I’ve always had a fascination with rivers and with cities, which is why I live in London on the River Thames and belong to a local rowing club. I’ve also lived in Boston on the Charles, New York on the Hudson, Washington on the Potomac and Paris on the Seine, and watched how these rivers define the cities they run through.
I recently returned from Budapest, where the River Danube separates two places – Buda and Pest – and simultaneously unites them. People flow to and fro across, along, and on the river by foot, tram, metro, bicycle, scooter and boat, and the city makes a demonstrable commitment to investing in the public realm along the river and further afield. In the dark winter months this is welcomed by residents and tourists alike, who mingle outdoors at the festive markets set up to provide cheap food and entertainment, and at the public thermal baths which serve as communal gathering places promoting health, culture and heritage in a most enjoyable way.
I read a piece about the way our beloved Father Thames has been evolving by the Observer’s architecture critics Rowan Moore with this in mind. Moore describes the plans, policies and personae that have shaped developments along the river over the last few decades through the frame of the planned development 72 Upper Ground on the South Bank. This complex, if it goes ahead, will add considerable height and density to the local landscape:
“It is situated on a privileged spot, where a bend in the river gives it exceptional prominence, alongside the publicly funded culture palaces of the South Bank and opposite the classical set piece of Somerset House. Its floor area of nearly one million square feet is 20 per cent more than that of the Gherkin, its height of 109 metres is slightly lower than St Paul’s Cathedral. It would replace a much smaller 1970s tower that was used by ITV: the new building would have 225 per cent of its floor area and add nearly 30 per cent to its height.”
Quoting the late Richard Rogers, who characterised the Thames as “a public space not a private opportunity”, he points out that over the past 15 years “a proliferation of large developments has made it a gold-diggers’ gulch, a miles-long mine of real-estate value”.
What Moore objects to is well known among residents in communities further upriver, where more riverside developments are proposed. As he explains, “it is questionable whether the high-rise, high-price apartments, often sold to overseas investors, that new riverside developments tend to create are the homes Londoners most need. Rates of affordable housing have been low”. And it is this knowledge, along with a growing appreciation of the Thames, that is firing up local communities.
The Stag Brewery regeneration at Mortlake is a case in point. Residents have challenged proposals to build high-density residential units along a beautiful stretch of the river known as the Arcadian Thames. By contrast, early stage plans to redevelop a local retail park in Kew seem to be more mindful of local residents’ needs and respectful of their connection with the river.
Challenging the cult of high-rise riverside developments is motivated by a growing interest in the Thames, demonstrated each year during the Thames Festival which showcases the glories of the river, from mudlarking to boatmaking, and invites all Londoners and others to participate in artistic, community and cultural activities celebrating the river.
Lockdown gave Londoners more reason to engage with the Thames and to appreciate the benefits it brings to their physical and mental health. The connection between the river and good health has become an accepted and motivational feature of living in London. People care about the Thames. As such it inspires, motivates and mobilises citizen action when its health and accessibility are threatened. In the last year I’ve seen several initiatives launched with prominent support in my area of south west London alone:
- Hammersmith Bridge SOS, aimed at making the iconic west London bridge accessible to all.
- Opposition to a proposed pier at Fulham Football Club, led by the local rowing community.
- Reaction to the “wet wipe island” at Hammersmith leading to proposed legislation from a local MP to eliminate wet wipes from flowing into the Thames.
- Organisations with local interest like the Royal National Lifeboat Institute and Thames Path National Trail have substantial numbers of supporters and actively promote knowledge, events and engagement around the river.
A key challenge to planning sustainable development along the Thames is a lack of strategic oversight. As Rowan Moore points out:
“This absence of overview owes something to the fact that the banks of the Thames are in the care of 17 boroughs of varying party allegiances, which makes coordinated action a task of herding cats. The river is for most of its length a boundary between one borough and another, and it’s a well-known phenomenon of local authorities that they care more about their centres – where more of their voters get to experience the results of their decisions – than their edges.”
I’m encouraged by the plethora of grassroots activity committed to making the river healthy, accessible and inclusive to all Londoners. I see an opportunity to pull these groups together into an umbrella organisation not unlike the Community Planning Alliance formed in recent years, which has become a force for challenging imposed development and a voice for community engagement across the country.
A project for 2023? I welcome suggestions.
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