Embracing London's rivers
Cremorne Riverside Centre is one of the projects featured in Waterfront London: Rediscovering the Rivers and Canals of the Capital, an exhibition which opened at New London Architecture this week. Here NLA exhibition director Peter Murray explains how the Thames and its tributaries are at last being recognised as one of the capital’s greatest resources.
It is hard to believe that just 20 years ago developers filled in 90% of Surrey Commercial Docks, a Venice-like complex of ponds and locks of great beauty, or that it was only just over a decade ago that the government published a report that changed planning policies so we might “restore the Thames to its former all-important role in the life and looks of London”.
As recently as 2000, the Thames was designated as “public open space”.
For years, London turned its back on its canals and waterways, burying its rivers and turning them into sewers. Now we are beginning to regard water properly as one of our major amenities.
Today, residential developers can expect a 10% uplift on housing that overlooks water. Multimillion pound penthouses line the Thames, and anglers fly-fish for brown trout in its tributaries.
The Thames Strategy report of 1995, commissioned from Arup by the then-environment secretary John Gummer, discussed the need to improve riverborne public transport and Bankside footpaths, architectural quality, and the protection of views and heritage along a 48-km section from Hampton Court to Greenwich. Stretches of riverbank and sites with development potential were identified. Gummer was keen to ensure that the Thames remained a working river, carrying freight to reduce lorry movements in the capital; that commercial wharves should be retained; and that two new pedestrian footbridges should be built — from Waterloo to Charing Cross and from Bankside Power Station towards St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Blue Ribbon Network, which forms part of the London Plan, continued many Thames policies championed by Gummer, but created a London-wide water strategy covering the canal network and tributaries, rivers and streams, as well as open-water spaces such as docks, reservoirs and lakes, plus the culverted parts of waterways.
Following publication of the Thames Strategy report, the Millennium and Hungerford bridges were completed, and a rash of riparian residential development spread from Richmond to Rotherhithe — although not all of it of the quality that would fulfil Gummer’s aspirations.
Waterfront London: Rediscovering the Rivers and Canals of the Capital is at New London Architecture, The Building Centre, London, until February 23.