Bringing people back to the water

London's riverside developments face particular challenges in reconciling public and private spheres, writes Gavin McEwan.

In recent years, London has been rediscovering its waterways as attractive and unique places for work, living and enjoyment, and this has given rise to a slew of innovative developments, fuelled by the prospect of 20-30 per cent premiums on waterfront properties.

But a new London mayor with an ambivalent approach to the public realm, and a decline in property development, mean the future for some projects may be uncertain.

Several developments were highlighted at a New London Architecture (NLA) exhibition earlier this year. Exhibition director and director of the London Festival of Architecture Peter Murray says: "It has taken a long time for developers to realise that people like to be next to water."

Murray points out that in the Middle Ages, the Thames attracted people wishing to escape the old city centre, hence the original London Bridge, which was lined with shops and houses.

"More recently, the waterways were seen simply as an industrial route rather than something to be enjoyed," he says. "But now that this has disappeared, they can be seen for what they are."

The standard of developments so far has been mixed, he says. "If you cycle along a canal towpath, you see some new developments that deal with this question very well - here architects and their clients feel this is a proper part of public London.

"But some ignore it. Developments have not always been of top quality, architecturally. They have often created barriers between waterways and the communities beyond them."

Our predecessors dealt with this better, he says. "If you look at Cheyne Walk (on the Chelsea embankment), you see houses set back from the river, with attractively designed public space in front."

Any development will have to reconcile the competing demands of the private and public realms, though. "The driving issue is that every flat wants a view, so configurations are created to maximise this," he says. "There is less attention given to the relationship with the hinterland, and its permeability for the public."

In theory, this is where the planning authorities come in. "There is a need for guidance, but of the right sort," he says. "There is already masses. The problem is the huge number of authorities - there are 17 different riparian bodies."

Murray believes that Londoners' ambivalence to the Thames may be down in part to the nature of the river itself. "It's a dark, wide, fast, dangerous river, with a big tidal difference," he says. "The Seine, for example, is narrower, and crossing it is less of a chore."

However, he points to the success of the Thames Path in opening up much of the riverside to the public. "It's pretty well joined up, from Twickenham to Canary Wharf," he says. "Waterways are public space, and should be viewed as such."

Of the election of Boris Johnson as mayor, Murray says: "It's too early to say what effect it will have. I hope he will take a positive line. His predecessor was committed to public spaces." But the recent decision to put on hold the pedestrianisation of Parliament Square suggests that Johnson may be less committed, Murray adds.

One legacy of Ken Livingstone's tenure at City Hall was the creation of the London Waterways Commission, consisting of representatives of more than a dozen bodies. Its chair, Murad Qureshi AM, highlights Wood Wharf (see Map, point 8) in the Docklands, plans for which were revealed earlier this month, as "a test case" on making the waterfront accessible. "It's on a different scale from other developments," he says.

The mixed residential and commercial development to the east of Canary Wharf is on an 8ha site owned by British Waterways. It will include a waterfront park designed by Martha Schwartz Partners. Work begins on the site next year, and is expected to take until 2019. Due to its size, it will require final approval from the mayor's office.

Qureshi would like to see more centralised control of such developments. "British Waterways and the Port of London Authority don't have to report to the mayor, which I think should happen," he says.

But British Waterways' senior development manager for London and the South East, James Lazarus, says that the agency would be meeting the needs of Londoners even without central control. "We are custodians of the waterways, as well as a commercial organisation, and in developing we have to consider the views of many stakeholders, concerned with everything from ecology to boating," he says.

British Waterways owns all of London's 177km of canal and adjoining towpaths, plus a portfolio of property alongside, which generate revenue for the canals' upkeep.

"Development of the canals is all about making them more attractive to visitors - making them into mini destinations," says Lazarus. He takes a particular interest in the City Road Basin development (see Map, point 5), between King's Cross and the City. The masterplan was approved in 2004, and flats that were completed last year have been set back from the water. The final section at the southern end of the basin will create a new public space accessible directly from the busy City Road for the first time, flanked by two new landmark buildings.

According to Islington Council deputy leader Terry Stacy: "The creation of new civic space at the head of the basin will create a fantastic open area and a new leisure destination in the heart of Islington for everyone to enjoy, alongside much-needed new homes, leisure and community facilities."

The £3m project is funded by section 106 agreements with developers, and by the Government Office for London, on land owned by EDF Energy. It will bring a threefold increase in the public space around the basin. Work began in January and is expected to be completed by October. "There's a strong commercial reason for it, and it's also a really good public space," says Lazarus.

He does not see developers' aims as necessarily being in conflict with those of the wider community. "The development industry is becoming more socially aware," he says. "If you make the area a more attractive place to live and work in, it adds value. And water is a great catalyst for regeneration and development."


1. Wandsworth Riverside Quarter

A mixed residential and commercial development that will boast a range of community facilities including a waterfront piazza and riverside walk, pedestrian footpaths, cycleways, public open space and landscaped gardens linked by timber decking and gravel footpaths, designed by Capita Lovejoy. Set for completion in 2011.

2. Battersea Reach

A redevelopment of a 6ha brownfield site next to Wandsworth Bridge, this will include a 300m riverside walkway that will open up the area between Wandsworth and Battersea, as well as landscaped grounds and courtyards designed by Townshend. It is due to be completed in 2014.

3. Lots Road

The area around a former power station at the mouth of the Chelsea creek is being developed by Terry Farrell to create a "new village", consisting of around 800 flats (many in the "affordable" bracket) as well as commercial and retail space. The creek itself will become a new linear park and water garden, being designed by Townshend, while the bank of the Thames will be opened up to public access for the first time. Timescale: ongoing.

4. Watermark Place

This 50,000sq m commercial development in the City's largest area of open riverside space adjacent to Cannon Street station is due to be finished in summer 2009. Townshend has been commissioned to integrate the building's surroundings with the public footpath along the north side of the Thames.

6. Potters Field Park

While a redesigned public park by Tower Bridge was completed last year, wrangling has continued between Berkley Homes and London Borough of Southwark over the developer's plans for housing adjacent to it. The original architect was dropped in April.

7. Greenwich Reach Broadway

Malyan has been commissioned to landscape this 3ha mixed-use riverside revelopment at the mouth of Deptford Creek, near the site of the Cutty Sark. The scheme will act as a new gateway for Greenwich, opening up river frontages and creating a new public realm.

9. Peninsula Square

Whitelaw Turkington has redesigned the landscape around the O2 (formerly the Millennium Dome), sited in a bend in the eastern Thames. A large public space for outdoor performance is enclosed by a green wall of sedum and ivy. It also features a 45m-high sculpture, a "performance wall" and fountains. Work on the square was completed in May last year, but regeneration of the wider area will continue over the next 15 years.

10. Lea Valley Regional Park

Billed as London's biggest open space, this hugely ambitious 42km green strip following the river Lea from Ware in Hertfordshire to the River Thames at the East India Dock Basin, provides a setting for 20,000 new homes in the area. The development will form part of the legacy of the 2012 Olympics.

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