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.

 
 
 
 

On boarded-up storefronts, muralists offer words of hope

The murals on closed storefronts aim "to end ugly wall syndrome." (Courtesy of Beautify)

In Los Angeles, Melrose Avenue has a new mural that reads: “Cancel plans, not humanity.”

It’s an artwork by Corie Mattie, a street artist who kindly reminds us of our togetherness under quarantine. She and many other artists are putting murals up across the US as part of the Back to the Streets campaign, which aims to add some color to the streets – specifically on boarded up storefronts and abandoned streets that feel deserted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The goal is to bring some beauty to the streets while everything is boarded up – “to end ugly wall syndrome,” says project founder Evan Meyer. “It’s to get people to care about their communities, be part of the process.” 


Many of the murals are painted on plywood panels that cover the entryways to independent businesses that have shut down during the pandemic. The project aims to prevent a sense of decay, especially as some businesses start to open back up while their neighbours remain closed.

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places quickly, when places are abandoned and don’t feel like they have love or life,” says Meyer, who is also the CEO of Beautify, a company that connects artists with places to make murals. Among the murals made during the pandemic, one at a department store says “Togetherness,” while another says: “You can’t quarantine love.”

“We’re seeing messages like hope, positivity and community,” Meyer says. “More than ever, it’s a time for community.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

With artist-led projects in L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Pasadena, and others, the goal is to get 1,000 murals up across America. Murals are also being painted in small towns in Iowa, like Council Bluffs and Dubuque, and an earlier mural in New York City’s Rockaway Beach was created in 2014 with the same goal of bringing some life to neglected buildings that needed renovation after Hurricane Sandy

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places with broken windows, tagging and crime,” says Meyer. “A lot can happen if a place feels like it’s unwatched.” 

Los Angeles councilmember David Ryu endorsed the initiative in a recent blog post, saying it has helped boost morale on the streets of L.A. “When we brighten blighted walls, we improve neighborhoods,” he wrote. “It’s critical to have more business owners enlist their walls here to bring some much needed love and recognition to their establishment and their neighborhood.” 

The effort stems from a sister project called Beautify Earth, which has helped address a litter problem in Santa Monica’s commercial district. In addition to a cleanup force, the project has painted more than 100 murals on walls, dumpsters, utility boxes and garbage cans across the city.

On the Beautify website, artists can find business improvement districts, real estate developers, landlords and business owners who want to see something on their empty walls. Each artist who gets a commissioned wall through the Beautify website is paid 78% of the stipend, and Beautify takes a 22% administration fee. 

Meyer says he often explains to business owners that art can help their business.

“A lot of people have white empty wall space on their liquor stores, condos, park walls, even residential spaces,” says Meyer, adding that many are afraid to put something on their walls. “It’s not a liability, it’s an asset. Art protects walls, it is a graffiti abatement strategy.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

Beautify isn’t alone in its field. Among the other cities that have similar mural projects, ArtPlace America has supported over 200 art murals across the US. Wynwood Walls, a public art project in Miami spearheaded by local developer Tony Goldman, has helped create a popular public art hotspot with murals by artists Shepard Fairey and Ron English. 

Chicago’s city government, too, has publicly funded over 500 murals through its Percent-for-Art program, which pays artists to paint walls on municipal buildings. A grassroots street art project in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, has artists painting murals in violent and marginalised neighbourhoods. Similar crime prevention ventures have been initiated in Topeka, Kansas, in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Toronto, Canada, which has placed over 140 murals across the city over the past decade. 


Artist Ruben Rojas has painted murals saying "You Can't Quarantine Love" in several spots across Santa Monica, California. (Courtesy of Beautify)

One artist working with Beautify’s project is Ruben Rojas, who is overwhelmed by the response to his mural, “You Can’t Quarantine Love,” which has been painted in several spots across Santa Monica and beyond.

“Every day, I see the shares, photos of my murals, amazing captions and direct messages from folks that are truly heartwarming,” Rojas says. “I’ve seen this particular mural go around the world with ‘thank you’ messages from Johannesburg, Germany, and Italy. It really is humbling.”

Meyer says that kind of social media engagement shows how a mural can turn a plain old wall into a landmark. 

“Murals get seen,” he says. “People take photos and share them on social media. Nobody takes photos of your ugly white wall. Murals are the story of the local community.”

Nadja Sayej is an arts and culture journalist based in New York City.