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.

 
 
 
 

Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.