Dirty old river

The Thames is a solution in search of a problem
February 22, 2012

The Thames is London’s raison d’être. When Transport for London took the river off the Tube map, public outcry forced it to re-install the elegant symbol at the heart of Harry Beck’s design. But despite this attachment to the river, Londoners have long felt unsure about what to do with it.

Globally, industrial cities have struggled with the legacy of redundant waterside industrial developments. But London has struggled more than most. The Thames is a difficult river. It is fast, wide and dangerous—at least 30 bodies are pulled out of the water passing through London every year, and its five to seven metre tidal rise and fall makes it much less tame than the Seine, let alone the canals of Venice, waterways with which the Thames is often compared. When architects and planners draw the Thames, they tend to show it as a sunny Mediterranean blue, with tugs and sailing boats for decorative effect, but the water is naturally a murky brown.

The governance of the Thames is a characteristically English muddle. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, made a bid to develop a policy for the river when David Cameron was elected—but nothing came of it.

Still, the river carries hundreds of tons of freight in and out of the city each day and the water-bus service is growing in popularity. Large stretches of the riverbank have been opened up to the public; the South Bank has become a bustling space. New bridges, piers and riverside attractions including the Tate Modern, the Globe and London Eye have added to the gaiety of the capital, and attracted tourists. Thames Water is scheduled to complete a huge 20 mile-long sewer in the early 2020s, intended to make the river one of the cleanest urban waterways in the world, albeit at a projected cost of £3.5bn. (Thames Water has estimated that this will add £50 a year to customer bills—other estimates are higher.)

Yet for all these improvements, the standard of recent construction is mediocre. Graceless developments dominate the riverbanks to the west, giving way to boxy homes in the Docklands. Plans for a large development at Convoys Wharf in Deptford show little grasp of the area’s 500-year history as a naval dockyard.

The mayor has plenty of power and should issue guidance on building along the river. Graham Morrison, the architect, has suggested that the Thames could be declared a royal park, its banks under the management of a public agency—after all, at low tide they form the largest natural space in London, larger than any of its parks. Transport for London needs to get a grip on the piers used by the riverboat services, most of which are ugly and confusing.

We need to encourage more sailing clubs and perhaps a floating swimming pool or two, as seen on the Seine. And there is a strong case for reviewing the policy that all bridges between Tower Bridge and the sea have to able to allow the passage of tall shipping, which makes it prohibitively expensive to build bridges where they are most needed.

This summer, London will stage an event that will capture the world’s attention—the Jubilee river pageant. But while the Olympics will revolve around a large plot of recycled land of no great historical interest on the edge of the city, the pageant will be played out along London’s oldest, most central feature.