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Ellis Woodman: London’s neglected riverfront is poised to make a comeback

Ellis Woodman

‘What collective effect will the waterside wave of investment have both on the physical shape of the city and on its attractiveness as a place to live?’

It has been over 30 years since central London’s riverfront was last the site of significant industrial activity. The decommissioning of Battersea Power Station in 1983 effectively marked its end and by then maritime trade had already long departed − lured downriver by the advent of container shipping in the 1950s. The change was brought home to me by a conversation with Steve Tompkins, the architect of the National Theatre’s current redevelopment project. Explaining that the building employed 150 people making props, sets and costumes, he described it as the largest factory in the city centre.

It is a transformation that lay beyond the imaginings of the authors of the 1943 County of London Plan. JH Forshaw and Patrick Abercrombie recorded 73 per cent of central London’s riverfront as then being occupied by industry, wharves, warehouses and railways. They argued for a greater mix of activity, but their proposed reduction of industrial use by a third was rapidly outstripped by events.

A visit to the Festival of Britain in 1951 represented many Londoners’ first encounter with the Thames’ then particularly inaccessible south bank. The opening of the Jubilee Walkway in 1977 allowed for a wider colonisation but it was only with the opening of Tate Modern, the London Eye and the Millennium Bridge in the year 2000 that it began to be convincingly reintegrated into the life of the city. Over the next decade that process looks set to accelerate dramatically. The 10km stretch of riverfront snaking between Greenwich and Battersea is now the subject of redevelopment proposals of unprecedented quantity and scale. Most are focused on luxury housing and in the form of very tall buildings. Precipitated by Ken Livingstone’s liberalisation of the city’s skyline during his tenure as London’s first elected Mayor, this transformation is now being fuelled by one of the most heated residential property markets in the Western world.

What collective effect this wave of investment will have both on the physical shape of the city and on its attractiveness as a place to live are questions yet to be subjected to much public scrutiny. The London Plan seeks to direct the city’s growth through policy aspirations and zoning diagrams but any form of three-dimensional proposition is notable by its absence. It is tempting to ask whether most Londoners are even aware of the radical transformation to which their city now seems to have committed itself.

It is with the aim of sparking this long overdue debate that the AR and the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich are hosting a programme of talks and films over the next three months which will explore the implications of the imminent change to London’s riverside. The programme brings together architects, developers, planners and politicians to discuss the opportunities and conflicts that redevelopment now presents. We are going to hear too from community groups working in neighbourhoods which address the Thames. Deptford is one of a number of riverside boroughs that rank among the poorest in the UK and the question of what benefit the proposed £1billion redevelopment of its waterfront will afford the existing community remains hotly contested. Local activists argue that it will serve only to tax an already overstretched transport infrastructure while doing little to provide job opportunities in an area that sorely needs them.

Speakers will also be drawn from the growing number of Londoners who are choosing to live on boats moored on the river and its associated waterways − a movement that has been strongly encouraged by London’s ever escalating house prices. And while industrial activity is much diminished it has not entirely gone − the upriver stretch of the Thames is still used for the limited transport of waste and aggregates. We will be asking whether redevelopment might yet allow the river to be rediscovered as a site of industry and trade.

The Thames has played a major role in shaping London’s identity and ensuring its prosperity since the Romans first settled its banks more than 2000 years ago. However, it is a resource that the city has recently failed to nurture with the care that it demands. The Thames season serves as a rallying cry to Londoners to reclaim their river as a shared territory around which a more egalitarian and sustainable city can develop.


Architecture for all: The Future of the Thames

☛ For full details of the talks visit www.ornc.org:
Living on the river, October 23rd
Building by the river, November 21st
Working on the river, December 19th

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