John Thompson, internationally renowned pioneer of collaborative placemaking, has sadly died at the age of 78 after a long illness. Below we reproduce a reflection on John’s life and career first published in January 2023 by JTP where he was Chairman from 1994 until 2016. An obituary also appeared in The Guardian which can be viewed here.
“The essence of community planning is simple – all around us we are surrounded by people who have within themselves, whether they recognise it or not, a great wealth of common intelligence and knowledge. If we can tap that knowledge and intelligence we can enrich all the processes that we are involved in, we can bring about much better solutions and we can even involve those people in sustaining the solution in the future.”John Thompson
Reflecting on his remarkable 50-year career John was an inspirational, thoughtful, highly motivated architect and urbanist and throughout his life he was passionate about improving the quality of life in neighbourhoods and places across the UK and internationally.
Trained as an architect at Cambridge University during the 1960s, John rejected the prevailing view of the architect as a heroic ‘form-maker’ and instead devoted his career to working with local people to create places that encourage social interaction and help nurture a strong sense of community, often in areas experiencing significant social and economic challenges.
Lea View House in Hackney is widely recognised as a seminal Community Architecture project. Shocked by the severity of the problems of the housing estate with high levels of crime, and anti-social behaviour, John opened an office on site and devised techniques enabling residents to participate in the transformation of their estate. At the time Charles Knevitt writing in The Times said ‘Pride, dignity, and self-respect have been restored at Lea View and Community Architecture was the process by which it came about’.
In the 1980s, John led a number of inner-city regeneration projects throughout the UK. In each instance, it was John’s irrepressible belief in the process of Community Planning to enable local people to control their destiny through harnessing community spirit and empowering people to be bold and take the difficult decisions in the design that enabled the transformation of their own neighbourhoods.
“Great places have the power to fire the imagination of their citizens. No one can create them on their own. If, collectively, we are to create them once again, we must first share a common view.”John Thompson
In 1998, the pioneering, multi-award-winning regeneration of the former Caterham Barracks marked the first time that a large-scale Collaborative Planning process had been promoted in the UK by a private developer. Today, the Village at Caterham is a thriving mixed-use neighbourhood, located within the walls of a former Guards barracks and connected harmoniously with the adjacent community of Caterham on the Hill. John was the visionary who could see the potential of this opportunity helping ordinary people understand the dynamics of change. He harnessed his expertise and personal commitment to public participation to ensure that homes and mixed uses were delivered with the active engagement of and management by the local community.
John’s work extended beyond the UK to a wide range of masterplanning and transformation projects across Russia, Germany, Italy, France, Iceland, Sweden, Ireland and in the later stages of his career on a number of projects across China.
“… it was rare for an architect to design from a standpoint of social interaction and ‘everyday life’ and to see places as more important than individual buildings.”
All of his work embraced the approach of placemaking; developed through an understanding of the design factors critical to the social success of the built environments; the distinction of public and private space, natural surveillance, distribution of public space and the provision of mixed uses promoting environmental, social and economic sustainability. Today such views and approaches are seen as best practice, but it was rare for an architect to design from a standpoint of social interaction and ‘everyday life’ and to see places as more important than individual buildings.
In 2006, the growing prevalence of these principles led to John being instrumental in establishing the Academy of Urbanism (AoU), an autonomous, self-funded cross sector organisation set up to identify, learn from and disseminate best practice in placemaking throughout the UK and internationally. John was Founder Chairman of the AoU from 2006 to 2010 and Honorary President from 2010. Today the Academy is flourishing and influential, with over six hundred members bringing together the current and next generation of urban leaders, thinkers and practitioners.
Throughout his career John has led by example and drawing on his natural gift for leadership and gentle persuasion, has inspired colleagues, fellow professionals, developers, local authority officers and politicians to seek creative solutions to our built environments. He has left an extraordinary legacy. As John wrote as the mission of the Academy of Urbanism, “Great places have the power to fire the imagination of their citizens. No one can create them on their own. If, collectively, we are to create them once again, we must first share a common view”.
John’s incredible career and life is captured in his book, ‘Creating Great Places’ which can be viewed here.
Our thoughts are with John’s family at this time.