecture, also participated.
“I must say we were all very impressed by the professionalism and clear-minded, interdisciplinary approach of each student group,” says Rose of Prior and Partners.
“It’s unusual for students to have this kind of experience with a mixed-use project of this scale and actual clients,” says Ellis. “It was a real advantage as they began to enter the profession. Employers saw that they were already well-positioned to be players in the field.”
MUD program alums who were involved in the studio have gone on to jobs as urban designers at local, national, and international firms such as Mithun, WRT, Perkins&Will, and Prior & Partners, the Thamesmead master planners.
This March, the students found out that their work had been honored with a 2023 CNU Student Merit Charter Award in the Neighborhood, District, and Corridor category. CNU awards recognize excellence in urban design, placemaking, and community building. The jury applauded the thoroughness of the alternatives presented by the Thamesmead studio, the cross-disciplinary nature of the teams, and the consideration of flood mitigation.
The CP 240 students, who are now scattered across the globe as they embark on their careers, will reunite in Charlotte, North Carolina, in June to attend the award ceremony.