The urban planner and architect John Thompson, who has died aged 78 after a long illness, was a leading proponent of “community architecture” and the founding chairman of the Academy of Urbanism. He was one of the most prominent advocates of involving local people in architectural decisions about their neighbourhoods and estates.
One of his best known ventures, which would have a lasting effect on the design of estates in Britain, was for Hackney council, at Lea View House in east London in 1983. At the time, the estate had high levels of crime and antisocial behaviour and John decided to open a project office in an empty flat on the site so that local residents could participate in the plans for their homes.
Families living up many flights of stairs told them of access difficulties, so the architects suggested moving families to newly created maisonettes at ground-floor level, each with their own front door, which in turn altered ways of entering the block. Tenants were able to customise the layout and design of their flats, and sheltered housing, a community hall and play spaces were introduced. Charles Knevitt, architecture correspondent of the Times, wrote at the time that “pride, dignity, and self-respect have been restored at Lea View and community architecture was the process by which it came about”. Crime rates fell significantly, a residents’ association was formed and the estate became a byword at architectural conferences for involving residents in planning decisions.
Born in Leamington Spa, the son of John Thompson, a sales executive, and Edna (nee Hawkes), John spent much of his childhood in Henley-in-Arden in Warwickshire, where his maternal grandfather had a butcher’s shop. Later in life he would refer to his happy childhood experience of small-town life as an example of what planners and architects should aspire to and his belief that to feel embedded in a community was an essential part of life. After attending Arden House and Oundle schools, he studied architecture at Magdalene College, Cambridge, graduating in 1969.
In the same year, with his colleague Bernard Hunt, he set up the firm Hunt Thompson, in Camden, north London. Initially their work was mainly to do with public housing and then the refurbishment of some of London’s best-known pubs. The latter assignments came about partly due to a misunderstanding: the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) believed it had been asked to recommend a firm experienced in public housing.
After attending a conference entitled Remaking Cities, organised by the American Institute of Architecture, in Pittsburgh in 1988, John became further committed to involving local people in architectural decisions that would affect them. A keynote speaker at the conference was Prince (now King) Charles, with whom John later worked on many urban renewal projects throughout the UK. In 1986 he became a founder trustee of the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture (now the Prince’s Foundation). Eight years later he launched a new practice, John Thompson and Partners (JTP), which he chaired until his retirement in 2017.
John’s skill in establishing links between local communities and architects led to many international commissions, including projects in Russia, Germany, Italy, France, Iceland, Sweden and Ireland. Towards the end of his career, he was involved in two major assignments in China, in Hangzhou and Zhoushan, both of which attracted a perhaps surprising level of community involvement.
A charismatic and genial figure, he was never short of work. In 1998, the JTP practice took part in the Caterham Barracks community planning weekend, attended by around a thousand people, as it began its work with a local developer on what became the regeneration of the 100-year-old former military facility in Surrey to provide public amenities as well as housing for the local community. The work won a series of building and planning awards. Between 2001 and 2011 he was a member of Yorkshire Forward’s urban renaissance panel, working on plans for the revival of Scarborough, which had seen its tourism and fishing industries decline. Another planning weekend, which had become a feature of his work, was also very well attended by people with their own suggestions as to what needed to be done. Projects ranging from a regeneration of the harbour to the creation of art and culture festivals emerged.
In 2003, John was asked by George Ferguson, the then president of RIBA, to chair their planning group, which eventually led to the establishment of the Academy of Urbanism (AoU), an independent, cross-sector organisation that aims to “bring together both the current and next generation of urban leaders, thinkers and practitioners”. It now has 600 members, an 18-point manifesto, an annual awards scheme and a scheme for “young urbanists”.
In 2017 John was diagnosed with multiple system atrophy (MSA), which eventually left him bed-ridden at his home in Hammersmith, west London, where he was looked after by his second wife, Nova (nee Galer), whom he married in 2005, and a team of carers. Remarkably stoic, he took consolation in watching on television the renaissance of the England cricket team – he was himself a keen cricketer with Turville Park cricket club in the Chilterns.
A book of his work, entitled John Thompson: Creating Great Places, was assembled by colleagues and published in 2019. In it, he was celebrated in verse by the poet Ian MacMillan, a friend whose poem A Plan for John Thompson contains the lines: “Space is what he thinks about / Space and how to use it / Urban space or rural space we break it or abuse it.”
He is survived by Nova, and his two children, Wally and Grace, from his first marriage to Rosie Light, which ended in divorce; by three stepchildren, Jessica, Tom and Tibbs, his grandchildren, Elliot, Scarlett, Phoenix, Mattie and Jack, and his brother, Peter.
• John Richard Thompson, architect, born 7 February 1944; died 29 December 2022