Turning the Thames into a swimming pool is a nice way to reclaim a city's dead public space

A concept illustration of what the Thames Baths might look like. Image: Studio Octopi.

The urban design trend in the major cities of the world is for the reclamation of disused infrastructure, for conversion into something more civic-minded. The progenitor is the High Line, New York City's newest park, lovingly-cultivated along the length of a disused elevated freight line along the western edge of Manhattan. It's very nice - not revolutionary, but certainly revelatory.

For planners in London looking to do the same thing, the best option would probably have been the Kingsland Viaduct if it hadn't been repurposed for the London Overground's extended Dalston-to-New Cross East London Line in 2010 (and a damn good thing too, how it's already in need of capacity improvements to cope with passenger demand). No, Londoners will have to make do with the much-fêted Thomas Heatherwick-designed pedestrian Garden Bridge, which, if it gets planning permission and funding, will cross the Thames from Temple to the South Bank. Maybe, though, that's skipping over and ignoring and under-used resource that's been in front of planners the entire time - the Thames.

Late last year, the Architecture Foundation put out a call for entries to a series called "London As It Could Be Now", searching for "new ideas and visions for self-selected sites along the Tidal Thames reflecting on relevant changing social, economic, cultural and environmental conditions and concerns". That means things like bridges, airports, houses - the usual. But one of the entries, which was revealed in November but which I've only just come across, is Thames Baths, by Studio Octopi. It's a cute public pool constructed on the Thames, at the site of where Blackfriars Pier (one of TfL's water taxi stops) is:

Illustration: Studio Octopi.

The studio writes:

"Swimming has always featured in the River Thames. The ability to do so has become harder and harder as river traffic has increased and London’s population has outgrown the ageing sewage system. However plans are in place to upgrade Sir Joseph Bazelgette’s sewers and therefore dramatically improve the quality of the river’s water. The Thames Baths Project is about imagining the possibilities of safely swimming in the river and opening up a discussion about the future."

It's interesting that they mention sewers, as the River Fleet - once effectively an open sewer, now an enclosed sewer - empties out into the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge, mere yards away from the pier. That's not something you want to have to find yourself swimming in when the tide switches direction and brings it back upstream. 

Still, it's a nice idea, and the kind of thing that would allow London to express itself architecturally without nicking good ideas from New York City. Semi-wild swimming is a very London thing - see: Hampstead Heath ponds, clubs taking dips in the Serpentine, the use of Shadwell Basin as an outdoor watersports centre - and it would be fantastic if it was a genuinely public space, as the trend in the capital is for the privatisation of new public amenities like squares or parks.

It can also be seen as a less-ambitious version of the LidoLine, a 2012 proposal by Y/N Studio to convert the mostly-disused Regent's Canal, which runs from Islington to the Thames via east London:

It was pitched as an alternative route for commuters, but since the canal kind of skirts around the edges of central London (where people tend to work) it might be better-suited for leisure time. However, the difficulty of keeping rat faeces and shopping trolleys out of the water - seriously, it's big problem in the canal for anyone who happens to try swimming in it at the moment - make it unlikely. Alas.

 
 
 
 

Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.