Can we create richness from complexity?

Five ways to read a site

Our eyes light up when we see the messy stuff, because that’s the ingredients for unique, characterful, and high value places. In an age of needing to make the most of what we’ve got, we interrogate sites to uncover the multiple resources that can enrich a new urban neighbourhood. Let’s have a conversation around what we should keep and what we should smooth over. Here are five ways to read a site.

What's really there?



The deceptive site

Begbroke Innovation District

Form follows nature

“At first sight Begbroke is a series of flat agricultural fields. But a closer look reveals a subtle topography forming part of a wider system of local waterways that has been shaped over millennia.

This observation unlocks the key masterplan driver – to allow urban form to follow nature. Watersheds determine the structure of three neighbourhoods. ‘Green arteries’ following the natural path of water, have priority over continuous carriageways, and provide social and restorative landscapes. ‘Living streets’ introduce considerably more biodiversity into residential neighbourhoods than in traditional tarmac-dominated suburban layouts.

The masterplan eschews generic street geometries in favour of ones that follow the lay of the land, thereby creating a framework of more various, more characterful, more resilient places.”

Diego Grinberg, Associate


1.4 km green arteries
50% public open space
8 km sustainable drainage systems (SuDS)
20% increase in biodiversity


The forgotten site

Smithfield Public Realm

Material legacy

“Located on the edge of London’s old city gates, Smithfield is exemplary of a place that has built up over time, layer upon layer. Open fields hosted livestock markets and fairs before giving way to underground cuttings, Victorian market halls and post-war structures.

The repurposing of the meat market buildings and the incoming Museum of London provide the impetus to reimagine this place as a new cultural district. Rather than covering the public realm under a unified paving treatment, we celebrate the messiness of the site’s myriad textures and materials.

The site’s many histories are embedded in this layered material legacy. Exposing these will allow multiple stories – past, present and future – to be told. Excavated cobblestones will be recast in place, substructures will be highlighted in the surface treatment, found objects will be exhibited, and waste materials will be recycled as part of a wider circular economy story.

Smithfield will be an inclusive public space that assertively defines culture as a public project.”

Fiona Stewart, Associate

4.1 ha public surface area
70% re-use rate of existing materials


The dynamic site

Oxpens Masterplan

Living with water

“Located where central Oxford meets the Thames, Oxpens is a highly constrained site due to the river breaching its banks at increasing frequency; the city’s co-existence with its waterways has informed its character and rituals.  How might it be possible to enhance this riverine character while also addressing the lack of public open space for Oxford’s wide range of users – its residents, academics, workers, students and visitors?

Our masterplan framework resolves these competing needs through embracing the site’s ‘dynamic hydrology’.

Our flagship public space, the Oxpens Amphitheatre, is designed to accept flood water with resilient planting, effective drainage, and robust finishes. Water is brought dramatically into the heart of the site, accepting that we must get used to being closer to the forces of nature – and that this can meaningfully drive the character of a place. “

Darryl Chen, Urban Design lead

47% site in flood plain
66% public open space
81% active and positive frontages

Earls Court

The messy site

Earls Court

A landscape to discover

“The site is a classic London puzzle – skirted by high street shops, mansion blocks, housing estates and tall buildings. The site itself is a complex accumulation of legacy structures related to the site’s former exhibition use at the convergence of three rail lines.

Our masterplan framework accepts these complex conditions to create special places. A concrete tunnel becomes a new elevated park at the heart of the site; an existing train depot becomes a cultural destination that activates a public square; the no-build zones above live tube lines become crescent-shaped streets. Existing foundations and levels are made accessible through a continuous public landscape.

Earls Court will emerge as a rich mosaic of attractions, landscapes, homes and workplaces, not from a clean slate, but out of the messy stuff of London. “

Marko Neskovic, Partner

8 ha public open space
1000 new trees
60% site unbuilt

Coldhams Lane

The invisible site

The edgeless masterplan

“The site is excellently located in the east of Cambridge where massive change will soon shift the gravity of the city. Connections are critical to the success of our  proposed science destination – both existing routes and future routes that will emerge as adjacent developments come forward.

Movement network maps utilising GIS uncover invisible site characteristics and inform how we respond to make site access easier, drive footfall, and help local networks be more active and sustainable.

We propose an open masterplan with no formal edges. All buildings are experienced in the round and the landscape forms a continuous extension of existing neighbourhood routes. Critically, a central spine invites pedestrians through into the heart of the site where an amenity pavilion marks the junction with a public cycleway.

Invisible networks form the organising logic around which to make a place that is open, inclusive and beneficial to the site’s existing and future communities.”

Michael Riebel, senior researcher



49% publicly accessible open space
70% site unbuilt
10 mins cycle time from Cambridge station