Designing Rivers


LRA Conference

The Art of Successful Waterfronts

Designing Riverscapes

Designing with rivers is like walking with wolves. They are wild and free and have a mythology as ancient as man’s memory. Rivers connect and divide. They nourish and destroy. They are about motion and sequence as much as the character of the waterfronts through which they pass. Above all rivers are democratic and anarchic. They break free of government control and gather in people and wildlife.

The Focus of Human Settlement
You cannot really design a river. You have to design with it – with its force, its stories and its rhythms. The form of the land has been shaped by the flow of water over its surface, curving through softer strata to create the hills and valleys and ultimately determining where settlements establish. Water is at the core of any town. Rivers bring irrigation, transport, commerce and defence. Settlements have usually grown at oases, on river banks, at fords or where rivers enter the sea. The place where land meets water holds the reason for being of a settlement – its identity, character and stories. Hearing those stories and understanding that identity is the key to being able to design with a river. Common Ground is pioneering work on the relationship between communities and their rivers and the Thames Landscape Strategy has based a hundred-year plan for the city riverside on the diverse character of the Thames through London and the strength of feeling of the people on its banks.

The Public Realm 
That strength of feeling and the literal centre of gravity of rivers make them a natural focus for the public realm. In contrast to the Parisian river gods in the image of Louis XIV, Old Father Thames is a symbol of the people of London. His head, on the river¹s edge at the Temple, marks the point where the monarch needs to request permission to enter the City. The Thames needs to be thought of as one of the great parks of London. The broad open space curving through the capital links into the sequence of parks, squares and streets which make London such a good place to live and walk. The river should be given the recognition of a continuous space in its own right – where the banks and foreshore, as well as the water, are considered as part of the capital¹s inalienable public realm. The river should form the core of the mental map of the city; the focus for access, education and recreation. It is a place for great gatherings and a place where you can find space and solitude. The river keeps us sane and sociable and it deserves to be accorded proper status in the planning system.

Working Rivers 
Rivers work as well as play. For many years the London Rivers Association has been campaigning for the retention of working riverside sites. If rivers are to contribute once more to the sustainable infrastructure of a city, the quays for unloading gravel or removing waste need to be kept open. The river banks must not become a ghetto of luxury housing, closing the options for the use of the original transport corridor. Rivers also work as a part of our hydrological system and will need to be restored as integral to the system of handling, delivering and cleaning the water we drink and shed from the land. Riverside Victorian Waterworks, such as the site at Seething Wells at Surbiton, are hot targets for housing developers. These sites cannot just be bundled up as brown land ripe for development. They offer the opportunity for new urban parks, which recycle water from the surrounding houses, cope with storm run-off and provide good wildlife and recreation areas linked to the river.

Connection and Division
There is a duality in rivers. They have a nasty side. The sweet stream of water at the focus of settlement can become a raging torrent which separates and divides. Particularly in tidal cities, the ebb and flood bring a daily reminder of nature into the heart of urban comfort. Rivers connect the sea and the land. Time Out ran a feature on the schism between the north and south of the river in London in 1995. Buda and Pest, like St Paul and Minneapolis, are actually separate cities on either side of the same river. Even Saltash and Manchester have competing policies within the same conurbation. The Greater London Authority makes it possible for river policies in London once more to straddle the water which divides the 17 Boroughs on its banks. Bridges are key links and potent symbols which help to dispel the notion of living on the wrong side of the tracks. The views across, as well as along, the water are important. Development on the banks of one borough will have as much, if not more, impact on its riparian neighbour and designs need to respond to the wider context. A river passes through a sequence of landscapes. The rhythm of built and open space is a major determinant of the character and identity of each town, community and waterfront along its banks. The countryside as well as the cities needs to treat the sequence with respect.

The Natural Force 
The Environment Agency has the responsibility for the health and management of Britain¹s rivers. Great work is being done on the creation of riparian habitats and the naturalizing of river edges. The responsibility also covers the quality of the water running off the land and flood alleviation – a heavy issue in a time of climate change. Farming methods and the management of catchment land have an impact on riverscapes as much as the conservation of wildlife habitats on the water¹s edge. Within cities, the quantity of water being shed from hard surfaces directly into rivers affects the need for irrigation in times of drought as well as the levels of flood in peaks of rainfall. Germany and the Netherlands have advanced policies for the obligatory retention of storm water on the land where it falls. Designing riverscapes needs to include the design of the surfaces which affect the flow and quality of the water off the land into the river. In San Francisco Bay Area this is involving the reopening of tributaries long ago buried in concrete pipes. The West London River Group is trying reopen Chelsea Creek and in East London Deptford City Challenge is campaigning for the reinstatement of Deptford Creek. Not only does the restoration of natural water flows need to be taken seriously, it is essential that designs be matched by properly enforced planning policies. Housing, for example, should not be built in flood plains.

Design Details
When it comes to the details of riverside design, the local context and identity is the key. Each waterfront will have its own story and community with ideas. There is no single riverscape recipe and no substitute for getting to know the local place and local feelings intimately. Of the more universal factors three are especially significant:

  • Space: The width of the river; the scale of surrounding buildings and their distance from the water’s edge should guide any continuing development. The sequential context of the river, the pattern of landscapes either side of the waterfront; the rhythm of built and open space and the views along and across the river set the frame for design.
  • The Elements: Water acts as a screen reflecting the sky, doubling the sense of space and openness. It carries sound, smell and light. Rivers, especially tidal ones, are places of danger as well as pleasure. Wind, flood and bank safety issues are key.
  • Movement: Rivers animate and can change course, speed and direction. They move through the landscape as green corridors as well as public paths. Riverside design must have that sense of movement and connection at its heart. The links to walks, to public transport and to the communities along the river are critical. And the greatest of these is movement. Ultimately rivers carve and populate landscape. They animate our cities and replenish our countryside. Above all rivers form part of a larger pattern of landscape which connects people, wildlife and ideas.

Kim Wilkie