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Take us to the river
11 January 2012
The Thames is the reason London exists. It is the artery that made the city possible in the first place and its primary link to the outside world for most of its history. So it is strange that there isn't much coherence around what we should do with it. What is the Thames today? A nice view for riverside apartments? A public space? An untapped development site? No one seems to know.
The news last week that Singapore-based funder Venus Group was withdrawing its planning application for a new floating walkway on the river was met with relief from some, disappointment from others. The £60million proposal suggested a series of pontoons on the river that would create a walking route between the Millennium Bridge and the Tower of London. Designed by commercial architect Gensler, it was withdrawn after concerns about safety and design quality were raised by consultees. Whether or not that architect is involved in the future, it seems clear the project will return in some form.
The fact is the Thames is as likely to be defined by private companies such as Venus taking a punt on something to attract the masses as it will be by any joined-up thinking about the role the river might play in London's future. The identity of the Thames will be defined by the EDF Energy London Eye, the forthcoming Emirates Air Line cable car (that will span the river between the O2 Arena at north Greenwich and the ExCeL exhibition centre at the Royal Docks) and other sponsored attractions.
These businesses are making the most of the footfall the river attracts today. It has never been as accessible, or as popular. Until relatively recently much of the riverside was inaccessible, even invisible in many places, but strategies that encourage river access have improved this situation. The Thames Path walk, a benign, tourism-focused scheme managed by Natural England, maintains a pathway on or near the river's edge for 184 miles of its length. The Blue Ribbon Network, which is part of the Mayor's strategic plan for London, encourages local authorities to promote the use of the river for transport and leisure. But the first of these is simply a route, the second a series of recommendations: neither is a comprehensive plan for how the riverside should develop in civic terms, or characterises what kind of public space it should be.
It was probably the Southbank Centre that first defined the riverside as a leisure landscape. The Festival of Britain in 1951 turned the working warehouses and workers' homes between Waterloo Station and the banks of the Thames into a civic space. The area left over around and beneath the modernist landmarks of the Royal Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall was colonised by skateboarders in the Seventies, and this stretch of river has since flowered into a diverse and interesting public space, even if it is considerably sanitised since the refurbishment of the Festival Hall in 2008.
There is certainly a more enlightened attitude to riverside pedestrian access from private developers today than there was even 10 years ago. It would be perverse for anyone to propose a riverside development without river access for the public, and those who are planning the few large Thames sites remaining undeveloped in central London (such as the one in Deptford or at Battersea Power Station) have already demonstrated that they consider the river an asset and have every intention of exploiting it for public use. But if developers have recognised the importance of providing river access, our civic institutions can't help but become more commercial. The 2008 Royal Festival Hall refurbishment, so successful in so many ways, also opened up great glass-fronted units to provide retail and restaurant opportunities along this previously uncommercial - dare I say it - civic space.
Many of us take for granted the walk along central London's riverside, especially the section between the Southbank Centre in the west and Tower Bridge in the east that gets most tourist traffic. It seems, intuitively, as much a public place as Trafalgar Square or Hyde Park. In fact, great swathes of the riverside pathway are privately owned, and it is only by the good grace of these landowners that the likes of you and I are allowed there at all. The small moments of private ownership are more or less unnoticeable, like the corner immediately west of Southwark Bridge, where the pavement is owned by the offensively bulbous Riverside House, and pedestrians allowed right of way. And there are much bigger areas where the riverside is entirely private property. The most significant of these is the area of the Norman Foster-designed More London development around City Hall. When the pavement turns to grey granite it denotes the area that is owned privately, and the landowner can (and does) employ private security guards to eject skateboarders, BMX bikers or other undesirables.
This issue might seem of academic interest. After all, they wouldn't really close the area around City Hall to the public, would they? Well, go to St Paul's Cathedral and see the lengths to which the owners of the adjacent Paternoster Square office development have gone to avoid the Occupy protesters getting near the London Stock Exchange. The so-called public space at the heart of the office campus is nothing of the sort when the proprietors are not sympathetic with the use made of it. Swathes of the riverside, including the seat of London democracy, are exactly the same.
The London River Park, the Eye and all the rest are sanitising agents, retailing a cheerful, one-sided vision of our city, one that resists time and tide, and reduces the river to an attraction among others. What is it about this attitude to the river that irks? It is perhaps that it misunderstands the eternal meanings of the Thames to London, those that run deeper than the need to satisfy parents with baby strollers out for a Sunday afternoon promenade. It is the truth of the river understood by those who get much closer to it than the visitor to a floating steel platform: the mudlarks, those who walk the beaches at low tide, and the eel fishermen who still fish the beach down by Tower Bridge.
The Thames is a place of cycles more profound than the economic ones of tourism and corporate entertaining. It is a place that Dickens understood, in the famous opening pages of Our Mutual Friend, as a repository of all London's stinking mess, its rejects, its most arcane mysteries.
The Thames, to London, stands outside concepts as banal as regeneration. My evocation of this great, wide, brown, mysterious expanse is not romantic, it is an evocation of the qualities of the river that have made it a place in the past where rich and poor could ply their trade, with which every Londoner identified. It is the likes of Venus Group who are the romantics, idealising the Thames and hoping to reduce it to a place of coffee and contemplation for people with a couple of spare leisure hours.
These are waters into which lucky charms were thrown, where bodies were disposed of. The privatisation of the banks of the river we expect: any great port has commercial buildings lining its waterside. But the water itself should be beyond any business to occupy.
We need tourism, and there will always be attractions aimed at giving people something to spend their leisure hours doing. But there need to be plans for riverside places that are for more than just tourism, that stand for more than mere attraction. Perhaps we should campaign to turn the House of Commons terrace into a public place, to make the terrace of Somerset House more than a nice place to drink cocktails, and to change the status of the ground around City Hall to make it truly democratic and accessible to all.
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