Hampstead Heath dams project chief promises to scale down old plans

The Hampstead Heath dams project will be scaled down dramatically in what could be a test case for pioneering government policy, according to the scheme’s chief architect.

In a move which will cheer Heath lovers, newly-appointed strategic landscape architect Peter Wilder has pledged to protect London’s best-loved open space from “municipal” designs in favour of a softer overhaul of the archaic dam system.

The scheme will be one of the first major projects in the country to work towards the principles of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, building less infrastructure and relying more on the natural landscape to pass water safely down through the ponds.

Speaking exclusively to the Ham&High, Mr Wilder revealed the lower ponds are likely to undergo the greatest upheaval to protect the more wooded and “intimate” sites higher up the Hampstead and Highgate chains like the Ladies Pond.

The first sketches of the plans are expected to be unveiled in May or June next year.

Profile on Peter Wilder

The fate of Hampstead Heath rests in his hands, but until recently the strategic landscape architect for the controversial dams project would have been tempted to dump a caf� and playground on the banks of one its iconic ponds.

Most Read

It was only when Peter Wilder took a dip in the ponds’ murky waters that he got “under the skin of the Heath” and discovered swings and takeaway cappuccinos would not quite fit the bill.

“It was a really liberating experience and one which is unique, you can’t do that in many European cities,” said the 45-year-old.

“It’s not like going to a pool or lido, it’s going back to basics and that’s when I got it, what the Heath is all about.”

It was this brush with nature which has shaped the Australian-born architect’s approach to the �15million dams project.

Mr Wilder was appointed last month to oversee the rebuilding of the dams to prevent flooding in Gospel Oak and Dartmouth Park if a tropical-style storm hit the Heath – the risk of which is calculated at once every 10,000 years.

“If I knew nothing about Hampstead Heath, which I didn’t, I would have said what this [Model Boating Pond] needs is a caf� and a playground and those are things that would absolutely spoil the whole concept of the Heath,” he said.

“That’s not what the people who know and love the Heath want.”

Mr Wilder says he has also taken on board the public outcry when the last plans for the controversial project were unveiled in January 2011.

Though the sketches of a stark concrete structure on the Model Boating Pond were never likely to be endorsed, the reaction encouraged Mr Wilder to soften the scheme.

However, the landscape architect does admit that some of the more ‘municipal’-looking ponds – like the Model Boating Pond and Hampstead Number One and Two ponds – are likely to be hit the hardest in the overhaul of the ancient dams system.

The Ladies Pond on the Highgate chain and the Viaduct Pond are among the more “intimate” ponds further up the chains which will be the least affected, though Mr Wilder insists that all options are still on the table.

He said: “It’s likely that all ponds will have some work done but we are working towards having a hierarchy of the more sensitive ponds.

“The lower ponds are quite ornamental and we could create more sensitive habitats, so we’re looking at what can be done to make improvements.”

The Model Boating Pond is one pond in the architect’s sights, with its iron rivets running along the side of the bank rendering it out of keeping with the wild aspect of the Heath.

“It [the Model Boating Pond] is not particularly well integrated with the environment and I would like to see, at the end of this process, a landscape that is in keeping with the character, resilient to future flooding and climate change,” he said.

The project will be guided by the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which encourages the use of the natural landscape rather than relying on unsightly works.

Mr Wilder said: “This project is more important than people realise, it will create a benchmark in terms of how we manage what infrastructure we have in the future for these kind of projects.

“If we can get to a scenario that shows we can deliver better infrastructure, but by being more environmentally sensitive and which is cheaper, then we will have laid down a very strong foundation for the future – not only for this country but as an exemplar for the rest of the world.”