The River Thames is far from reaching its full potential, writes Lucy Musgrave. We need to increase engagement with under-used areas and inspire Londoners with its heritage
Over thousands of years the River Thames has influenced London’s development, cultural life and character. The City of London’s establishment on the northern banks – easier to access by boat – led to stark differences between the north and south of the river, with illicit activities like theatres and bear pits flourishing on the south bank, beyond the city walls.
In the east, the width of the river facilitated the establishment of docks and large-scale industries, while the intimate scale and pastoral nature of the river’s western reaches inspired artists of the English Landscape movement and conservationists.
The river still serves many important functions. It is a precious ecological asset — a natural superhighway that surges in and out of the city twice a day. It is the UK’s busiest inland waterway for freight and transportation – in 2017, there were over ten million passenger journeys on the Thames.
The Port of London Authority’s (PLA) Vision for the Tidal Thames, a 20-year view of the river’s future that aims to make the most of its potential, aims to double the number of people travelling by river to 20 million users by 2035.
The Thames is the only river in the world to connect four UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It provides views to some of London’s most iconic architecture, and its banks include structures and public spaces with unparalleled heritage value.
Many of London’s bridges, such as Tower Bridge and Millennium Bridge, are also destinations in their own right. Illuminated River - an ongoing, ambitious public art commission for a unified light installation across up to 15 bridges across the Thames – is revitalising the river at night. Once complete, it will be the longest public art project in the world.
Yet the River Thames is far from reaching its full potential. The GLA and the PLA commissioned Publica, in partnership with BOP Consulting, to undertake a study – including fieldwork, research and engagement – to explore the case for a future River Thames Cultural Vision and to provide an expansive definition of cultural for all.
The long-term objective – included within the Mayor’s draft London Plan — is to increase engagement with under-used areas, and to inspire Londoners about the heritage and importance of the River Thames to London.
The study identified ten key opportunities:
1. 24-hours Thames
A cultural vision for the River Thames could support the Mayor’s ambitions to create a thriving and diverse night-time culture across the city by sensitively integrating night-time cultural programming on the river, its banks and its cultural institutions.
2. Celebrate history and heritage on the Thames
Stories from the Thames’ history could be brought to life through cultural projects such as processions to commemorate historic events, interactive information about historic events and places, and digital archives of archaeological finds. Programmes to celebrate the river’s diversity could include tours of working wharves and campaigns to communicate the river’s ecological significance.
3. Restore East London’s relationship with the Thames
Cultural programming on the Thames is limited in the east compared to other areas. Physical connectivity to the river is restricted. No Thames Path currently exists east of Leamouth (on the north bank of the Thames), and the industries located in these reaches often sever nearby communities from the river. The extent of the development around the eastern reaches of the Thames, such as The Thames Estuary Production Corridor, is extraordinary. The scale of change offers a unique opportunity for a bold, coordinated approach to cultural infrastructure and planning that could celebrate the unique ecology, industrial infrastructure and heritage of the eastern reaches of the Thames.
4. Embed culture within transport and promote journeys on the Thames
Riverside venues and visitor destinations could be encouraged to promote river journeys on their online platforms, and to integrate exhibitions, art commissions and cultural activity on river services and piers. Programmed river services could offer tours of art installations, such as Illuminated River, and specialist evening, architectural and wildlife tours. There is potential to use existing infrastructure to create integrated cultural programmes as a live celebration of – and on – the river.
5. Champion design of the highest quality on the Thames
Many public spaces close to the Thames don’t have a meaningful relationship with the river. With careful design, they could be improved and connected. A coherent, bold and sensitive lighting strategy for the length of the Thames would celebrate the river’s heritage assets and enrich the character of the riverbanks by night. Competitions and design programmes could focus on making the river’s piers distinctive, environmentally sustainable, and place-specific.
6. Communicate and promote the cultural life of the Thames
The Thames hosts a wealth of cultural activities, including festivals, jazz cruises, archaeological walks and open-water swims. A huge array of venues and organisations along the river host exhibitions, theatre, dance, art and music events. An overarching communications strategy for the Thames – represented by a single digital platform — would help to raise public awareness of activity and events.
7. Promote and improve natural access points along the Thames
The Thames – and the 184-mile long National Trail Thames Path – offer Londoners unrivalled access to nature, yet many Londoners and visitors lack the knowledge, awareness and confidence to access the river safely. Coherent wayfinding and signage could identify safe, accessible points to access the foreshore. Enhancements to the public realm, along with cultural activities and events, could encourage the public to access and enjoy the Thames.
8. Foster collaboration and relationships connected by the Thames
Five of London’s top-ten visitor attractions are on the banks of the Thames. Cultural institutions are extending their activity beyond their walls, changing the way they interact with their audiences. Many are turning to partnership and collaboration to maximise resources and to find new sources of funding, develop ideas, and expand their audiences. A River Thames Cultural Vision could connect organisations across sectors to make the most of these opportunities, establishing partnerships between cultural institutions and creative communities and delivering spectacular productions and events that engage all Londoners.
9. Empower cultural champions for the Thames
Governance along the Thames is complex. Crossborough collaboration is inconsistent and investment in culture is often disjointed. With the PLA’s Vision for the Tidal Thames – and aspirations to promote increased use and enjoyment of the river – there is an opportunity to embed culture within all functions on and along the Thames, and to engender a positive attitude towards ambitious cultural projects.
10. Enable the long-term viability of culture on the Thames
Over 40 per cent of the river’s banks lie within GLA-designated Opportunity Areas. Several major developments are planned, including new cultural districts such as Woolwich Cultural Quarter and Greenwich Design District. Unlocking funding mechanisms for culture and enabling meaningful, coordinated investment will be critical to the delivery and long-term success of a cultural vision for the Thames.
A River Thames Cultural Vision could drive significant economic, environmental and social change, supporting London’s cultural tourism; enriching its evening and night-time life; improving public transport; and connecting its diverse communities with each other and the river.
There is an opportunity to elevate London’s international profile, deliver on the Mayor’s Good Growth priorities, and put the Thames back at the heart of London’s cultural life.
Lucy Musgrave OBE is the founding director of Publica, a London-based practice that specialises in strategies and design for public space, urban design and masterplanning.
Publica, in partnership with BOP Consulting, was commissioned by the Greater London Authority (GLA) and the PLA to explore the case for a future River Thames Cultural Vision. Visit publica.co.uk/projects-case-for-a-river-thames-cultural-vision to view the study in full.